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Weapons-grade crisis

Escalating tensions with Iran have roots in new data on its nuclear capacity showing the regime could develop a ‘fully functional’ nuclear missile in under a year

Weapons-grade crisis

A Ghadr-F missile stands next to a portrait of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in downtown Tehran. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

This story begins inside the atom. 

Specifically, the uranium atom. In deposits of uranium ore beneath the earth’s surface, the most abundant form of the element is uranium-238. Mostly inert, it contains three more neutrons than its unstable, more radioactive cousin, uranium-235, found in only small amounts.

Separating the two involves a tedious physical process. But by isolating the slightly lighter U-235 then concentrating it into a critical mass, a self-sustaining fission chain reaction is created. With this discovery, atomic energy was born.

Once finding that atoms could be split, or fissioned, to release energy, scientists spent the better part of the 20th century perfecting the process of U-235 separation, known as enrichment. Along the way, they harnessed for the first time plutonium, using it also to craft an atomic bomb and other weapons. They developed nuclear power to propel submarines and electrify cities, and used radioactive material to advance medicine, improve telescopes, and produce smoke detectors.

Most of us at some point studied this in school, soon forgetting as much as we learned about a dynamic field that continues to advance. Yet the complexities of this enrichment process, along with its dual-use nature, lie at the heart of a spiraling confrontation between the United States and Iran. Recent findings—downplayed by pundits, media, and some experts—suggest Iran is much further along the path toward possessing a nuclear weapon, possibly less than one year away. It’s important to understand how we know what we now know before it’s too late.

Today’s methods to develop low-enriched uranium or more risky high-enriched uranium—the kind that’s used in nuclear weapons and to fuel nuclear power plants—remain a technical and industrial challenge. An elaborate chemical process turns uranium ore into gaseous hexafluoride. Gas centrifuges further separate the radioactive material, spinning ever higher yields of U-235 for actual use. 

The centrifuges resemble oversized fire extinguishers. They are linked to one another in groups of perhaps a hundred or more, called cascades, inside vast multistory cascade halls. Each centrifuge rotates around the clock at about five times the speed of a turbojet engine. In Siberia, such centrifuges have been going at that pace for 30 years.

An international monitoring system in place since the 1950s methodically regulates enrichment levels and uranium stockpiles, along with international trade of all components. At the same time, it inspects chemical processing facilities and others used for manufacturing specialized alloys used in enrichment.

Late technology makes oversight ever more tricky. Inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) must keep detailed logs on each centrifuge and canister of fissile material. All the while, centrifuges configured to produce uranium for peacetime uses can be almost imperceptibly rearranged into weapons-grade uranium producers. 

Escalating tensions between Tehran and Washington in recent weeks remain largely a war of words, seemingly centered on economic sanctions and attacks in Gulf sea lanes. Yet it’s the threat of a nuclear Iran, and the reluctance of global watchdogs to confront it, that remains paramount. 

The starting point for the latest skirmish can be traced to a year ago, when Israel, Iran’s leading Middle East nemesis, confiscated a trove of documents now known as the Iran Nuclear Archive.

On the night of Jan. 31, 2018, Mossad agents broke into a shabby warehouse in Tehran long under their surveillance. They carried hand torches hot enough to crack some of the 32 safes inside, each containing black binders that documented years of work on atomic weapons, warhead designs, and production plans.

Within hours the agents hauled from the warehouse some 55,000 pages and 183 CDs—a half-ton of material that represented only 20 percent of what was estimated to have been stored there. The warehouse was an undeclared site that eluded inspectors, far removed from government and military buildings. Its existence suggested the great lengths to which Iranians went to secret away detailed nuclear records, even though they had agreed to disclose past research and claimed to have shelved the production laid out in the archive.

News of the find made short-lived headlines. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went public with an official assessment of the stolen documents in April 2018, shortly after he personally briefed President Donald Trump. The Israelis also made the documents available to reporters and nuclear experts—including the IAEA. 

