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Just How 'Secret' is Iran's Nuclear Weapons Program?

The New York Times says a leaked IAEA report contains new revelations about Iran. But does the report really tell us anything we didn't already know?

The New York Times a few weeks ago ran a story about Iran's nuclear program that trumpeted an amazing scoop. Documents leaked from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) revealed shocking new details about a covert Iranian effort to develop nuclear weapons -- one that goes "well beyond the public positions taken by several governments, including the United States."

It was just the sort of thing to send a frisson of fear through readers already unnerved by other recent revelations about Iran's nuclear shenanigans -- particularly in light of the news of a hitherto unknown enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom. Stories that appear in the Times tend to drive the news cycle for the rest of the U.S. media -- broadcast, print, and otherwise -- and soon the relevant experts were being bombarded with calls from other journalists. Was it really true, they asked, that the IAEA had discovered an Iranian program hitherto hidden from the world?

Well, no. The Times story centered on the contents of a hitherto confidential IAEA report. The Associated Press first broke a story about the contents of the report back in September, followed by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), which posted excerpts on its website early in October. The ISIS commentary also pointed out that its excerpts came from a "working document" that was likely still "subject to revision." The excerpts showed that IAEA inspectors had concluded that Iran had conducted detailed research into designing a nuclear missile for a warhead as well as manufacturing the explosives needed to detonate an atomic bomb. Yet it all came with one significant catch: None of the documents made it clear whether Iran is still pursuing these programs, or had only done so in the past.

These are important caveats. Right now, the No. 1 problem for spies around the world -- those outside Iran, of course -- is figuring out exactly what Iran is doing with its nuclear program. Although Iran denies it, there is a considerable body of evidence suggesting that Iran has undertaken programs for crafting nuclear weapons at some point in the past few years. The "key judgments" of the still-controversial National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) published by the U.S. intelligence community back in 2007, for example, contended that Iran did have such a program -- but that Tehran shut it down by 2004 under pressure from the international community. Some intelligence experts, meanwhile, suspect that Iran's nuclear weapons program is still ongoing -- not least due to Iran's record of obfuscation on the issue. But so far no one has managed to deliver any conclusive proof.

The issue has become even more fraught since September, when Iran announced the existence of a hitherto secret fuel-enrichment facility in a mountain near Qom. That had many skeptics asking why Tehran would go to the trouble of building an entirely new enrichment facility and keep it hidden from the world if it weren't engaged in some sort of covert military activity. IAEA inspectors visited the facility on Oct. 25, but it will be some time before their findings become public. IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei has told interviewers that the site is "a hole in a mountain."

Some Israeli, German, and even French spies have been arguing in recent months that the Iranians are moving ahead with their weapons work; the Americans, at least publicly, are still sticking to the conclusions of the 2007 NIE. Somewhere in the midst of it all stands the IAEA, the United Nations agency that was created to oversee the peaceful use of nuclear energy even while preventing the proliferation of the technology for military uses. The IAEA's Department of Safeguards is in charge of conducting inspections to ensure that countries that have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty -- which Iran has -- aren't violating their obligations. The safeguards staff also receives information from countries, and their intelligence services, that are members of the IAEA board. Although these countries may have their own agendas, it's the IAEA's job to follow up on the leads provided to it and then draw conclusions about what it finds through its inspections. The notion that the IAEA is supposed to stand above the fray gives its assessments a particular weight.

Over the past few years there has been an increasing flow of leaks, experts say, from the Safeguard Department's reports, all of which have tended to be extremely skeptical of Iran's public assurances that its interest in nuclear technology is entirely harmless. That information hasn't always made it into the IAEA's public statements -- perhaps because ElBaradei, has been intent not to alienate the Iranians as he seeks to find a diplomatic compromise that might prevent a pre-emptive Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. Indeed, sparring between the IAEA's inspectors and its diplomats has more or less burst into the open, fueling even more leaks as both sides struggle to prove their respective cases.

