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Is Iran Capable of Developing Nuclear Weapons?

November 8, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The International Atomic Energy Agency has been trying for years to monitor the Iranian program and determine if it is trying to develop nuclear weapons. Ray Suarez discusses the agency's latest report with former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to a new report on Iran’s nuclear program.

Ray Suarez has our story.

RAY SUAREZ: The International Atomic Energy Agency has been trying for years to monitor the Iranian program and to determine if it is trying to develop nuclear weapons. Today, the agency’s latest report became public.

And to walk us through it is David Albright, a physicist and former U.N. weapons inspector. He is president of the Institute for Science and International Security.

David, from this report and the evidence presented by the IAEA, do you conclude that Iran’s been designing a bomb and may still be working on one?

DAVID ALBRIGHT, Institute for Science & International Security: The IAEA lays out quite a bit of evidence that prior to 2004 Iran had put together a well-structured nuclear weaponization program, the process of actually building the weapon itself.

Another, in fact, even more important component is making the enriched uranium, the weapon-grade uranium. And that’s not discussed very much in this report at all. But the weaponization program prior to 2004 was quite robust and moving forward. And, actually, when it ended — or was stopped, I should say — it was halted abruptly — they were working on a warhead design that was about a half-a-meter across, which for a first effort is quite an achievement.

And the IAEA report makes clear they had significant foreign assistance.

RAY SUAREZ: The report talks about research and development for what it calls weapons-only research. It names a bunch of things that could only be used in a weapon. Does this put to flight, put an end to Iran’s contention that it was only working on a peaceful program for generating electricity?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: It should. I mean, Iran should come clean. It says it only wants civil nuclear power. I mean, a way out of this whole conflict with Iran is if Iran comes clean about these past nuclear weaponization activities.

A lot of other issues with Iran can be settled if it was willing to come clean. So far, it’s absolutely refused. And so far, the comments are consistent with their lack of cooperation and accusations that these are forgeries. The IAEA is just a stooge of the United States was what President Ahmadinejad said yesterday or the day before.

So you have a situation that doesn’t look like it’s going to be resolved. But the IAEA has put the report on the table. And now it’s up for the international community to start to address it, because, frankly, it’s actually a quite serious violation of a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that the IAEA laid the case out for today. And…

RAY SUAREZ: The agency says flat-out that Iran has failed to meet its reporting obligation, but also tells an interesting story about one period between ’03 and ’06 when Iran appeared to cooperate, allow inspectors in, allow them access to the technology that they wanted to have a look at, and then an abrupt change from ’07 to 2010.

Does that represent a change of policy in Iran? Is there a difference of opinion inside the ruling circles there about how to handle this?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, the background is, this weaponization program was abruptly ended in ’03 because of international pressure. Pressure on Iran does work.

And what was visible at the time was Iran shutting down and we called it suspending its uranium enrichment program and agreeing to additional inspections, and was very cooperative. As part of that, they made a decision to hide the nuclear weaponization program, to disassemble it in a certain way and try to make it go away so the inspectors couldn’t find it.

Unfortunately, the negotiations that were part of that process didn’t bear fruit. And you can blame all kinds of sides in that, but they didn’t bear fruit. And Iran broke with the suspension. And I think most countries in Europe, for example, that are involved in this issue thought that Iran’s weaponization program also restarted, albeit at a smaller level.

The United States took the position that it had not restarted. The IAEA today takes the position that, yes, there is evidence that indeed it did restart.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you have been a weapons inspector. When a report says, as a result of Iran’s lack of cooperation, the agency is unable to verify and report on these matters, in inspector-speak, that’s a pretty serious charge, isn’t it?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: No, it — the IAEA, in a sense, is — needs direction and help from its Board of Governors, the nations that run the IAEA. And they have to decide what to do.

The IAEA cannot get any more cooperation from Iran. And I think the time has come that the Board of Governors probably needs to pass a resolution calling on Iran to cooperate with the IAEA and give them some time to cooperate. And then probably, if they don’t, this would then be referred to the Security Council for further consideration.

RAY SUAREZ: Quickly, before we go, is there any way to know today, late in 2011, what the state of play is in these various Iranian plants?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Yes.

No, their enrichment program isn’t working very well. And the report today shows they continue to have problems. They’re more slowly deploying the advanced centrifuges than Iran had intended. So, the long pole in the tent, the ability to make weapon-grade uranium, is not going so well in Iran.

What we don’t know is how much progress has Iran made on weaponization? But the evidence supports that they’re not able to build a reliable warhead to put on a ballistic missile, that they didn’t finish that work in 2003 and it remains unfinished today.

RAY SUAREZ: David Albright, thanks for joining us.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Thank you.