President Trump promptly withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which had been negotiated by the Obama administration for over two years and involved six nations besides Iran. Not technically a treaty, the agreement never was ratified by the U.S. Senate but was included in UN Security Council Resolution 2231. Trump had long threatened to withdraw the United States from the agreement, but the Iran Nuclear Archive appeared to cement his resolve. 

IRIB Iranian TV/Reuters

A bank of centrifuges at a facility in Natanz seen on Iranian state television (IRIB Iranian TV/Reuters)

Proponents of the deal dismissed Israel’s findings. Steven Simon, senior director for the Middle East and North Africa on the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, called the archive a “nuclear nothingburger,” full of old documents on a weapons program Iran had shut down. Iran’s leaders declared the find a fraud. 

European leaders and the IAEA itself, working to save the nuclear deal, downplayed or ignored outright the documents, desperate to preserve a status quo with Iran that the United States and Israel seemed bent on wrecking. 

According to IAEA reports published since last year, the inspection agency hasn’t processed data from the Iran Nuclear Archive and has never asked Iranian officials for permission to inspect the rest of it. To date the agency has not used Israel’s findings—which are startling—to probe the extent of Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

For former IAEA inspectors who can speak without political consequences, finding the archive was like discovering missing puzzle pieces, or landing on a paved road with a map in what had been a fogged-in landscape lacking compass points. Key experts who have visited Iran’s declared nuclear sites and worked with its government records say the archive is authentic, not an Israeli hoax. They also say it shows that Iran—contrary to those insisting Iran’s nuclear pursuits are for peaceful energy purposes—has been much further along in developing nuclear weapons than was previously known. 

The Iranian cache contains names of people who worked on a nuclear weapons program, where they worked, and what equipment they used. It includes designs for warheads and notes on neutron research to create a nuclear explosion. Perhaps most telling, the archive includes “deception folders”—documents that actually enumerate the lies Iranian officials told IAEA officials as an effort to preserve consistency.

Robert Kelley, a nuclear engineer and former IAEA inspector, after reviewing the documents last year, said, “The papers show these guys were working on nuclear bombs.”

Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA deputy director general, delivered a more stark assessment last month in Jerusalem: “Iran is capable of producing fissile material for one nuclear device in six to eight months,” he said.

Based on his monthslong review of the archive, Heinonen told a gathering of experts and government officials, “We can speculate … it should not take more than a year for Iran to develop a fully functional nuclear missile.” Israel and the Gulf states, he said, “have a reason to worry.”

Heinonen was senior research officer at a reactor lab in Finland before joining the IAEA in Vienna, where he served 27 years. His Department of Safeguards, which he headed from 2005 to 2009, carries out all inspections tied to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. Long before the JCPOA, it maintained a legally binding agreement with Iran to report nuclear activity. 

Heinonen has visited all the declared nuclear sites in Iran, some of them multiple times. He also was a key figure in the discovery of A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear physicist who for decades ran a black market in nuclear weapons technology, selling to Iran and North Korea the know-how that’s allowed them to become the threats they are today.

Before reaching conclusions about the Iran Nuclear Archive, Heinonen said he spent months doing “a deep dive” into the documents. “This was information I had not seen before,” he said. At IAEA, he said, the inspectors had “bits and pieces of information” about a military dimension to Iran’s nuclear program, “but not the kind of comprehensive view the archive gives you.”

Sebastian Scheiner/AP

Netanyahu presents the stolen Iranian documents at a press conference in Tel Aviv in April 2018. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

For years, observers like Heinonen raised questions about Iran’s insistence on producing nuclear material, rather than buying it from other states as most do for civilian use. Why build an expensive nuclear infrastructure when you are an oil-producing state? Why invest at a time when global markets are awash in cheap natural gas? Why force Iranians to live under economic sanctions, when bringing a decisive end to the program could unleash the country’s wealth and international currency flows? The answer could only be it wanted to become one of the world’s handful of nuclear-armed powers.

