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Iran's Nuclear Ambitions: A Steady Crawl to Breakout Capability

Commentary, 15 November 2011
Global Security Issues, Middle East and North Africa
The International Atomic Energy Agency's latest report on Iran describes in unprecedented detail a country moving slowly towards a nuclear weapons option, rather than a bomb itself. This lack of a 'smoking gun' removes military response from the international community's toolbox of policy options. But this is no grounds for complacency.

The International Atomic Energy Agency's latest report on Iran describes in unprecedented detail a country moving slowly towards a nuclear weapons option, rather than a bomb itself.  This lack of a 'smoking gun' removes military response from the international community's toolbox of policy options. But this is no grounds for complacency.

By Andrea Berger and Malcolm Chalmers, RUSI


14 November 2011

For years, the international community has nervously awaited credible evidence of a large-scale, covert Iranian nuclear weapons programme - a race towards a bomb. That evidence was not to be found in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General's November 2011 report on Iran. The report documents in detail the worrying path of Tehran's nuclear programme and the country's work on various aspects of weaponisation technology (including triggers, hydrodynamic experiments, neutron initiation, and reconfiguration of missile payload chambers). But most of this information related to a government-directed programme that, the IAEA believes, largely ended in 2003. The lack of novelty in the report's findings on military activity is unsurprising: the pre-2003 efforts of the Iranian government had been known for some time by Western governments. A sober appreciation of what the report does and does not say should not breed complacency. Tehran's efforts to enrich to higher levels, build up stocks of low-enriched uranium (LEU), and study nuclear weapons-relevant technology is concerning. Iranian break out remains a real, albeit not new, risk.

The report's importance is therefore threefold. First, the IAEA highlights Tehran's progression towards the option of a nuclear weapon. Second, the Agency's decision to comprehensively chronicle pre-2003 information now helps restore the IAEA's image at a crucial time. And, third, the more limited new intelligence on post-2003 weapons-related activity holds significant implications for the effectiveness and appropriateness of military responses to Tehran.   

Report Highlights

Two noteworthy dimensions of Iran's nuclear development - fissile material production and potential military projects - are detailed by the Director General's report.  

Nuclear Materials Production Programme

As part of its agreement with the IAEA, Iran allows for inspection and monitoring of its enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordow. Efforts to notably increase its holdings of LEU were made clear in the document. Continuing enrichment of uranium hexafluoride to 20% U-235 at these sites may also indicate Tehran's desire to produce the type of fissile material (> 90% U-235, or highly enriched uranium) necessary for a bomb core. It is generally understood that enriching to this higher level poses less of a technical challenge than reaching the 20% U-235 mark. In clear contravention of its Security Council obligations, Iran has neither suspended its enrichment activities nor heavy water projects at other locations.[1] Yet sites at which these internationally prohibited activities are taking place remain under IAEA safeguards. An assumption here is that the Agency is aware of all facilities and nuclear material in the country, something it determined it was 'unable to provide credible assurance about'.[2] 

Possible Military Dimensions

Though the actual report discloses noteworthy trends in fissile material production, it is the Annex on the 'Possible Military Dimensions to Iran's Nuclear Programme' that is most striking. Many of the IAEA's specific revelations on this front have not previously been available for public consumption. They are, however, neither 'new' to the governments of major Western nations, nor are they depictions of recent Iranian activity. Asserting the credibility of its information, the report notes the contribution of intelligence from over ten Member States.[3] Among these was a submission from an unspecified Member State, referred to as the 'alleged studies documentation', amounting to over 1000 pages of evidence showing Iranian research, development, and testing activities over decades. It was passed to the Agency in 2005, and therefore only covers activities to that point.[4]

The IAEA stated that 'it has been able to construct what it believes to be a good understanding of activities undertaken by Iran prior to the end of 2003'.[5] From 2002-2003 Iran carried out studies in linked technical areas: uranium conversion into metal for use in a new warhead, high explosives and detonators for a nuclear device design, and engineering a new spherical payload for Shahab-3 missile re-entry vehicles. The aforementioned projects were allegedly subjected to a 'halt order' in 2003.[6] However, direct ties between these activities, and therefore a link between nuclear materials production and weaponisation, could not be established by the Agency until 2008.[7] Further assertions include Tehran's supposed construction of a large explosives containment vessel for simulating the first stage of a nuclear explosion.[8]

