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.

A vicious circle ensues. The Iranians distrust and feel threatened by the West; in turn, the West and Iran's neighbors fear the Islamic Republic. Without some level of trust or agreement that the condition being verified is in everyone's interest, the requirements for effective inspection become extremely onerous. Iran has a toxic relationship with any number of states, both within and outside the Middle East. And these are the same states that, in many cases, sit on the IAEA's Board of Governors and the UN Security Council; they are the ones that would provide essential support and personnel for inspection and verification activities. The lack of mutual trust would certainly endure during the inspection and verification process, providing fertile ground for disputes and delays.

Because the government in Tehran believes that the regime is under military and political threat from both the West and the Sunni regimes of the Gulf, it views intrusive inspections as part of an effort to gather intelligence and, ultimately, to overthrow the Islamic Republic. Tehran would be deeply suspicious about the motivations of the personnel in-country; there is every reason to believe that Iran would attempt to hinder and limit their activities.


EVEN IF that elusive trust could be achieved, the purpose of IAEA oversight remains one of the most misunderstood elements of discussions about establishing an effective international inspection and verification regime. Inspection and verification are often thought of as ways to prevent a state from developing nuclear weapons. This is certainly not the case, and what's more, it would be well beyond the capabilities of any conceivable inspection regime tasked with this verification mandate. If a country decides to break its international obligations and proceed with a nuclear-weapons program, the only options are military action by other countries or the acceptance of an atomically armed state. Inspectors simply do not have the military force that would be required to dissuade Iran or any other nation determined to breach its obligations and acquire nuclear weapons.

Equally surprising to many is that the objective of inspection and verification would not be to guarantee a complete absence of clandestine nuclear activities in Iran. The number of inspectors and level of intrusiveness necessary to ensure that no programs of that sort are taking place in a country Iran's size is far greater than anything that can be contemplated.

Instead, the goal is to create the equivalent of a strong plate-glass window that Iran would have to shatter if it were to embark upon a militarily significant nuclear program-and that inspectors could be reasonably expected to detect that shattering. The aim is not the unachievable-detecting all cheating-just the early and certain detection of any cheating that could significantly advance Iran's capability to possess nuclear weapons. So we might not need to know that Iran has dug a new tunnel. But we do need to know that they have the designs for a nuclear warhead and have taken the steps required for its production and deployment.

Yet even this more modest goal will not be an easy one to reach. And it will come along with some stringent requirements for Iran and the international inspection regime.


IRAN'S STATUS as an almost-nuclear-capable state is a key part of what makes inspections so difficult (for the only thing more difficult is to inspect a state that has already procured and tested some part of an atomic arsenal). When a country gets to this stage, former-President Ronald Reagan's widely cited statement of "trust, but verify" becomes nigh impossible. For with countries like Iran, once the secrets of nuclear-weapons design and construction, uranium enrichment, plutonium separation, and missile and warhead construction have been mastered, it is only a very small step away from acquiring nuclear weapons and their means of delivery.

The fact that inspectors must let Tehran carry out its civilian-nuclear effort, yet distinguish from that the moment Iran moves from a power-generation program to a military one, makes this a task largely unachievable by mere mortals.

A successful inspection regime would require a level of transparency by Iran that is beyond the pale of anything such an aggressively authoritarian state would allow. And inspectors would need to be there on a permanent basis.

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