Iran experts at the U.N nuclear monitoring agency believe Tehran has the ability to make a nuclear bomb and worked on developing a missile system that can carry an atomic warhead, according to a confidential report seen by The Associated Press.
The AP said the document drafted by senior officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency is the clearest indication yet that those officials share Washington's views on Iran's weapon-making capabilities and missile technology — even if they have not made those views public.
The confidential document, titled "Possible Military Dimension of Iran's Nuclear Program," appeared to be the so-called IAEA "secret annex" on Iran's alleged nuclear arms program that the U.S., France, Israel and other IAEA members say is being withheld by agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei — claims the nuclear watchdog denies.
It is a record of IAEA findings since the agency began probing Iran's nuclear program in 2007 and has been continuously updated.
The information in the document that is either new, more detailed or represents a more forthright conclusion than found in published IAEA reports includes:
- The IAEA's assessment that Iran worked on developing a chamber inside a ballistic missile capable of housing a warhead payload "that is quite likely to be nuclear."
- That Iran engaged in "probable testing" of explosives commonly used to detonate a nuclear warhead — a method known as a "full-scale hemispherical explosively driven shock system."
- An assessment that Iran worked on developing a system "for initiating a hemispherical high explosive charge" of the kind used to help spark a nuclear blast.
At odds with U.S.
In another key finding, an excerpt notes: "The agency ... assesses that Iran has sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable implosion nuclear device (an atomic bomb) based on HEU (highly enriched uranium) as the fission fuel."
ElBaradei said in 2007 that there was no "concrete evidence" that Iran was engaged in atomic weapons work — a source of friction with the United States, which has sought a hard-line stance on Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
Responding to the AP report, the agency did not deny the existence of a confidential record of its knowledge and assessment of Iran's alleged attempts to make nuclear weapons. But an agency statement said the IAEA "has no concrete proof that there is or has been a nuclear weapon program in Iran."
It cited ElBaradei as telling the agency's 35-nation governing board last week that "continuing allegations that the IAEA was withholding information on Iran are politically motivated and totally baseless."
"Information from a variety of sources ... is critically assessed by a team of experts working collectively in accordance with the agency's practices," it said.
"The IAEA reiterates that all relevant information and assessments that have gone through the above process have already been provided to the IAEA Board of Governors in reports of the director general."
The document traces Iran's nuclear arms ambitions as far back as 1984, when current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was president and Iran was at war with Iraq.
At a top-level meeting at that time, according to the document, Khamenei endorsed a nuclear weapons program, saying "a nuclear arsenal would serve Iran as a deterrent in the hands of God's soldiers."
He and other top Iranian leaders insist their country is opposed to nuclear weapons, describing them as contrary to Islam. They argue that Iran's uranium enrichment program and other activities are strictly for civilian purposes.
In an interview Thursday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told NBC News that Iran will cooperate with the IAEA on nuclear issues as long as the agency is not "influenced by political pressure" from other countries.
"Our activities are peaceful," he said, reiterating earlier claims by Iran on its nuclear research. "We don't need nuclear weapons. Without such weapons, we are very much able to defend ourselves."
But Ahmadinejad was adamant that he would not halt work on what he called peaceful programs just to mollify Western skeptics.
"If you are talking about the enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes, this will never be closed down here in Iran," he said.
Senior U.S. government officials have for years held the view that Iran has the expertise to make a bomb.
The Obama administration said Thursday it was scrapping a Bush-era plan for a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the decision came after U.S. intelligence concluded that Iran's short- and medium-range missiles were developing more rapidly than previously projected and now pose a greater near-term threat than the intercontinental ballistic missiles addressed by the plan under former President George W. Bush.
The AP saw two versions of the U.N. document — one running 67 pages that was described as being between six months and a year old, and the most recent one with more than 80 pages and growing because of constant updates. Both were tagged "confidential." A senior international official identified the document as one described by the U.S. and other IAEA member nations as a "secret annex" on Iran's nuclear program. The IAEA has called reports of a "secret annex" misinformation.