On Sept. 17, for example, Associated Press reporter George Jahn broke a story revealing that a recent IAEA report had concluded, "Tehran has the ability to make a nuclear bomb and worked on developing a missile system that can carry an atomic warhead." The report, titled "Possible Military Dimension of Iran's Nuclear Program," appeared to be part of the "secret annex" to an IAEA report that, Jahn wrote, several IAEA board members -- including the United States, France, and Israel -- had been unsuccessfully pressing the agency to release. Jahn also noted that, in a recent meeting of the IAEA board, ElBaradei had spoken of a "high probability that nuclear weaponization activities have taken place" -- though only, he stressed, if the information provided by outside intelligence agencies proved accurate. Officially the IAEA responded to Jahn's story with a disclaimer: "With respect to a recent media report, the IAEA reiterates that it has no concrete proof that there is or has been a nuclear weapon programme in Iran."

On Oct. 2, ISIS posted excerpts from what was apparently the same report on its website. According to the excerpts, the IAEA has information that the Iranians have conducted design work on a Shahab-3 missile payload that bore all the hallmarks of a nuclear warhead, have worked on the development of high explosives technology of the kind needed to set off a nuclear explosion, and possessed "sufficient information to design and build a crude nuclear weapon." It was that particular observation that was singled out by the New York Times and that subsequently prompted some U.S. congressional members to call for a hard line on Iran -- despite the vagueness of the claim. It's not that hard to figure out how to build a nuke, skeptics point out; you can get plenty of the requisite knowledge from the Internet. The actual production of the weapon is the hard part: producing adequate quantities of enriched uranium or plutonium, and building a weapon that can fit into the nose cone of a missile, that works with absolute reliability.

Crucially, the issue of whether all or any of this information applies to the past or present is also vague. Some findings are in the present tense, suggesting that the Iranians might be continuing the research. One excerpt says Iran "has conducted and may still be conducting" the program for developing a nuclear payload, but also stresses that Iran still hasn't managed to solve the tricky technological challenge of putting a nuke on the tip of a missile. Nor do the excerpts provide any specific estimates of when Iran might achieve the key breakthroughs of producing a workable weapon or marrying it to a delivery system.

Nor does this information differ dramatically from what we've heard before. Jeffrey Lewis, director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation, said that other sources have already yielded information on Iran's development of warheads and high-explosive detonators. "What's valuable about these documents is that they show us more or less what we had thought all along," he told me. But Lewis contends that the leaked excerpts from the IAEA report are notably imprecise about whether the program continues. "I believe that the information is historical in nature, that it summarizes information that we've largely already seen in the press."

Joshua Pollack, a commentator for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, says that the only part he hadn't heard of before was detail provided by the ISIS website commentary on the source of some of the intelligence."[T]his is really about the IAEA," he says, and less about the current state of Iran's nukes. David Albright, president of ISIS, argues that the real importance of the leaked report was the IAEA's harsh assessment of Iran's intentions. "It's not about new information. It's about how you assess the information," he says. What's key, he says, is that these are authoritative conclusions, not just collections of inspection data from within the IAEA -- and that the IAEA has been withholding them.

That's an important news story, to be sure. It's not just the one that was told by the Times. Albright, for his part, describes the article as "dramatic."

David Sanger, the author of the New York Times piece, defended his reporting. "[N]owhere had we ever previously reported that Iran, in the words of the working assessment, has sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable implosion nuclear device," he wrote in an e-mail response. "That was, in our judgment, news, and that remains our judgment today."

"The ideal story," says Jim Walsh, a security expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "would be if there was secret info that was being kept hidden that provided a smoking gun that Iran had resumed the military part of its program after 2003. I think what we have here is something both more mundane and more complex." What we have now is a picture strongly suggesting that Iran has been up to something fishy, but "not a conclusive assessment that Iran is now currently involved in a military program." The answer to that question -- whether Iran is working on nuclear weapons right now -- remains muddled. On one count the experts agree: The press doesn't have a particularly good record of communicating the complexity of the issues involved. But then, that might not come as such a terrible shock.

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

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