Image: Iranian missile
Reuters
An Iranian Shahab 2 missile is paraded in Tehran on Sept. 22, the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. A newer generation missile, the Shahab 3, is being used to mount a nuclear payload, the U.N. nuclear agency said Tuesday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 11/8/2011 8:51:43 PM ET 2011-11-09T01:51:43

Iran is suspected of conducting secret experiments whose sole purpose can only be the development of nuclear weapons, the U.N. nuclear atomic energy agency said for the first time in a report released Tuesday.

While some of the suspected secret nuclear work can have peaceful purposes, "others are specific to nuclear weapons," according to the report by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency.

A 13-page attachment to the report details intelligence and IAEA research that shows Tehran working on all aspects of research toward making a nuclear weapon, including fitting a warhead onto a missile.

"Iran," the report added, "has carried out the following activities that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device:

  • "Efforts, some successful, to procure nuclear related and dual use equipment and materials by military related individuals and entities;
  • "Efforts to develop undeclared pathways for the production of nuclear material;
  • "The acquisition of nuclear weapons development information and documentation from a clandestine nuclear supply network; and
  • "Work on the development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon including the testing of components."

Specifically, Iran's work includes developing and mounting a nuclear payload onto its Shahab 3 intermediate range missile — a weapon that can reach Israel, Iran's arch foe.

In response, the United States may impose more sanctions on Iran, possibly on commercial banks or front companies, but is unlikely to go after its oil and gas sector or central bank for now, a U.S. official told Reuters on Tuesday.

"I think you will see bilateral sanctions increasing," the U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.

But because of Russian and Chinese opposition, chances are slim for another U.N. Security Council resolution sanctioning Iran for its nuclear program, the official said.

Ahead of the report's release, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned of a possible Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear program.

He told Israel Radio that he did not expect any new U.N. sanctions on Tehran to persuade it to stop its nuclear defiance, adding: "We continue to recommend to our friends in the world and to ourselves, not to take any option off the table."

The "all options on the table" phrase is often used by Israeli politicians to mean a military assault, and Israeli government members have engaged in increased saber rattling recently suggesting that an attack was likely a more effective way to stop Iran's nuclear program than continued diplomacy.

A senior diplomat familiar with the report said its significance lay in its comprehensiveness, thereby reflecting that Iran apparently had engaged in all aspects of testing that were needed to develop such a weapon.

Also significant was the agency's decision to share most of what it knows or suspect about Iran's secret work the 35-nation IAEA board and the U.N. Security Council after being stonewalled by Tehran in its attempts to probe such allegations.

On Monday, Iran, backed by Russia, responded to speculation of a military strike by saying that would lead to civilian casualties and create new threats to global security.

The separate remarks by foreign ministers Sergei Lavrov of Russia and Ali Akbar Salehi of Iran coincided with speculation about a potential Israeli strike.

"This would be a very serious mistake fraught with unpredictable consequences," Lavrov told a news conference in Moscow.

In St. Petersburg, Russia, Salehi said Iran "condemns any threat of military attack on independent states."

Salehi spoke alongside Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and other ministers from nations in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional grouping dominated by Russia and China in which Iran has observer status.

Germany's Foreign Ministry also rejected military action against Iran, suggesting that the dispute should be resolved through diplomatic pressure. "This continues to be the key way to move forward in dealing with this threat to regional and international security," a spokesman said.

The Washington Post reported Monday that the IAEA was providing new details on the role played by a former Soviet weapons scientist who allegedly tutored Iranians on high-precision detonators of the kind used to trigger a nuclear chain reaction.

Technology linked to Pakistani and North Korean experts helped Iran advance its capabilities, officials and experts told the paper.

IAEA data also supports concerns that Iran continued to conduct weapons-related nuclear research after 2003, when U.S. intelligence agencies believed Iran halted the research in response to international pressure.

