[…] the Agency remains concerned about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.
– From IAEA report of May 24, 2011
On Monday, International Atomic Energy Agency Director Yukiya Amano stated that his organization had received further information involving Iran’s nuclear program that seemed to point to potential military dimensions of the program. [IAEA] The nuclear watchdog last month published a report citing seven ‘particular areas of concern’ including ‘developing, manufacturing and testing of explosive components suitable for the initiation of high explosives in a converging spherical geometry.’ [IAEA] This ‘area of concern’ no doubt relates to the conventional explosives used to initiate criticality in an implosion-type weapon.
Meanwhile this week, western media began scrutinizing a Republican Guard article originally published on the elite military organization’s website in April. The paper, titled ”The Day After the First Iranian Nuclear Test — a Normal Day’, raised eyebrows as a signal of the military’s support for an Iranian nuclear weapon. Experts cite a number of reasons for the article ranging from a form of retaliation against the computer virus attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities to a strategy of seeking to ‘slowly acclimatize the international community to conditions that would make a breakout to nuclear weapons more feasible.’ [ISIS]
These developments come on the heels of Tehran announcing that it plans to further increase its capacity to generate 20% enriched uranium by 300%. While Iran has stated that its nuclear research reactor in Tehran requires uranium enriched to 20%, the Middle Eastern nation already has several years worth of fuel stockpiled and currently lacks the technology to build further reactors requiring fuel of this grade.
The UN has already sanctioned Iran four separate times for failing to comply with Security Council resolutions relating to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. This latest flurry of developments has started re-focusing international attention on the possibility of Tehran eventually pursuing a nuclear weapon. In particular, analysts worry about the potential for a ‘breakout’ scenario whereby Iran re-introduces its current, 20% enriched, uranium stockpile to its enrichment cascades and races to increase the level of U-235 enrichment to 90% or above, creating a stockpile of weapons-grade uranium. Iran’s stated plans to increase its capacity to enrich uranium to 20% will not only increase the nation’s available stockpile of 20% enriched uranium but also make available more centrifuges for use in a potential breakout scenario and dramatically decrease the time needed to produce weapons-grade material.
The developments of the past week certainly do not help assuage fears that Iran’s stated peaceful goals of its nuclear program are simply a rouse to allow the nation to continue to progress towards a nuclear weapon. It should also be noted that the new enrichment capabilities are going to be installed at the Fordow facility, which is located next to a military base and, owing to its location inside of a mountain, is less vulnerable to air strikes than the enrichment facility at Natanz. The Fordow facility was not even acknowledged until 2009, when western intelligence agencies made public their knowledge of it.
The government of Iran has been careful to careful not to relinquish its ability to plausibly deny accusations that its nuclear program is military in nature. While it has violated several UN resolutions, there has never been any weapons-grade uranium found. And although suspicious, the covert manner in which the nation attempted to secretly build the fortified enrichment facility at Fordow does not necessarily betray its intentions as belligerent. Finally, despite already having – and planning to further develop – a capacity to enrich uranium which greatly out-paces any conceivable peaceful use for the enriched uranium, that imbalance still does not provide the much-wanted ‘smoking gun’ that points definitively to a nuclear weapons program. Regardless, the international community has, for years, focused attention on the Iranian nuclear program so it would be inconceivable that there are not at least a handful of contingency plans should such a conclusive piece of evidence emerge. It’s intriguing to wonder how Iran has accounted for these plans and, given the recent events discussed above, what exactly its strategy is.
Useful background information:
A new computer virus that seemed to be targeting Iranian government facilities has been discovered. Iranian officials announced last week that they had detected a new attempt to infiltrate government computers. Public acknowledgement of this new virus, now called ‘Stars’, comes less than a year after the 2010 revelation that a separate virus, Stuxnet, was responsible for the difficulty the Persian nation has encountered in operating its uranium centrifuges. Iranian officials, along with several prominent western cyber-security experts, have attributed the origin of Stuxnet to the United States and Israel. Neither the US nor Israel has accepted responsibility for the virus. Little information is as yet publicly available about the newer Stars virus although it reportedly takes the form of official-looking data and is ‘hard to eliminate in its original form.’ [GSN]
Iran has acknowledged that its enrichment efforts had been delayed by the earlier Stuxnet virus. The virus violently manipulates the spinning speed of rotors inside centrifuges used to separate isotopes of uranium. While doing so, it reports normal operating conditions to the control mechanism thus avoiding an emergency shutdown. The P1 centrifuges being used by Iran are highly sensitive machines and the sudden increases and decreases in speed that Stuxnet subjected them to would have undoubtedly rendered them inoperable. Some speculate that code contained in Stuxnet could cause the centrifuges to literally explode.
Ralph Langer explains Stuxnet
Experts believe that Stuxnet has set back any Iranian program towards a nuclear weapon – real or imagined – by several years. This no doubt gives Israel some breathing room in its debate about a possible preventive strike, ala its universally condemned 1981 destruction of the Osirak nuclear reactor which was under construction in Iraq. (It’s worth noting that while the Osirak facility was destroyed, many contend that the strike may have actually accelerated Iraq’s nuclear weapons program.) Regardless, with the emergence of this new cyber attack, it’s clear that somebody has decided to devote considerable resources to sabotaging the Iranian nuclear program. The level of sophistication and explicit objectives of these viruses, coupled in consideration with last year’s assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, certainly limits that list of potential somebodies.
In an Israeli cockpit during Operation Opera