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Beeman and Spector: Does the IAEA report on Iran prove the existence of a nuclear weapons program?

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. On November 17 and 18 in Vienna, the governing body of the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, will meet, and they will respond to the latest report of their deputy director general, which essentially suggests that there is an ongoing nuclear weapons program. It doesn’t quite come out and say it overtly, but it certainly suggests that there is. Here’s a little excerpt from that report. Section 53 says the agency has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program after assessing carefully and critically the extensive information available to it. The agency finds the information to be, overall, credible. The information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of nuclear explosive device. The information also indicates that prior to the end of 2003, these activities took place under a structured program, and that some activities may still be ongoing. Now joining us to help us deconstruct this controversy are two gentlemen who don’t quite agree about it. Leonard S. Spector is the deputy director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and he leads the Washington center’s DC office. He was previously assistant deputy administrator for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration. On our left is William Beeman. He joins us from Minneapolis. He’s a professor at the University of Minnesota Department of Anthropology, and he’s the author of the book The Great Satan Versus the Mad Mullahs: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other. Thank you both for joining us. So, Leonard, kick us off. In 2007, the American intelligence agencies issued a national intelligence estimate, and they essentially say, yes, there is evidence there was a weaponization program in Iran prior to 2003, but they essentially say there has not been an active program since. Under ElBaradei, the IAEA did not really contradict this. They did say they weren’t getting full cooperation, but I don’t think they ever really contradicted this NIE, the national intelligence estimate. But this report seems to go another step in saying that there is an active program. So what’s new in this report, and why is it causing headlines?

LEONARD SPECTOR, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, JAMES MARTIN CENTER FOR NONPROLIFERATION STUDIES: Well, first of all, I think, let’s go back to the 2007 US intelligence estimate. It did not rule out the possibility that there were additional activities going on after 2003, but made clear that the formalized, the fully organized set of activities that was going on before that point appeared to have stopped. I think what we’ve seen in the interim between the 2007 report and today is some new information indicating that some of these activities may have continued in one form or another, and they were dispersed. I don’t think either the new report from the IAEA or other evidence indicates they have become as fully fledged as they may have been in 2003. But on the other hand, it’s possible that some progress was made prior to 2003 and that certain parts of this program do not need to be given the same level of attention. The really important thing, I’d say, in the IAEA analysis is that they took (I’m sure with a great deal of skepticism) intelligence from the United States, and probably from Israel and some other countries, and they vetted it as best they could. They found some confirmatory information, and they said, on balance, it looks like there was a problem, and it’s possible that it’s continuing.

JAY: Okay. Bill, what’s your take on what’s new in this report? Is there something that is a suggestion of a smoking gun here?

WILLIAM BEEMAN, PROF. ANTHROPOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA: It’s important that we read the IAEA reports in order and take a look at the past ones. You will find that this report, this most current report, has only about four paragraphs that differ from the last IAEA report. The difference is that this report was leaked to the press about a week before it was officially announced, and it was hyped to the max by people like David Sanger at The New York Times. And the very, very small additions to the last IAEA report were featured as if they were smoking guns condemning Iran’s activities as a full-fledged nuclear weapons program. In fact, this report, like all the reports before, the bottom line is that Iran has not diverted nuclear materials for military purposes. They’ve said it in every single report since 2003, and this is no different. Now, what is really important to note here is that the IAEA, in talking about nonfissile materials, like, for instance, explosive devices or, for instance, the cooperation of a Russian scientist, Danilenko, is outside of their scope. They–and under ElBaradei, none of these sorts of information were ever presented in an IAEA report, because they don’t–they aren’t covered in the scope of the IAEA, which is really to monitor fissile materials. And when fissile materials are not involved, involved in some engineering projects or something that might possibly be related in some obtuse way to a nuclear weapons development–.

JAY: Right. Okay. Well, let Leonard respond. So a lot has been made about this Ukrainian. I mean, some of the news reports had him as Russian, but if I understand it correctly, he’s Ukrainian.

BEEMAN: He is Ukrainian. That’s correct.

JAY: Yeah. Why is this so significant?