Heinonen said the silence of the IAEA forced him and others to publish their conclusions. Starting earlier this year, he released 10 memos synthesizing those findings, published on the website of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he currently serves as senior adviser. The memos are co-authored with other scientists and David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security and a former IAEA adviser and UN weapons inspector in Iraq.

In summary, the archive shows that Iran planned to produce five nuclear weapons by the end of 2004, including one to be tested underground at a site under construction. To do that, it was testing fissile components at undisclosed sites, some under construction. 

Why build an expensive nuclear infrastructure when you are an oil-producing state? Why invest at a time when global markets are awash in cheap natural gas? Why force Iranians to live under economic sanctions, when bringing a decisive end to the program could unleash the country’s wealth and international currency flows?

The archive also showed Iran constructing a uranium mine and developing advanced centrifuges for military purposes, which it subsequently declared were for civilian use. These sites and others named in the archives were off-limits to IAEA inspectors, and remain so.

“The documents are not compatible with Iran’s statements on the peaceful nature of the program,” said Heinonen. “IAEA has been deceived. It has been deceived as late as 2015.”

Iran carried out the deception by operating a civilian program with a parallel program for nuclear weapons development, he said. Industrial infrastructure and research-and-development facilities served both, “and when you do it that way it’s very difficult to find that military program.”

Inspections have been hampered by the limits of the JCPOA, and a UN resolution, which emphasize uranium enrichment. “We have to understand a nuclear weapon is a system,” said Heinonen. The system is like a teepee stretched over three poles, he said: the delivery system, or missile; the weapon’s actual design; and the fissile material, made up of enriched uranium or plutonium. A focus only on one pole collapses an accurate view of the whole system. 

Heinonen concludes, “Iran in my view is in breach of its obligations.” 

Sebastian Scheiner/AP

Heinonen at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

The Iran Nuclear Archive shows Iran with ready designs along each of the three “poles,” while it in recent years has only divulged information on uranium enrichment. Further complicating the picture is that IAEA gave Iran a pass when it recently upgraded centrifuges, making weapons-grade enrichment more possible.

Though only a snapshot, stressed Heinonen, the archive creates a baseline understanding of Iran’s nuclear program that neither the IAEA nor any party to the JCPOA has been able to come up with.

In a March statement to the IAEA board of governors, Ambassador Jackie Wolcott, who is the U.S. representative to UN agencies in Vienna, said Iran had to answer for its nuclear archives: “The facts of Iran’s past nuclear weapons activities continue to have bearing on current questions about the possibility of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran. These issues must be addressed in a clear and straightforward manner, without further delay.”

Heinonen believes the decision by Trump to withdraw the United States from the nuclear agreement last year was a tactical error the Iranians will be “comfortable” with, though the agreement, he said, “definitely needs fixing.” They can withstand economic sanctions, he said, and now have the centrifuges needed to grow their production of high-enriched uranium.

Since the advent of nuclear weapons, he also points out, the United States has negotiated arms-control agreements with an array of belligerent adversaries without risking the use of force in response to violations. 

Iran’s leaders seem less fazed by sanctions, reimposed starting a year ago, than by recent actions by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who starting May 3 revoked waivers under the JCPOA allowing Iran to carry out aspects of its nuclear program, like shipping low-enriched uranium. The prospect of losing remaining waivers, which could wreck ongoing covert nuclear activity, may be what prompted President Hassan Rouhani’s mid-May withdrawal from the JCPOA. At the same time, Iran launched attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and on June 20 shot down an unarmed U.S. drone. 

In a May 8 speech, Rouhani said Iran would quadruple uranium production in 60 days, and increase its level of enrichment. Quadrupling enrichment happened in June, and on July 1 Iran announced it had surpassed the limits set by the JCPOA and could begin enrichment to weapons grade. That’s significant: It marks the Islamic regime’s boldest departure from international norms. And the speed in ratcheting up enrichment shows a capacity more reflected in the archive. 

Ultimately, Heinonen believes, Iran will have to come to the negotiating table because too many other countries—including its Middle East neighbors and Russia—will oppose a nuclear-armed Iran. But the clock running toward such armament is ticking.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.