In order to fool the U.S. intelligence community when it comes to a nuclear weapons program, all a rogue regime has to do is change the name of the government agency housing it. Although that may sound ludicrous, it is one way to read the IAEA’s newly released report on Iran’s nuclear program.
In 2007, the U.S. intelligence community published the key judgments of a national intelligence estimate on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The first line read (footnote omitted): “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.”
The NIE was roundly criticized at the time as it relied on a slippery definition of “nuclear weapons program,” limited to Iran’s “nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work.” The NIE excluded Iran’s “declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment” from its definition.
The first problem with this is that there is a thin line between a supposedly “civil” uranium conversion and enrichment program and a military one. Once Iran builds up enough enrichment capacity, switching gears to enrich weapons-grade uranium is a short step – not a long one. The second problem is that the NIE’s definition said nothing about Iran’s ballistic missile program, which continued apace and is designed to deliver nuclear as well as conventional weapons.
Then, a third problem arose when it turned out that Iran had not discontinued its covert uranium enrichment efforts. The discovery of a nascent facility at Qom and other suspicious activity made that point clear.
The IAEA reports:
Since 2002, the Agency has become increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile, about which the Agency has regularly received new information.
In other words, the IAEA has “regularly received new information” about these activities since 2002 – one year prior to when the U.S. intelligence community judged that such efforts had been “halted.” There are “indications”, the IAEA adds, “that some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device continued after 2003, and that some may still be ongoing.”
So, what exactly was “halted” in 2003? The IAEA’s report provides significant new details in this regard. Iran simply changed the name of the entity overseeing nuclear weapons development, and moved forward with a more disbursed platform, meaning that seemingly different entities handled various aspects of the program. The IAEA suspects that at least some of the work continued on after 2003.
Simply put, Iran has played a shell game.
Tehran’s “undeclared” nuclear program was first managed by a body called the Physics Research Centre (PHRC), beginning “sometime after the commencement by Iran in the late 1980s of covert procurement activities.” The PHRC’s activities “were overseen, through a Scientific Committee, by the Defence Industries Education Research Institute (ERI),” which was “established to coordinate defence R&D for the Ministry of Defence Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL).” In other words, these efforts were overseen by the Iranian military.
Iran claims the PHRC’s work was purely defensive and stopped in 1998. The IAEA adds that Iran “completely cleared the site” used by the PHRC in “late 2003/early 2004.”
By the late 1990s or early 2000s, however, the PHRC’s “activities were consolidated” under the “AMAD Plan.” The IAEA explains: “Most of the activities carried out under the AMAD Plan appear to have been conducted during 2002 and 2003.”
According to intelligence provided to the IAEA, the AMAD Plan’s work focused on “three technical areas”: “the green salt project; high explosives (including the development of exploding bridgewire detonators); and re-engineering of the payload chamber of the Shahab 3 missile re-entry vehicle.”
The green salt project “was part of a larger project…to provide a source of uranium suitable for use in an undisclosed enrichment programme.” The result “would be converted into metal for use in the new warhead.” This was known as “Project 5.” This new warhead “was the subject of the missile re-entry vehicle studies,” known as “Project 111.” The IAEA failed to connect the dots between Projects 5 and 111 at first, but evidence it was subsequently shown “established the connection” between the two.
The AMAD Plan was clearly intended to build a nuclear weapon.
Then, in late 2003, “senior Iranian officials” issued a “halt order” and the AMAD Plan “was stopped rather abruptly.” The IAEA attributes the decision to “growing concerns about the international security situation in Iraq and neighbouring countries at the time.” Note that this is radically different from what the U.S. intelligence community said in December 2007.
The NIE concluded that the 2003 halt “was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.” From there the authors of the NIE leapt to the conclusion that “Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously.”
The NIE, therefore, was intended to persuade its audience that diplomacy and “influence” may be enough to convince Tehran to stop its efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon. But the IAEA’s report contradicts this in at least two ways. First, the “international security situation in Iraq” and Afghanistan was the result of U.S.-led forces toppling two rogue regimes. That surely weighed heavily in Iranian decision-making. Second, and more importantly, Iran’s weapons program did not come to a complete halt in 2003.
Additional intelligence provided to the IAEA “indicates that some activities previously carried out under the AMAD Plan,” which was Tehran’s front for developing nuclear weapons, “were resumed later.” They were resumed “first under a new organization known as the Section for Advanced Development Applications and Technologies (SADAT), which continued to report to MODAFL.”
The AMAD Plan and then SADAT were headed by the same man: Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. In mid-2008, according to the IAEA, Fakhrizadeh continued in this role “as the head of the Malek Ashtar University of Technology (MUT) in Tehran.” The IAEA subsequently learned that Fakhrizadeh “moved his seat of operations from MUT to an adjacent location known as the Modjeh Site, and that he now leads the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research.”
After recounting this shell game played by the Iranians, the IAEA explains it “is concerned because some of the activities undertaken after 2003 would be highly relevant to a nuclear programme.”
In sum, the 2007 NIE concluded that Iran had “halted” its nuclear weapons program, which was housed in the AMAD Plan. The IAEA’s new report says that at least parts of the AMAD Plan lived on – albeit under different names.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.