The document is based on intelligence provided by member states, the agency's own investigations and input from outside nuclear arms experts under contract with the IAEA.
Iran is under three sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions for refusing to freeze enrichment, the key to making both nuclear fuel and weapons-grade uranium. It is blocking IAEA attempts to probe allegations based on U.S., Israeli and other intelligence that it worked on a nuclear weapons program.
Iran recently agreed to meet Oct. 1 with the U.S. and five other world powers seeking curbs on its atomic activities for the first time in more than a year. But Tehran says it is not prepared to discuss its nuclear activities.
Presented with excerpts from the earlier paper, the senior international official said some of the wording and conclusions were outdated because they had been updated as recently as several weeks ago by IAEA experts probing Iran for signs it was — or is — hiding work on developing nuclear arms.
At the same time, he confirmed the accuracy of the excerpts, including Khamenei's comments, as well as the IAEA assessment that Iran already had the expertise to make a nuclear bomb and was well-positioned to develop ways of equipping missiles with atomic warheads.
An official from one of the 150 IAEA member nations who showed the AP the older version of the document said much of the information in it has either never been published or, if so, in less direct language within ElBaradei's periodic Iran reports first circulated to the agency's 35-nation board and released to the public. That was confirmed by the senior international official.
The officials providing the information both insisted on anonymity because of the confidentiality of the document, which they said was meant to be seen only by ElBaradei and his top lieutenants.
In the case of Khamenei, there is only an oblique reference in the annex to ElBaradei's Iran report of May 26, 2008, saying the agency had asked Tehran for "information about a high level meeting in 1984 on reviving Iran's pre-revolution nuclear program."
The international official said the Iranians denied that Khamenei backed the concept of nuclear weapons for his country.
The agency said earlier this year that Iran had produced more than 1,000 kilograms — 2,200 pounds — of low-enriched, or fuel-grade, uranium. That is more than enough to produce sufficient highly enriched uranium for one weapon, should Iran choose to do so, and its enrichment capacities have expanded since then.
The document concludes that while Iran is not yet able to equip its Shahab-3 medium-range missile with nuclear warheads, "it is likely that Iran will overcome problems," noting that "from the evidence presented to the agency, it is possible to suggest that ... Iran has conducted R&D (research and development) into producing a prototype system."
The Shahab-3 missile has a range of up to 1,250 miles, putting Israel within striking distance, and is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
The document also says Iran already could trigger a nuclear blast through "methods of unconventional delivery" such as in a container on a cargo ship or carried on the trailer of a truck.
ElBaradei last month urged Iran to cooperate with IAEA efforts to probe allegations of a weapons program.
That Aug. 28 report noted that the information on Tehran's alleged weapons program shared by board members "need to be addressed by Iran with a view to removing the doubts ... about the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program."
'High probability' of weapons activities
But in an indication that ElBaradei also is concerned, he departed from the cautious language characterizing his Iran reports last week.
He told a closed meeting of the IAEA board that if the intelligence on Iran's alleged weapons program experiments is genuine, "there is a high probability that nuclear weaponization activities have taken place — but I should underline 'if' three times."
The U.S., Israel, France and other nations critical of Iran's nuclear activities have for months said that ElBaradei was withholding a "secret annex" on Iran in the IAEA's electronic archives that they say goes far beyond the information and conclusions published by ElBaradei in his regular reports on Iran.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner urged ElBaradei earlier this month to publish his confidential information, saying it contained "elements which enable us to ask about the reality of an atomic bomb." Israel's Haaretz daily cited unidentified government officials as demanding the same.
Asked about the discrepancy between the agency denial that it was withholding information and the existence of the document, the senior international official said the report was at this point an "internal and constantly changing" record of what the IAEA knows and concludes about Iran. As such, he said, circulating it, even only to IAEA board members, would be counterproductive.
Only after the agency has concluded its investigation and drawn final conclusions would it share the information with the board, he said, adding that he could not say when that would be.