SPECTOR: Well, first of all, what the report sort of walks us through is the different phases that you need to master in order to build a nuclear weapon. And it finds evidence for many of these phases. And some of the evidence maybe is more compelling than others, other evidence not so clear. The Danilenko case is one of these very ambiguous situations. The man was in a Soviet nuclear weapon program for many years, and he was in the explosives part of that program, that is, the detonator that gets the atomic bomb to go off, the external high explosives. And he came to Iran and he worked on high explosives that do the same thing: they compress what’s within them, just like you would do for an atomic weapon. Now, he claims he was doing this for the purpose of manufacturing diamonds. I believe he’s had some success in actually achieving this scientifically. But the skills you need to do this are the very skills, in many respects, that Iran would need to construct this part of the bomb. I’d say, at the time that he was there, no one knew explicitly the way we learned later that there were secret activities in Iran, and it’s conceivable that he was misled and information was extracted from him–.

JAY: There’s been a lot of controversy whether he’s just about diamonds or whether [incompr.] he was involved in part of the Russian weapons program. But the thing that puzzles me about this whole issue is that, one way or the other, it’s before 2003; and even if you say this is evidence there was a weapons program before 2003, why is it so relevant now, when, again, the NIE was saying this more or less stopped in ’03 and ’04, and I think Danilenko left Iran in 2002?

SPECTOR: I think, first of all, it’s possible that by the time he left, they knew how to do what he could teach them. That’s part one. But part two is that in the interim there was a very, very significant, extremely suspicious development, and this was the construction or the beginning of construction of a secret uranium enrichment plant. This is definitely within the bailiwick of the IAEA, an enrichment facility, ’cause that is a facility that [incompr.] completed, could technically upgrade uranium to weapons grade. It was built in secret. The construction started in the mid-2000s. It was revealed in 2009. And you have to read all of these developments together. Perhaps there was an excuse for that. But if you see it in light of the earlier weaponization activities, you say, oh, this is part of a weapons program. It was found out. It was slowed down. It hasn’t achieved the results it wished to achieve. But all the pieces sort of fit a pattern.

JAY: Okay, Bill, jump in and respond to this.

BEEMAN: Well, I want to know what plant you’re talking about, because Iran has never constructed anything that was done in secret according to the NPT, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. What Iran did one time was they missed a deadline by, I don’t know, 30 days for declaring a plant that they were building, 30 days before they introduced fissile material. And the same thing was true with the Fordo plant outside of Qom, which at the time Iran declared it had nothing in it. It was a hole in the ground. And so it’s really a curious business to talk about secret construction when Iran is not required, according to the NPT, to declare anything at all until 180 days before the introduction of actual fissile material. They can construct anything they like according to that treaty.

JAY: Okay. Let Leonard respond.

SPECTOR: Well, I think, as Mr. Beeman knows, this is a debated issue, because there had been a rule in place that Iran had agreed to which said it would declare any facility at the time that the decision to construct it was made [crosstalk]

BEEMAN: That’s not true. It’s not true.

SPECTOR: [crosstalk] let me just [incompr.] They had made that–it’s code 3.1. It’s part of their safeguards agreement with the IAEA. And then they withdrew from it. The question then is: can they withdraw from something of this kind when they have done this on a bilateral basis? It’s an agreement with the IAEA. If they can withdraw it, then I suppose Professor Beeman is correct. But if they’re not permitted to withdraw, then it’s a different story. But the real story here is: what’s it all look like? Why are we quibbling over this? It’s because of the sensitivity of these plants and the fact that there was a shroud of secrecy over them, as well as all of this earlier activity.

JAY: Okay. Now, this is still a pre-2003 issue, is it not?

BEEMAN: No, it’s not. This is–this took place in 2007. And what we’re–when Iran voluntarily acceded to the additional protocols. And then it was not ratified by the Iranian Parliament. This is a treaty. And like in the United States, think of the the Osaka Accords–or the Kyoto Accords, I’m sorry, in the United States. They were acceded to by the the president, and then our Congress refused to ratify it. So the treaty was null and void. This is exactly what happened with the additional protocols in Iran. Not only that, but we had a conference last year, the NPT Review Conference, in which everyone in the conference, including the United States, stated very clearly that it is a matter of individual choice on the part of nations to accede to the additional protocols or not. It can’t be mandated by the United Nations or by any other group. And we also have nations like Brazil that have never signed, never signed the additional protocols. And we’re not talking to Brazil and complaining about their nuclear program, although they’re doing things that are very suspicious.

JAY: Leonard, any response [crosstalk]

SPECTOR: I think this is–. Sorry. I think we’re getting down into some very fine detail. The actual document we’re speaking about is not the additional protocol in this particular case. There are other aspects of Iranian behavior that are–.

JAY: Yeah, go ahead. What else in the report suggests there’s an ongoing program?