"The program never really stopped," David Albright, a former IAEA official who reviewed the agency's findings, told the paper."After 2003, money was made available for research in areas that sure look like nuclear weapons work but were hidden within civilian institutions."

Tehran denies wanting atom bombs, saying it is enriching uranium only to power reactors for electricity generation.

The United States, the European Union and their allies have imposed economic sanctions on Tehran for refusing to halt its uranium enrichment program.

The United States and Israel have repeatedly hinted at the possible use of force against Iranian nuclear sites, eliciting threats of fierce retaliation from the Islamic Republic.

Based on the intelligence the U.N. agency has concluded that Iran "has sufficient information to design and produce a workable implosion nuclear device" using highly enriched uranium as its fissile core, Albright said.

Albright described some of the highlights at a private conference of intelligence professionals last week, the newspaper said, adding that it had obtained slides from the presentation and a summary of Albright's notes.

Russia and China grudgingly supported four previous rounds of sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. But the two veto-wielding U.N. Security Council members have made clear any new sanctions would be an extremely tough sell.

Moscow is calling for a step-by-step process under which the existing sanctions would be eased in return for actions by Iran to dispel concerns over its nuclear program, which Tehran says is purely peaceful.

Reflecting regional fear of blowback from any attack on Iran, a government official in Kuwait said the Gulf state would not let its territory be used to launch attacks on any of its neighbors. Kuwait was a launchpad for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and lies a short distance from Iran across the Gulf.

Israeli media have been rife with talk that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is working to secure cabinet consensus for an attack on Iranian nuclear installations.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman George Little said Monday the United States remained focused on using diplomatic and economic levers to pressure Iran.

A military strike would likely provoke Tehran into hugely disruptive retaliatory measures in the Gulf that would sever shipping routes and disrupt the flow of oil and gas to export markets, political analysts believe.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Timeline: Iran’s nuclear program

Video: UN: Iran nuclear threat grows real

  1. Transcript of: UN: Iran nuclear threat grows real

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: There's also news tonight about Iran and the threat of nuclear weapons . There's a new UN report out. It says the threat has grown more real, and this happens to come amid reports Israel is again considering some sort of military strike . Our chief foreign affairs Andrea Mitchell has more.

    ANDREA MITCHELL reporting: Even before the report's release, for days Iran has been denouncing it as a tool of the United States and Israel .

    Unidentified Man:

    Group of People:

    MITCHELL: Iran 's President Ahmadinejad today called the head of the UN agent a puppet of the US. But the UN agency the IAEA reports new evidence that Iran is on the verge of a major nuclear breakthrough to know how to build a nuclear bomb . What is the proof? Experts say satellite images show Iran has built an enormous steel structure that could be used to test explosives used to trigger a weapon. A warhead small enough to fit on a missile that could hit Israel or Europe. Despite denials, experts say Iran had help from a former Soviet scientist with decades of weapons experience.

    Mr. DAVID ALBRIGHT (Nuclear Expert): The evidence looks pretty clear that he -- the Iranians benefited tremendously from his expertise and used it to build a smaller nuclear weapons design. I think some will conclude from this that it is a smoking gun.

    MITCHELL: For years, Israel and possibly the US have waged a cyberwar against Iran's nuclear program . They've slowed its centrifuges with a Stuxnet computer virus. And two Iranian nuclear scientists were mysteriously assassinated on their way to work. But experts say Iran has now overcome those hurdles and is back on track. Intelligence estimates differ widely on how close Iran could be to developing a bomb. Still, few military experts outside of Israel believe that military action could take out Iran's nuclear program , much of it buried deep underground.

    General BARRY McCAFFREY, Retired (NBC News Military Analyst): They don't have the conventional air power , the air-to- air refueling to credibly strike the Iranian nuclear production facilities.

    MITCHELL: Israel is already holding mock disaster drills in anticipation of an attack from Iran . The UN weapons report will only increase fears in a region already on edge. Andrea Mitchell , NBC News, Washington.

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