IAEA: Iran must explain 2004 documents for building nukes

Last year, the American intelligence community issued a national estimate that claimed with moderate confidence that the Iranians had ceased work on a nuclear bomb by 2003. The IAEA has documents which dispute that, and call into question the motives behind the creation of the NIE. Iranian documents dated in 2004 show design work being done on both a nuclear warhead and its delivery system, and the IAEA wants answers from Tehran:

A ranking International Atomic Energy Agency official called Tehran’s possession of a drawing showing how to make part of an atomic warhead ” alarming” Thursday and said the onus is on Iran to prove it had not tried to develop nuclear arms, said diplomats attending a closed briefing. …

The documents, outlined in an IAEA report forwarded Monday to the U.N. Security Council and agency board members, are part of evidence provided by board member nations to the agency for its investigation into allegations that Iran used the cover of peaceful nuclear activities to conduct research and testing on a nuclear arms program.

One, dated January-February 2004 is linked to high explosives testing of the kind that can be used to detonate a nuclear device. Others, dated into January 2004 – and one as late as March 14 of that year – are part of purported evidence that Iran worked on designs of a missile re-entry vehicle that is normally a part of a nuclear delivery system.

That tends to argue against the NIE. If the Iranians had frozen their efforts in 2003 as the intel community said — reversing years of assessments that Iran actively pursued nukes — then they would have no need to create documentation and designs into 2004. Moreover, these designs show a military purpose for their nuclear program, which the Iranians have long denied.

The IAEA calls this “alarming”. These documents serve no purpose in a peaceful nuclear-energy program. With the Iranians just months away from increasing their uranium enrichment centrifuge cascades to 6,000, they could produce enough fissile material for a weapon in less than two months. If they have continued design and manufacturing work on a device, they could have a nuclear weapon by Christmas, if not sooner.

While the IAEA demands answers from Iran, perhaps we could get a few from the American intelligence community. Why were they so intent on dismissing the threat from Iran that they reversed three years of high-confidence assessments of an ongoing nuclear-weapons program to replace it with a moderate-confidence dismissal? How much did politics play in attempting to blunt the White House’s focus on a serious threat?