SPECTOR: Well, I think the most–you really need to look at these developments in their totality. What is of great concern is the production of enriched uranium, and in particular its enrichment to the level of 20 percent, which gets you closer to the level needed for nuclear weapons, the 80 or 90 percent enriched. The logic here was originally that they were going to do this for fuel for a research reactor in Tehran, but now they’re accumulating much more than that reactor would possibly need. And so when you take that with earlier militarization activities, which may have tapered off to some degree since 2003, you get very nervous. And Mr. Beeman may be correct that by the letter of the law, perhaps they are within bounds in some of these areas, but when you see all of these things piling up, nobody can be comfortable about it.

BEEMAN: Let me point out that the phrase that you use, the letter of the law, is precisely the point. And what Iran is saying to the world community is, we are signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and you are not allowing us to exercise our rights; you are forcing us to do something that no other signatory to the treaty has been asked to do, and that is to stop enriching uranium, which is our inalienable right–and I use that word very carefully, because it’s in the preamble to the NPT: it is their inalienable right to enrich uranium, or to do anything, really, for peaceful purposes. Now, the question is whether they’re engaged, according to Article 2 of the NPT, in non-peaceful purposes, in military purposes. And what the National Intelligence Estimate of 2007–not only 2007, but also the NIE of 2011–asserts is that Iran does not have a military program. The IAEA in 2009 issued a statement saying, we have no evidence that Iran has a military program. That’s two years ago. And what has changed since then? The thing that’s changed is that Director ElBaradei is out and Director Amano is in, and that there has been a clear political sea change at the IAEA that has caused them to introduce this extraneous material that is not within their purview, in order to try to develop a case for Iran’s developing a military application [incompr.] material.

JAY: Leonard?

SPECTOR: Well, I think we need to wheel back a little bit from the intricacies of the IAEA and the Non-Proliferation Treaty and look at the overall picture that we’re being presented with day by day. We have the accumulation of material closer to the level needed for weapons for which there’s no obvious purpose. How do you explain that?

BEEMAN: Well, actually, there is–.

JAY: Bill, let Leonard finish.

BEEMAN: Sorry.

SPECTOR: This occurs against a background of what we seem to all agree was a pretty serious program prior to 2003, where most of the skills–for example, how to develop a warhead for a nuclear missile–may have been mastered, where missile tests are continuing, of course, where you have this Fordo plant that certainly was suspicious, even if they were able to declare it before it was outed by somebody else, and you have UN sanctions against this country because of their nuclear behavior. I mean, there is a lot of anxiety here that’s created by the picture that’s being drawn, and if they can quibble their way out of this with legalisms at the IAEA or at the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conferences, fine, but that’s not where the issue really lies. The issue lies [crosstalk]

JAY: Well, Leonard, in terms of what’s–evidence there is, scientific evidence, what jumps out for you as something that persuaded you that there’s a program, a weapons program, other than the enrichment issue.

SPECTOR: Well, that–believe me, that was very, very sensitive, and it occurred twice, the hidden programs. But what else has come out is, as you go down through the report, sort of component after component that you would want to master to build a nuclear weapon is listed. You have the external explosives that we talked about. You have the machining of high enriched uranium into the shapes that are all only usable nuclear weapons. That’s not that they’ve done the machining, but that they have documentation of how to do it. We know that they received a nuclear weapon design from a A. Q. Khan. We know that they then also studied the very, very internal part of the bomb, called the initiator. I mean, why do you do all this stuff, if it’s not for a nuclear program, a weapons program? I think that’s what we’re all observing. And, in fact, the IAEA has outed the evidence that was already in circulation.

JAY: Bill?

BEEMAN: Well, one of the things that’s important to note is that there are about 20 other nations who have exactly the same capability. They’ve been doing exactly the same things. Japan is probably the most important one. And Japan is developing the capacity to develop nuclear weapons. They declare it. They’re quite open about it. And the United States doesn’t worry at all about Japan’s capacity to build nuclear weapons, even though they’re even far more advanced in this than Iran. But I wanted to go back to the question about the enrichment of uranium. You’re talking about an enrichment to 20 percent of uranium. And Iran several years ago pointed out that they had–that they were running out of uranium, running out of isotope generators for the treatment of cancer. You may not know this, but Iran is a major provider of medical services for the entire region. It is–there’s medical tourism going on to Iran all the time, because their treatment of medical problems is superior to almost everybody in the region. They declared to the United States two years before they began to enrich uranium to 20 percent that they were running out of these isotopes, which had been provided–the material for which had been provided by the United States many years ago. And so the United States said, well, you’re not going to give you any more enriched uranium. And so the Iranians started to do it themselves. And the–when we’re talking about 20 percent, it’s closer to 90 percent, that’s true, but it’s not very close. And Iran has a few thousand centrifuges. They need sixty or seventy thousand centrifuges in order to be able to enrich things to 90 percent. We’re talking about something that is theoretically way down the road.

