Old News

Norman Dombey · Iran and the Bomb

Among the evidence for ‘possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme’ in the new Report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is that

a foreign expert... who, a Member State has informed the Agency, worked for much of his career... in the nuclear weapon programme of his country of origin... was in Iran from about 1996 to 2002, ostensibly to assist Iran in the development of a facility and techniques for making ultra-dispersed diamonds, where he lectured also on explosion physics and its applications.

In particular, he is said to have helped Iran construct ‘a large explosives containment vessel in which to conduct hydrodynamic experiments’. A hydrodynamic experiment is one that subjects materials to extremely high temperatures and pressures. In order to test a nuclear weapon without releasing nuclear fission products, states construct special facilities where conventional explosives can be used to simulate the conditions within an exploding nuclear core. (Britain and France recently agreed to share their hydrodynamic facilities to save money.)

The Sunday Times reported at the weekend that Kommersant, a Russian business paper, has identified the expert in question as Vyacheslav Danilenko. According to the Sunday Times, Danilenko worked at the ‘All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Technical Physics, a nuclear weapon research centre in the Ural mountains’, and his ‘own son-in-law told the IAEA that the scientist had helped Iran build a large steel chamber capable of containing the force of a nuclear test blast’.

So that seems cut and dried. The IAEA, helped by concerned member states, has identified a major part of Iran’s nuclear weapon programme. Yet as so often where possible weapons of mass destruction are concerned, all may not be as it appears. Remember the aluminium tubes Iraq allegedly procured for its centrifuge enrichment programme. Or the uranium Iraq bought from Niger for no conceivable reason other than to make weapons. A member state furnished the IAEA with documentation of the contract between Iraq and Niger. The IAEA under Mohammed ElBaradei was sceptical and carefully checked the information. ElBaradei was able to demonstrate to the UN Security Council that the Niger documents were forgeries: they were later shown to have been fabricated by Italian military intelligence to help George W. Bush’s case for war. The aluminium tubes had indeed been bought by Iraq but for a non-nuclear purpose; IAEA centrifuge experts showed that the diameters and thicknesses of the tubes made them unsuitable for use in the separation of uranium isotopes. It later emerged that Iraq had bought the tubes for its air-to-ground missile system, which had been originally provided by Italy.

Unfortunately ElBaradei is no longer the director general of the IAEA. He has been replaced by Yukiya Amano, a veteran Japanese diplomat. According to a cable published by WikiLeaks last November,

In a meeting with Ambassador on the eve of the two-week Board of Governors (BoG) and General Conference (GC) marathon of mid-September IAEA Director General-designate Yukiya Amano thanked the U.S. for having supported his candidacy and took pains to emphasize his support for U.S. strategic objectives for the Agency. Amano reminded Ambassador on several occasions that he would need to make concessions to the G-77, which correctly required him to be fair-minded and independent, but that he was solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program.

But what about Danilenko? His work at the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Technical Physics was in the Soviet nuclear weapon complex, then known as Chelyabinsk-70, now known as Snezhinsk. The main focus at Chelyabinsk-70 was on nuclear weapon research and development but Danilenko says he did not work on nuclear weapons. He worked on detonation techniques and was an expert in explosives, but his main interest for almost forty years was the production of nanodiamonds – tiny artificial diamonds – using (conventional) explosives to produce the extreme pressures required. In 2004 he gave a paper at a conference on superhard materials run not by Iran but by Nato. Even if he had been involved in Iran’s nuclear weapon programme, he left the country in 2002 and US intelligence reported in 2007 that the programme was closed down in 2003.

Amano, unlike his predecessor, seems to have been happy to reproduce what a member state – presumably Israel – passed on without much of a check. The latest IAEA report is ‘certainly old news’, Robert Kelley, a former IAEA nuclear inspector who reviewed the original data in 2005, told the Christian Science Monitor. ‘It’s really quite stunning how little new information is in there.’

The report repeats a claim made by the Times in December 2009 that Iran was conducting research on uranium deuteride to provide a neutron initiator for a weapon programme. Originally it was claimed that uranium deuteride could only be used in a weapon programme, but it can also be used to store deuterium for civil research purposes. Iran may well be conducting research on neutron sources but this is not forbidden by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran certainly wants a nuclear capability; the rest of the world wants to prevent it acquiring a nuclear weapon, which isn’t the same thing. Germany, for example, has a nuclear capability but no nuclear weapons.

As long as IAEA inspectors are based at the enrichment plants in Natanz and Qom, it is very unlikely that Iran will be able to produce a weapon. It is also unlikely that Iran will agree a modus vivendi on nuclear issues in the near future: neither the Iranian nor the US government is politically strong enough at the moment to make a deal. One was nearly agreed in 2010 but Iran pulled out.

Iran has not followed Pakistan and Israel and conducted a cold test of a weapon design: that is to say, constructed and tested a prototype weapon using low enriched uranium rather than high enriched uranium. It was only after successful cold tests that Pakistan and Israel knew they could rely on their weapons. Either a cold test or the expulsion of the IAEA inspectors would constitute a red line for the United States. But for Israel, who knows?