David Albright, a leading expert on Iranian nuclear issues, says the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report (PDF) on Iran indicates that "the situation has gotten worse." Iran continues to develop nuclear centrifuges to make enriched uranium and refuses to answer questions about its past military nuclear activities. "Collectively, the information suggests that Iran did have an ambition both to build nuclear weapons and to create a civil nuclear industry." Albright says the Bush administration should agree to talks with Iran without conditions to test the waters.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has just published another interim report on its dealings with Iran over its nuclear program. Can you explain in layman’s terms where we are?
The situation has gotten worse. Iran continues to make progress building and operating centrifuges able to enrich more uranium. At the same time, it’s not answering the IAEA’s questions about Iran’s past nuclear activities.
And these activities include possible military activities that the IAEA has received information on from the United States and other countries?
That’s right. The IAEA received information from the United States, from Israel, and from other countries pointing to Iran’s work on nuclear weapons prior to 2004. And the information that the IAEA collected is listed in this report. Overall the information is pretty compelling that Iran was working on aspects of development of a nuclear weapon. The information doesn’t include all the tasks that you need to do to make a nuclear weapon; it’s about a subset of those tasks. But the information itself, collectively, is pretty compelling and requires some kind of answer from Iran. Iran needs to produce evidence that it’s all not true, or explain what it is and perhaps even admit to having worked on nuclear weapons.
The IAEA is not getting any of that. Iran is simply denying it ever worked on nuclear weapons. Iran says these IAEA files are fake. It does admit that some facts are correct. It says "Well, that wasn’t for a nuclear weapons program but for some kind of other military program or other application." But they don’t give any evidence for those statements. So Iran’s essentially asserting things and not producing the documentary evidence that would refute the claims or allowing access to people who could then provide additional information to the inspectors.
Now, the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of late last year started out by saying that Iran had a weapons program that had ended in 2003. But why is this important today in 2008? Is there some suspicion Iran is still secretly working on military weapons?
There’re two issues. One is Iran’s credibility. Iran says it never thought about building nuclear weapons since it started its centrifuge program back in the mid-1980s. If it turns out that, yes indeed, the centrifuge program was part of a nuclear weapons program, then it raises real questions about Iran’s intent in the future.
Another issue is whether there are new avenues that suggest Iran has been working on nuclear weapons since 2003. Israelis claim they have some evidence. The IAEA presented a piece of evidence in its report where you have a very high-level person from Iran in 2006 talking about the option of getting nuclear weapons.
When you look at the sum total of the information about Iran’s historical nuclear program, you don’t understand why it was started and what purpose it served. There’s contradictory information. Collectively, the information suggests that Iran did have an ambition both to build nuclear weapons and to create a civil nuclear industry. And until the IAEA can figure this out, we don’t know what Iran is intending to do with its gas centrifuges. Iran is making steady progress on operating these centrifuges.
Now, at one time people were saying Iran was very slow and wasn’t really doing very well with these centrifuges. Has it now improved its work?
This report claims that Iran has significantly improved its ability to operate centrifuge cascades, which are 164 centrifuges connected together by piping. Running one poses certain challenges, running many poses additional challenges. Iran in the past was having trouble with centrifuges breaking apart. The centrifuges would shake and than had to be turned off. But now, it appears to be running the centrifuge cascades in a much more stable manner.
How many are there?
Three thousand centrifuges in about eighteen cascades.
That’s the old P-1 [the original Pakistan-developed centrifuge] design?
That’s right. It’s the P-1 design.
And they’re now starting a P-2 cascade?
They are developing several centrifuges that are more advanced than the P-1. They’ve been testing more advanced centrifuges at a place called Kalaye Electric in Iran. The IAEA inspectors have not been allowed to do any inspections there because under traditional safeguards, they don’t have the right to inspect there. If Iran allowed the Additional Protocol to come in [granting IAEA inspectors authority to visit any nuclear facility, declared or not; Iran signed the protocol in 2003, but withdrew from it in 2005], then the IAEA would know and would have a right to know everything that happened in Kalaye Electric on more advanced centrifuges. But as a result, the IAEA only learns about these advanced centrifuges when they’re deployed in Natanz [at the nuclear facility there]. And they’re deployed in Natanz when Iran wants to enrich uranium in those centrifuges. We’re estimating Iran has deployed three advanced centrifuges at the pilot plant in Natanz.
Iran needs to hear the whole point of what the United States wants and what the United States is willing to give. And they’re not hearing either of those in any kind of clear, coherent manner.
Let me just make a point of clarity for you. There’s very small numbers of these advanced centrifuges deployed, I mean, you’re talking about ten of each type. It’s not like a P-1, which they’ve deployed by the thousands. These are test models that they’re experimenting with so they can, in the future, deploy large numbers. At the end of the day, they’re much better than P-1’s and they will replace the P-1’s in a year or two.
In the last interview we had a few months ago, you were saying that nothing is likely to happen until there’s a turnover in the White House next year. Is there really nothing that can be done this year to get the situation in a better situation?
It would be very helpful if the United States could start negotiations with Iran and the European Union to stop the centrifuge programming and at the same time to get the United States to drop its condition that Iran has to suspend enrichment before it’ll join the negotiations. The United States has considerable leverage in the situation. And I disagree with Bush administration officials who say that they don’t. The United States can change the situation if it now joins the negotiations. But I’m not optimistic that they’re going to do it. I mean, every time they’re asked, they come up with more reasons they can’t. And so, I think it will inevitably wait until the next administration, although I would prefer this administration start now because Iran is making steady progress towards developing nuclear weapons capability.
If Iran decided tomorrow that it wants to make a nuclear bomb, does it have enough highly enriched uranium to do it?
Their cascades make enriched uranium. If they decided to go full out for a nuclear weapon now, they would need at least a year to make enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. It would probably take them longer.
So in your thinking, the United States should announce, "We’re willing to have straight-up discussions with Iran on its nuclear program without any preconditions."
That’s right. And the goal is to obtain the suspension of the Iranian enrichment program. The Iranian goal of a functioning enrichment plan is still unacceptable, but I don’t see any downside to entering negotiations with Iran and discussing with them, "Look, here’s what we want: We want a suspension in the enrichment program, we want the Additional Protocol in force, and here’s what we are willing to offer you if you do that." I would add that there should be an additional commitment, which would be Iranian cooperation with the IAEA. Some of the things the IAEA asks for go beyond the additional protocol and so you need additional cooperation from Iran.
What does Iran want from the United States? Some security guarantees or what?
Some things are known, and some things are not known. I think they would want some kind of assurance from the United States that it’s not going to attack its nuclear program. And that’s certainly a complicated issue with Iran. It’s more complicated than in the case of North Korea. For the last few years the Bush administration has made it clear to North Korea that if they did denuclearize they would have less and less to worry about a regime change. So there’s a different take on that. In Iran, it’s more difficult because of some other actions or activities that Iran is engaged in—supporting terrorists and rejecting Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives. But that being said, you can still separate out the nuclear issue and say, "Look, if you allow greater transparency of your nuclear programs, if you consider options to replace your enrichment programs, implement them, then we’re willing to give you incentives in conjunction with the EU. We’re willing to say, look we’re not going to try to destabilize your regime." So, I think you can work that package of things that would allow this whole situation to become much less dangerous.