In the Tunnels of Natanz

February 23, 2010 Topic: Nuclear Proliferation Regions: Persian Gulf

In the Tunnels of Natanz

Mini Teaser: The leader of the search for WMD in Iraq says weapons inspections will not stop Iran from going nuclear. The West doesn’t have the capacity or unity to make an effective inspection regime happen.

by Author(s): David Kay

 THERE IS a global consensus that any agreement with Iran on ensuring its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only will have to involve inspections to verify its disarmament. But as a former weapons inspector, I have very bad news for you: a weapons-inspection regime in Iran will not work. Inspections themselves are most effective when both the state being inspected and the inspecting countries are fully on board-and even then there are limits. An inspection regime can never ensure full disarmament. We can only hope it would detect major violations.

 Tehran has shielded its nuclear program from outside examination, and, moreover, the Iranian government has made clear that it will not fully divulge-even when caught-all of the details of its nuclear activities and their support networks, both domestic and foreign. Iran has refused repeated IAEA requests for interviews with the scientists and engineers responsible for large areas of its secret atomic work, and it has refused to disclose the details of its involvement with North Korea and with Pakistan's A. Q. Khan nuclear smuggling network. To date, the unmasking of Tehran's activities owes far more to the tip-offs provided by an Iranian dissident group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, which in 2002 told the world about Iran's nuclear facility at Natanz, than to the regime itself.

The result is that Iran now has a broad capability in all aspects of the nuclear-weapons process: from converting natural uranium into enriched uranium using gas centrifuges; to designing and testing the components of a nuclear weapon; to working on the construction of a missile-deliverable warhead; to building and testing missiles capable of delivering that nuclear warhead over significant distances.

What we do not know with any certainty is the full extent of this clandestine program: the location of undisclosed nuclear facilities; the extent to which Iran has already attempted to enrich uranium to the levels necessary for nuclear weapons (at least in small amounts); how far along it is in the design and production of much more efficient gas centrifuges capable of continuous operation and greater production of enriched uranium than its initial models; the exact status of its weapons and warhead design-and-testing programs; and whether it has made a formal decision to proceed to the production of nuclear weapons. The point is clear: this is a complex process with numerous steps, numerous unknowns and numerous potential obstacles to some kind of clarity of thought.

It would be foolish to assume that existing IAEA inspections could effectively confirm that Iran was living up to its announced intention. It would also be unwise to assume that the U.S. and other governments have a clear view of the type of inspections that would be required to even begin to make sure Iran kept its supposed promises. But above all, it would be foolish to think we know the minimum requirements for an effective inspection regime if Iran were to suddenly announce that it had abandoned all activities not essential to a peaceful nuclear-energy program.


EVEN BEFORE getting to the overwhelming detail of a workable inspection regime, we must understand this: a prerequisite is trust. The international community is skeptical about almost everything the Islamic Republic does in the nuclear realm. And Iran is unlikely to ever be an honest broker. For more than twenty years now, Tehran has engaged in systematic efforts to protect a clandestine nuclear program from discovery by IAEA inspections. Abetted by a broad effort of deception and denial-they seek foreign assistance in the design and production of centrifuges, they import undeclared natural uranium, they acquire data on nuclear weapons and missile warheads, and they build secret nuclear facilities, some hidden in tunnels and others in military bases-the Iranian government has shown every sign that it plans to covertly continue arming itself.

Additionally, almost all of the power players that started and carried forward Iran's nuclear capabilities still have political influence. That even the leaders of the political opposition in the Islamic Republic, like former-Presidents Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, were, while in government, strong supporters of Iran's clandestine nuclear program is often overlooked. In opposition they continue to speak of their belief in their country's right to pursue nuclear activities. Ever since the Iraqis used chemical weapons against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, the consensus among Tehran's ruling elite has been that they need to have a deterrent. The two U.S.-led wars against Iraq and strident U.S. rhetoric about the necessity of regime change in Iran only increased that desire for a deterrent that would hold the United States at bay. What started out as a nuclear-weapons program has, for political reasons, been called a civilian-nuclear-power effort, though the repeated disclosures of the extent of Iran's clandestine atomic infrastructure, including elements such as work on neutron-initiation devices and warhead design, has built up a general belief that the ultimate goal is a nuclear force. And in large part, the Iranian elite still support the weaponization of their nuclear capabilities.

Image: Pullquote: As a former weapons inspector, I have very bad news for you: a weapons-inspection regime in Iran will not work.Essay Types: Essay