In 2007, America’s intelligence agencies delivered a National Intelligence Estimate to President Bush declaring: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” As the latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) makes clear, Iran did indeed end its “structured” nuclear-weapons program. Kudos to the intel agencies for spotting this change. Where they did much less well was in spotting that the “structured” nuclear-weapons program was transitioned into an “unstructured” nuclear-weapons program.
One might wonder what the difference between a “structured” and an “unstructured” program might be. Well, the “structured” program was consolidated under the “AMAD Plan” and coordinated by the “Orchid Office.” In 2003, Iran halted the AMAD Plan and closed the Orchid Office. A few weeks later, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh — the head of the Orchid Office — opened the Section for Advanced Development Applications and Technologies (SADAT) and began coordinating nuclear-weapons research in an “unstructured” way. There you have it. All it took to fool the best and the brightest in U.S. intelligence was changing the nameplates on the door. This February, apparently worried that U.S. intelligence had finally found him out, Fakhrizadeh doubled down and renamed his nuclear-weapons research team the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research. That should keep America’s spies running in circles for another few years.
In the meantime, Iran will get on with the serious business of building a nuclear weapon. According to the report released by the IAEA last week, Iran never ceased its nuclear program and is continuing it now at full throttle. The IAEA, not known for ever sounding the alarm early, is now convinced that Iran has been concealing nuclear-weapons activities for most of the last decade, including such things as:
• Construction of a secret nuclear-power plant at Darkhovin and a new nuclear-enrichment facility near Qom, along with construction of ten additional enrichment facilities, of which only five have been found by international inspectors.
• Enrichment of Iran’s uranium stockpile to a level of up to 20 percent U-235. As the IAEA has not found or been shown any evidence that this level of enrichment is for peaceful uses, its analysts assume the enriched uranium is part of a weapons program.
• Ongoing secret research and studies into technical areas whose only purpose would be as part of a weapons program, including: the development of exploding bridgewire detonators; re-engineering of the payload chamber of the Shahab-3 missile re-entry vehicle to fit a nuclear warhead; and a project to create suitable metals for the high temperatures a ballistic missile would face upon re-entry into the atmosphere
• Acquisition of nuclear-weapons design information from Libya in 2004, and more advanced designs in recent years from other sources.
• The development in 2008 of “exploding bridgewire devices” (EBW) that achieved a simultaneity of one microsecond. That is, the Iranians have created a system capable of compressing nuclear fuel to the point of ignition (an explosion). Although there are very limited uses of EBWs for peaceful purposes, Iran has not shown the IAEA any ongoing projects requiring an EBW capability.
• Continued secret research into a hemispherical initiation system to optimize a multipoint initiation design required for nuclear-weapons applications.
• Hydrodynamic experiments involving high explosives in conjunction with nuclear-material surrogates, which are consistent with known methods of nuclear-weapons development.
• The manufacture of neutron initiators, which are an essential component of a nuclear-weapons system and have no possible peaceful use.
Only fools and the willfully obtuse still believe Iran is not working on a nuclear bomb. In fact, the Iranians are probably much closer to having a bomb than even many pessimists have credited. The question now is: What are the United States and the world going to do about it? Continuing along the path we have been on for a decade would mean accepting that Iran will soon have the bomb. Sanctions, cyber attacks, and targeted assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists have slowed but not stopped Iran’s pursuit of the bomb. There is little chance that more of the same is going to deter the mullahs.