Iran Nuclear-Weapon Work Aided by Russia Scientist, UN Report Said to Show

By Jonathan Tirone and John Walcott - Nov 8, 2011

A United Nations report may show that Iran is trying to move closer to developing a nuclear weapon after the Persian Gulf country used information from a Russian scientist to explore how to raise the yield of atomic warheads, said three officials with knowledge of the document.
Publication of the report will bring to light elements of the dispute between intelligence agencies in the U.S. and those in the U.K., France and Israel over Iran’s actions and intentions toward developing nuclear weapons.
The Russian scientist showed Iranian counterparts techniques that could be used to make smaller nuclear weapons capable of bigger explosions, according to the officials, who have been briefed on the UN atomic agency’s eight-year probe. They spoke on the condition of anonymity, following diplomatic rules for discussing private information.
The International Atomic Energy Agency is scheduled to publish this week its quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear work, in which inspectors are expected to conclude for the first time that Iran is working toward nuclear weapons. The IAEA was “increasingly concerned about the possible existence” of weapons work in its last report issued in September.
Separately, a U.S. intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss classified information, said the U.S. hasn’t changed its judgment since a November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate and an update last year. Those reports concluded that Iran has been keeping open its options by developing capabilities short of a decision by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to build nuclear weapons.
Allies’ Views
The American assessment of Iran’s nuclear activities differs from that of Israel and the U.K., which are analyzing the same information, according to the U.S. intelligence official. The U.K., France and Israel have gone a step further by concluding that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, U.S. and European intelligence officials said yesterday.
The IAEA’s report on Iran, its 34th since inspectors began investigating the country in 2003, may trigger wider consequences.
Israel has warned that all options are on the table regarding a possible military strike against Iran’s atomic facilities. The new report may also underpin a renewed push by the U.S. to ratchet up sanctions and diplomatic pressure on Iran.
‘Unpredictable Consequences’
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the U.S. and Israel are trying to rally support for an attack and warned that “Iran will not allow them to take any action against it,” according to an interview published yesterday in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Akhbar. He again denied Iran’s intentions to develop nuclear weapons and said the atomic program is only for peaceful purposes, according to the Iranian FARS news agency.
Russia criticized the United Nations for planning to release the report. The findings dwell on the past, a Foreign Ministry official in Moscow said by phone. Its release will, “without a doubt, strain the atmosphere” and hinder the start of serious negotiations, the official said, declining to be identified in line with government policy.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday that an Israeli military strike against Iran would be a “serious mistake” with “unpredictable consequences.” He spoke in Moscow at a joint briefing with his Irish counterpart Eamon Gilmore in comments broadcast on Russian state television.
Oil traders are awaiting the release of the IAEA report on Iran, the second-biggest oil producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries after Saudi Arabia. Crude oil for December delivery rose $1.26, or 1.34 percent, to $95.52 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the highest settlement price since July 29.
Public Disclosure
While most of the IAEA’s information has been known within the Vienna-based organization for years, a decision to make the data public would be a departure for the agency, which has previously refused to draw conclusions without full details. Inspectors haven’t been able to declare Iran’s intentions because Tehran’s government won’t let inspectors access all of its atomic-production facilities.
“The IAEA is combining different sources in their analysis, their own along with those from other states,” said Elena Sokova, executive director at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation. Using third-party and unverified data to draw conclusions has put the IAEA in a legal “gray area,” she said.
The IAEA didn’t immediately respond to telephone calls and e-mails requesting comment.
“All information available to the IAEA is comprehensively reviewed, checked for reliability and consistency and evaluated on an ongoing basis,” the agency’s top inspector, Hermann Nackaerts, said in a July paper he co-wrote for the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management, a policy institute focused on keeping atomic materials safe. The agency is implementing a two- year “action plan” to change the way it analyzes data, he said.
New Details
This week’s report, in addition to showing the amount of uranium that Iran has stockpiled, is expected to weave in details that inspectors have learned from people outside the agency. Member states inside the 154-nation body have given the IAEA evidence, according to previous reports.
One piece of evidence -- known among IAEA inspectors for at least four years -- shows the existence of an explosive chamber obtained by Iran from the Russian scientist, the officials said. The chamber may be used to show how high explosives inside a nuclear warhead interact with uranium. The only way to perfect the timing and function of the neutron-beam trigger that sets off a bomb’s chain reaction is through testing, according to officials.
U.S. intelligence judged with “high confidence” that Iran had stopped nuclear weapons work in 2003. Officials assessed with “moderate confidence” that Iran hadn’t resumed work toward an atomic bomb as of mid-2007, government documents show.
To contact the reporters on this story: Jonathan Tirone in Vienna at jtirone@bloomberg.net; John Walcott in Washington at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net