Pre-2003 military nuclear activities are the main focus of the IAEA report annex. 'The Agency's ability to construct an equally good understanding of activities in Iran after the end of 2003 is reduced, due to the more limited information available to the Agency'.[9] Despite admission of its limitations, a few more recent developments were disclosed. Two Member States submitted information alleging that in 2008 and 2009 Iran conducted modelling studies aimed at determining the yield and behavioural aspects of a nuclear device with a highly enriched uranium core.[10]  Further work on design for neutron initiation of a fission chain reaction may have continued under a four-year programme in the post-2003 period, according to a separate source. Evidence from multiple sources also suggested that high explosives studies, albeit with conventional application, continued past 2003.[11]

Comparing Conclusions

Read together, the annex and the actual report paint a picture of an Iran crawling towards breakout capability, rather than sprinting to develop a bomb. This is a highly similar, though not identical assessment to that offered in the US's 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE).[12] In this document, the US intelligence community judged that until late 2003 Tehran had directed national military entities to develop nuclear weapons. Activities related to weaponisation in the same timeframe are discussed with comparable confidence in the IAEA report. But the 2007 NIE also asserted that: a) Tehran had halted its nuclear weapons design and weaponisation work in 2003; and b) there was moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran 'at minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons'.[13] The dearth of recent intelligence available to the IAEA could reflect Iranian intent to acquire the knowledge which would allow it to develop a nuclear device without having made the decision to do so on any specific time frame. In other words, Iran's aim could still be to move towards threshold status, with a capability for 'break-out' at some point in the future.  

Timing of the Report

Similarities in the IAEA document and the 2007 NIE reflect the commonality of sources. The question therefore becomes: if the intelligence underpinning the report was available to the Agency and key stakeholder nations years ago, why has it only been compiled and disseminated now?

Restoring Confidence in the IAEA

An indication of the possible answer to the question above might be gleaned from the uncharacteristically confident and strong tone of the document. This is the first time that an IAEA Director General's report on the Iranian nuclear programme has contained a full annex describing the specifics of possible military dimensions with dates and sources. In comparison, the June 2011 Director General's report described in brief point-form seven suspected military activities, but gave no detail. The September iteration contained only two paragraphs broadly expressing concern.

There is now a marked contrast between the Agency's approach to Iraq (prior to 2003) and Iran today. In the case of Iraq, the Agency consistently refused to confirm the incriminating US intelligence reports it received, rightly so in retrospect. By contrast, it is now more willing to accept that it believes that the intelligence with which it has been provided (derived largely from the 'national technical means' of its Member States) is credible. It has not told the international community that Iran has or wants to have a nuclear weapon. What it has said is that the Agency harbours serious concerns that Tehran was until 2003 operating a structured study of weaponisation and may still be doing so, albeit in a less coordinated, more dispersed fashion. At the very least, therefore, Iran appears to be seeking the option to develop nuclear weapons.  

An explanation for the relatively sudden reversal in the IAEA approach to suspected non-compliance is difficult to ascertain. It could be speculated that having been in office less than two years, the moment may be seen by Director General Yukiya Amano as a key leadership test. Compared to the hesitancy of previous Director Generals, momentum in exerting pressure on Member States suspected of non-compliance has increased under Amano. The Syrian case was treated at the June Board of Governors meeting, where a Western-led initiative resulted in Syria's referral to the Security Council.[14] The Director General's Iran report may be the impetus needed to secure the Board of Governors' support to have Tehran similarly placed on the Security Council docket.

Warning Iran

The IAEA document, whether intentionally or unintentionally, also contains a cloaked warning to whoever sits in the driver's seat of the Iranian nuclear programme. It reminds the reader that Iranian nuclear sites are presently under careful Agency scrutiny. A decision to make the jump to nuclear weapons production would involve significant risk of detection or expulsion of IAEA inspectors from the country. Either constitutes an extremely visible gesture and a clear indication of intent. A subsequently harsh response to quell the 'Iranian threat' before an operational nuclear weapon is produced could become highly probable, pushing Tehran into a period of extreme vulnerability. It is possible, of course, to construct circumstances in which Iran might actively wish to provoke such a confrontation. But it would be a high-risk venture for all parties.

Remarks in nearly every sub-section of the report's Annex also explicitly state Iran's lack of explanation for the suspicious military activity in question.[15] Potential Security Council referral or special inspection notwithstanding, such statements are thus perhaps the limit of the Agency's remit in compelling cooperation from Iran. It is not the job of the IAEA to act as a decision-maker on the appropriate response to Iranian developments. However, the report's tone and repetitiveness are relevant in terms of past trends in Tehran's volunteering of information. When caught disregarding provisions of its agreements with the Agency[16] or when presented with a glaring, incriminating gap in transparency, Tehran has often offered an excuse or confirmed suspected non-compliance. The report's critical approach may therefore have been partially driven by exploitation of this trend. Clearly outlining areas of Iranian uncooperativeness in accounting for its military activities communicates the need for Tehran to reverse this behaviour or face further costs.  

Influencing International Deliberations on a Possible Response

As mentioned above, the IAEA analysis lacks a large body of evidence on post-2003 military dimensions to the Iranian nuclear programme. What information does exist, however, will certainly shape the international discussion on the direction of future policies vis-a-vis Tehran.

This is particularly true should military strikes aimed at eroding Iranian capability be seriously evaluated - a response suspected to be favoured within the Israeli leadership.[17] The modelling studies and select experiments alluded to in the report would be evidence that Iran is continuing to develop the knowledge needed to indigenously produce a nuclear weapon. But knowledge cannot be eradicated by military intervention. Military strikes would therefore carry utility not in imposing cessation of these military activities, but in destroying the facilities associated with producing the nuclear material necessary to turn knowledge into weapons. According to the report these facilities are not currently enriching above 20% U-235. They are presently under IAEA safeguards and therefore closely monitored; activities ongoing within them are known. Again the report characterises a nation slowly pursuing breakout capability. In this respect military involvement is not imperative, as a move above this enrichment level and withdrawal of fissile material from safeguards would greatly increase risk of detection. Expulsion of IAEA inspectors would cause similar alarm. Of course, the Agency cannot assess with confidence that Iran does not have undisclosed material or facilities. But it is impossible to strike that which is not known to exist.  

The Way Forward

Before a coordinated path is formally deliberated outside of the IAEA, the Director General's report will first be reviewed by the IAEA Board of Governors.  There, the thirty-five Members may conclude that the report should be referred to the UN Security Council for action, as France favours.[18] Alternatively, further IAEA consideration may be recommended.  

Regardless of the forum, the report is sure to be a focal point for discussions on next steps in dealing with Tehran's nuclear programme.  For many, the report's admissions show the need for increasing pressure. Though most of the document's disclosures were previously known to governments around relevant international tables, their publication in the current context carries important implications for the IAEA and for the future direction of multilateral deliberation. And, through the reaction which the report has generated, Iran has been forcefully - even if not explicitly - reminded of the predicament it would face if it were to attempt to make the final move to nuclear weapons production. But doubt should also have been sown over the urgency of a military 'solution' as long as IAEA safeguarding remains in place, as it does now. There is still time for Iran to decide that it is not in its interests to cross this last threshold, and for the region, and the wider world, to avoid the conflict and unpredictability that a resort to military action could bring.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


[1] 'Implementation of the NPT Safeghuards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran', International Atomic Energy Agency, (GOV/2011/65), 8 November 2011. P.6, para 32.

[2] Ibid, P.10, para 52.

[3] Ibid, Annex, P.3, Para.13

[4] Ibid, Annex, P.2, Para. 6.

[5] Ibid, Annex, P.4, Para.18

[6] Ibid, Annex, P.6, Para.23

[7] Ibid, Annex P.6, Para.22

[8] Ibid, Annex P-.10-11, Para. 47-51

[9] Ibid, Annex P.4, Para.18

[10] Ibid, Annex P.10, Para.52

[11] Ibid, Annex, P. 9, Para. 45

[12] Only the key judgments of the 2007 NIE are publicly available.

[13] 'Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities', National Intelligence Council, November 2007. P.6

[14] 'Syria - Referral to the IAEA by the Security Council', Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France, 10 June 2011, 

[15] Annex, p. 8, Para 39, p.10, Para 51-52

[16] Recall the public condemnation of the formerly clandestine facility at Forkow, for instance.

[17] 'Israeli defense minister warns Iran military strike is possible, downplays retaliation fallout', The Washington Post, 8 November 2011

[18] 'France warns Iran of "unprecedented" sanctions', Reuters, 9 November 2011, <


Malcolm Chalmers
Deputy Director-General

Professor Malcolm Chalmers is Deputy Director-General of RUSI and directs its growing portfolio of research into contemporary... read more

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