New York Times: The director general of the United Nations nuclear watchdog declared in unusually blunt language on Thursday that Iran had stonewalled investigators about evidence that the country had worked on nuclear weapons design, and that his efforts to reveal the truth had “effectively reached a dead end.” The New York Times
By DAVID E. SANGER and WILLIAM J. BROAD
The director general of the United Nations nuclear watchdog declared in unusually blunt language on Thursday that Iran had stonewalled investigators about evidence that the country had worked on nuclear weapons design, and that his efforts to reveal the truth had “effectively reached a dead end.”
The comments by the official, Mohamed ElBaradei, came four days before he is to leave office after 12 years at the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. His remarks refocus attention on Iran’s alleged work on weapons design at the moment that the West is debating how to respond after Tehran backed away from a commitment it made in early October to temporarily send much of its nuclear fuel abroad.
Dr. ElBaradei’s remarks also came as President Obama’s end-of-year deadline is approaching to reassess whether the United States should move toward what Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has termed “crippling sanctions” on Iran.
Israeli officials, meanwhile, have said that they will not consider taking military action until Mr. Obama’s deadline runs out, leaving hanging the suggestion — maybe the bluff — that they are preparing for that possibility in 2010.
Dr. ElBaradei’s statement was a sharp departure in tone, and a tacit acknowledgment that his behind-the-scenes effort to broker a deal had collapsed. In the past, he has privately talked about Iran’s refusal to answer the agency’s questions about weapons work, but has stopped short of rebuking the country in public for fear of shutting off any chance of future cooperation.
Those questions, posed by the agency over a period of years, go to the heart of suspicions that Iran has worked on nuclear weapons designs. They include queries about drawings, computer simulations and other evidence of work that could not plausibly be involved in civilian nuclear power programs.
The evidence includes documents obtained by the agency — some provided by Western intelligence services, which say they were slipped out of Iran by scientists — that appear to show that Iran worked on how to shape uranium for nuclear cores, on conventional explosions needed to detonate a nuclear chain reaction, and on simulations of a warhead detonation at about 2,000 feet, about the height at which the bomb was set off over Hiroshima in 1945.
“It is now well over a year since the agency was last able to engage Iran in discussions about these outstanding issues,” Dr. ElBaradei told the nuclear agency’s governors. “We have effectively reached a dead end, unless Iran engages fully with us.”
In the past, Iran has called the evidence “fabrications.” Dr. ElBaradei has complained that he has been prohibited by “member states,” including the United States and European nations, from letting the Iranians see the original evidence — presumably for fear that it could reveal its sources. On Thursday, he repeated his frustration on that point, telling the agency’s 35-member board that “it would help if we were able to share with Iran more of the material that is at the center of these concerns.”
It is unclear whether Dr. ElBaradei’s comments will help push Russia and China to vote in the United Nations Security Council in favor of a resolution condemning Iran for failing to tell the agency, until two months ago, about a uranium enrichment plant that it secretly built on an Iranian Revolutionary Guards base near the city of Qum. Iran later said that it had kept the construction secret until recently because it feared that its known nuclear plants could be bombed.
But that delay violated its obligations to the United Nations, Dr. ElBaradei said, and his statements reinforced the sense that Iran had blocked inspectors from getting near what are known as Project 110 and Project 111, its suspected weapons-design work.
At Iran’s invitation, however, inspectors visited the underground plant at Qum last month, and confirmed it was in the final stages of construction, but not yet operational. It is supposed to house 3,000 centrifuges — the fast-spinning machines used to enrich uranium. That is too small, experts say, to be useful to produce civilian nuclear fuel, but large enough for about two weapons’ worth of material each year.
American officials tried to use Iran’s concealment of that plant, and the possibility that there were related facilities built to produce nuclear material, to press Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and President Hu Jintao of China to join new sanctions. Both have been reluctant, especially Mr. Hu, who said nothing about it when Mr. Obama visited Beijing this month.
Privately, American officials visiting China have sought help to pressure Iran now, warning that if the West moves to sanctions it could affect China’s ability to import oil from Iran. China gets roughly 15 percent of its oil from Iran.
But the central issue in the Iran investigations has been the evidence suggesting that Iran conducted some level of research on weapons. An American intelligence assessment, published two years ago, contended that Iran ceased that work in 2003; intelligence agencies in Britain, France, Germany and Israel, examining the same evidence, have concluded that the work has resumed, or never stopped.
In October, parts of a confidential analysis written by senior staff members of the watchdog agency were leaked. The analysis concluded that Iran had acquired “sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable” atom bomb. The report’s conclusions went beyond Dr. ElBaradei’s public positions, and even those taken by the United States and several governments.
The analysis drew a picture of a complex program, run by Iran’s Ministry of Defense, “aimed at the development of a nuclear payload to be delivered using the Shahab 3 missile system,” Iran’s medium-range missile, which can strike the Middle East and parts of southern Europe.
That analysis, and others like it, draw on years of clues and scraps of information gathered in Iran and from intelligence agencies around the world. For instance, atomic inspectors have found signs that Iran has done extensive research on high-voltage detonators, explosive lenses for bomb detonation and re-entry vehicles for missiles that can cushion nuclear warheads as they streak earthward.
The inspectors also found evidence that a Russian scientist had helped Iran conduct complex experiments on how to detonate a nuclear weapon. They said they believed he acted on his own as an adviser on experiments described in a lengthy document the agency obtained. Officials have described the original, in Persian, as a detailed narrative of experiments aimed at achieving the perfectly timed compression of nuclear fuel to squeeze it into supercritical mass, which initiates a nuclear blast.
In 2006, the agency released a report saying Iran had obtained from the global black market a document “related to the fabrication of nuclear weapon components.” The previous year it told of the market’s offering to help Iran shape uranium metal into “hemispherical forms,” which Western experts say are needed to make nuclear bomb cores.
Also in 2005, European and American officials told of an Iranian laptop computer that held studies for crucial features of a nuclear warhead, including a telltale sphere of detonators to trigger an atomic explosion. The documents specified a blast roughly 2,000 feet above a target — considered high enough for a nuclear detonation to maximize the damage below.
David E. Sanger reported from Washington, and William J. Broad from New York.