IAEA Warns of Possible Iranian 'Activities Related to Development of a Nuclear Payload'

By Patrick Goodenough | March 2, 2015 | 5:34 PM EST

The IAEA’s most recent report on Iran highlights its failure to cooperate in resolving questions about possible military aspects to its nuclear program. (Photo: CNSNews.com/IAEA)

(CNSNews.com) – The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has “further corroborated” information indicating that Iran “has carried out activities that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device,” the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog says in its most recent report on Iran.

Yet not only does Iran continue to deny inspectors access to a key suspect site, it has carried out work there that the agency says will make it more difficult to determine what has been going on there, should they ever be admitted in the future.

Even couched in the staid language favored by U.N. bureaucrats, the Feb. 19 report underlines the still-unresolved concerns about alleged nuclear weapons activity, even as the P5+1 group – the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany – draws closer to a late March deadline for a proposed nuclear agreement that will allow Iran to keep much of its nuclear infrastructure intact.

“The agency remains 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,” IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano writes to the Vienna-based agency’s board of governors.

Those suspected activities, first outlined in a Nov. 2011 IAEA report and “assessed by the agency to be, overall, credible,” have since been “further corroborated,” he said.

The missiles which the IAEA has concerns about boast a range that encompasses Israel as well as U.S. forces in the Arabian Gulf.

In a bipartisan letter to President Obama, circulating on Capitol Hill Monday, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and ranking member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) pointed to Iran’s lack of cooperation, arguing that “[t]he potential military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program should be treated as a fundamental test of Tehran’s intention to uphold the final comprehensive agreement.”

Iran is obliged to allow IAEA monitors access to Parchin, a military site near Tehran, where the U.S. suspects testing of high explosive components for a nuclear weapon has been carried out.

That obligation is spelled out in a 2010 U.N. Security Council resolution, which called on Iran to “cooperate fully with the IAEA on all outstanding issues, particularly those which give rise to concerns about the possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program, including by providing access without delay to all sites, equipment, persons and documents requested by the IAEA …”

The obligation for Iran to come clean on the so-called “possible military dimensions” (PMDs) of its ostensibly civilian nuclear program is also referred to in the interim agreement reached between Iran and the P5+1 in late 2013, known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), which states that Iran and the P5+1 “will work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern.”

A White House fact sheet on the JPOA stated that in discussing the “general parameters” of a final deal, Tehran acknowledged that its obligations “include resolution of questions concerning the possible military dimension of Iran’s nuclear program, including Iran’s activities at Parchin.”

As recently as Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that Iran has complied fully with the JPOA, a point which State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf reiterated on Monday, saying that Iran was fulfilling “all its obligations under the JPOA.”

Harf said the IAEA’s PMD concerns were “not a new issue” and that the administration has “routinely encouraged the Iranians to work more cooperatively with the IAEA to address some of these issues.”

“As part of a comprehensive agreement on the nuclear program, obviously, any potential weaponization would be of concern to us, and that’s what we would be focused on in terms of a final agreement,” she added.

Meanwhile, Iran’s evident failure to comply with this requirement is outlined in Amano’s report:

--“Iran has not provided any explanations that enable the agency to clarify the two outstanding practical measures relating to the initiation of high explosives and to neutron transport calculations.” (Neutron transport studies, which determine how neutrons are moving and interacting with other materials, can be relevant to nuclear weapons development.)

--“Since the director-general’s previous report [three months ago], at a particular location at the Parchin site, the agency has observed, through satellite imagery, the presence of vehicles, equipment and probable construction materials, but no further external changes to the buildings on the site.”

--“As previously reported, the activities that have taken place at this location since February 2012 are likely to have undermined the agency’s ability to conduct effective verification.”

--“It remains important for Iran to provide answers to the agency’s questions and access to the particular location at the Parchin site.”

A military exhibition displays a Shahab-3 missile under a picture of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Tehran, in 2008. The range of the missile threatens Israel as well as U.S. forces in the Gulf. (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian, File)

‘May still be ongoing’

Iran all along has denied the IAEA allegations about suspect activities, calling them  “mere allegations” and saying they “do not merit consideration.” At the same time, however, Iranian officials have repeatedly pledged to cooperate with the agency to resolve the ambiguities.

Why Iran is not doing so is unclear, but fuels suspicions that despite its denials it does indeed have something to hide.

The Nov. 2011 IAEA report that first spelled out the concerns spoke of “credible” evidence that Iran carried out “activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device” as part of a “structured program” until the end of 2003 – and that there were indications that some of those activities had continued after 2003 and “may still be ongoing.”

“The agency is concerned because some of the activities undertaken after 2003 would be highly relevant to a nuclear weapon program,” it said.

Among the alleged PMD activities identified in that report, some of it carried out at Parchin, was work on detonator designs, including detonator devices that could be used in a nuclear weapon and could fit in a ballistic missile warhead.

Specifically, it said the Iranians were believed to have worked on a project aimed at fitting a “spherical payload” into the payload chamber of a Shahab-3 missile. (The fusion device in a nuclear warhead is typically spherical in shape.)

The Shahab-3 missile, developed with North Korean assistance according to the CIA, and first test-fired by Iran in 1998, has a range of around 800 miles, potentially threatening Israel as well as U.S. forces in the Gulf.

Although Kerry and others in the administration say Iran has met its commitments under the JPOA, the PMD issue remains unaddressed.

Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a year ago the lead U.S. negotiator in the negotiations, undersecretary of state Wendy Sherman, confirmed that resolution of IAEA questions about the PMD issues, including the activities at Parchin, was an Iranian requirement.

“In the Joint Plan of Action we have required that Iran come clean on its past actions as part of any comprehensive agreement,” she said. The negotiating parties would work with the IAEA to address “past and present issues of concern,” she added.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow