Report

U.N. Watchdog: Iran Pursued a Nuclear Bomb

The IAEA's report aims to settle controversial, unanswered questions about Tehran's past weapons research.

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A highly anticipated report by the International Atomic Energy Agency has concluded that Iran carried out a coordinated effort to develop a nuclear bomb until 2003 and conducted sporadic weapons-related experiments until 2009, when the effort was finally abandoned. The probe bolsters longstanding American contentions that Iran was pursuing a bomb — and undercuts Tehran’s steadfast denial that its nuclear program was anything other than peaceful.

The report, which was released Wednesday to IAEA member states, aims to settle outstanding questions about the past military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear weapons research. The report focuses on the research carried out at Iran’s Parchin facility, a site thought to have hosted illicit nuclear weapons research; its development of explosive detonators that can be used in a nuclear weapon; its procurement of enrichment technology; and its pursuit of the other high-tech tools necessary to build and deploy such a weapon.

In the 16-page document, the watchdog says that it “assesses that a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device were conducted in Iran prior to the end of 2003 as a coordinated effort, and some activities took place” until 2009, the first year of President Barack Obama’s first term in office.

The report comes at a pivotal moment for the White House, which signed a landmark deal with Iran in July that imposed far-reaching restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting some of the punishing economic sanctions that had been imposed on the country. The deal unnerved Israel and other key U.S. allies in the region, and GOP presidential candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have spent months arguing that the agreement paves the way to an Iranian nuclear weapon rather than ensuring that one couldn’t be built.

The question of whether Iran would be forced to come clean about its past attempts to build a nuclear bomb had emerged as a key sticking point in the frenzied final negotiations over the deal.

To push the nuclear agreement across the finish line, Iran and the IAEA agreed to a side deal to resolve the question of past military dimensions, and with this report, U.S. and Iranian officials appear keen to move forward in implementing the full agreement.

After its release, Seyed Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs, said the probe into Iran’s nuclear history is effectively closed. “All measures over the past issues have completely concluded, and [past military dimensions have] been left behind,” he said. 

Asked Wednesday whether the report provides enough ammunition to “close the book” on Iran’s past weapons work, meanwhile, State Department spokesman Mark Toner had a one-word answer: “Correct.”

The probe by the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog caps a nearly decade-long investigation into Iran’s nuclear program. In 2011, the IAEA released a headline-making report detailing the steps taken by Iran to develop a nuclear weapon: research into the shaped explosives necessary to compress a ball of nuclear material in a bomb and the development of triggers to guide such an explosion.

The research into such explosions was thought to have been carried out at Parchin, and ever since, inspectors have been eager to gain access to the facility. As part of the attempt to put such questions to rest, IAEA officials traveled to Parchin on Sept. 20, inspecting the facility and carrying out tests for trace nuclear materials and other substances. They found that the “main building of interest” at the facility had been extensively modified and cataloged “recent signs of internal refurbishment, a floor with an unusual cross-section and a ventilation system which appeared incomplete.” These activities “seriously undermined the agency’s ability to conduct effective verification,” the report notes.

Despite Iran’s attempt to hide its activities at Parchin, environmental sampling carried out by the IAEA revealed the presence of “two particles that appear to be chemically man-modified particles of natural uranium” at the site. Iran has said that Parchin was used to store materials used in making high explosives, but environmental sampling revealed no such compounds.

According to the report, the sampling at Parchin, together with satellite imagery, “does not support Iran’s statements on the purpose of the building,” IAEA-speak for having caught Iran in a lie.

Wednesday’s report does not provide answers on all of the outstanding questions regarding Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon, but it does provide a bit of redemption for the U.S. spies behind a controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate. That document also concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program by 2003 but came under intense criticism at the time for presenting what many critics believed was a naive depiction of Iranian ambitions.

“With this report, the IAEA says unequivocally that Iran did have a nuclear weapons program and that it has been discontinued. Both of those are incredibly important conclusions,” said James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The report, Acton said, shows that the IAEA has a good understanding of Iran’s nuclear program, and that bodes well for future efforts to verify the nuclear deal announced in July. The agreement narrowly survived a concerted effort by Republicans in both the House and Senate — joined by some members of Obama’s own party — to kill it on Capitol Hill.

For longtime observers of the Iranian nuclear program, the IAEA report does not contain much new information. Rather, the report serves as an important body of evidence in what has become an intensely debated period in Iranian history. In a Wednesday blog post analyzing the report, David Albright, who heads the Institute for Science and International Security, wrote that “outright Iranian efforts to deceive the inspectors” raises questions about whether Iran’s nuclear weapons development was “far more extensive” than the IAEA has revealed.

Indeed, Acton argued that because Iran has still not fully cooperated with the IAEA, the agency should continue investigating unanswered questions about the country’s past attempts to obtain a nuclear weapon. “Now is not the time to close the file,” he said.

Photo credit: KAZEM GHANE/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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