SPECTOR: Well, excuse me, I don’t think that’s technically correct. But the point is, enrichment is like–I mean, it’s hard to describe in a simple way, but once you get to 20 percent, you are much, much closer to the 90 percent level, just because of the way the enrichment process works, than you are when you’re at the 3 percent level. So everyone is nervous that as this stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium grows, and you have this history of interest in nuclear weapons, you have some very potent and very strong statements from time to time by certain individuals in Iran, all of this kind of builds up to create a deal of anxiety because there’s a real threat here. I mean, people aren’t making this up.

BEEMAN: Let me also point out, though, that every scrap of that uranium, enriched uranium, is under the purview of the IAEA. They know where every little piece of it is. And what you get in the press is people saying, well, we don’t know about all the stuff that they might be making in underground bunkers someplace. Well, I mean, that’s just nonsense. It’s total speculation. But the IAEA will–one thing that they do do is they keep very careful tabs on the existing fissile material that is under their purview. And Iran has never kept them from doing that. It’s under seal on the part of the IAEA.

SPECTOR: Well, Dr. Beeman is correct that about this, but that isn’t quite the point. The point is, if you had the explosive part of the nuclear weapon, the high explosives, and you have the initiator, and you know how to machine the high-enriched uranium parts, you are pretty close to nuclear weapons, even though your material for the moment is under inspection. What everybody’s fearful about is that a stockpile of this 20 percent enriched uranium will be pulled together, and then there will be a breakout, and before the international community really has a chance to respond, actual nuclear weapons will be in hand. It’s this sort of overhang that is so troubling. And what is Iran doing? It could easily, easily allay suspicions. It could open up a little bit more, as it was doing for a while, as you point out, when they were under the additional protocol. It could answer questions that the IAEA is interested in having answered. It could not produce 20 percent enriched uranium for which there’s no purpose. I mean, there’s are lots of ways to make this issue die down. But instead, every [crosstalk]

JAY: Bill Beeman was just saying that he thought there was a purpose. So say that again, Bill.

BEEMAN: Yes. The 20 percent uranium is used to generate medical isotopes for the treatment of cancer, for radiation treatment of cancer. And not only that, but that was declared two years before they even started doing it, and United States was asked directly–was asked directly for the enriched uranium that they had–likely had supplied before. And the United States refused to give it. So the Iranians then enriched the uranium themselves.

JAY: So how do you respond?

SPECTOR: Let me just make the point, though, it’s the quantities. In other words, if they had stopped at the quantity needed to fuel this reactor, you’d say, shouldn’t have done it, wish they hadn’t done it, dangerous, but we could at least understand the purpose, and it isn’t quite as bad as what is actually going on, which is they continue to add to this. And, in fact, the new Fordo plant, they currently have enough, I think, to fuel the reactor. The new Fordo plant is to make even more 20 percent enriched. So this gets people very worried. And I should add, by the way, this is not just the United States that has these concerns. The sanctions have been imposed by the United Nations Security Council, and there is a global concern about the direction of events. Japan is not under sanctions, because there is a sense that they have played by the rules and that they have not undertaken these kinds of activities that create so much concern.

BEEMAN: Let’s go back to the original sanctions that were imposed by the United Nations in 2006. This is Resolution 1,696, which nobody ever references any longer. The reason is because it’s very clear in the sanctions that Iran is asked to stop enriching uranium as a confidence-building measure to demonstrate that they do not have a nuclear weapons program, that they don’t have a militarization program. Subsequent to 2006, we had the national intelligence estimate which said, in 2007, they do not have a military program, and every IAEA report after that said they do not have–they’ve not diverted nuclear materials for a military program. But no one goes back to the original resolution, upon which all other resolutions were based, and look at the reason why the resolution was enacted to begin with. If Iran does not have a military program–and it’s been declared again and again and again that it does not–then that resolution is moot and it makes absolutely no difference at all that the others were not adhered to, because they all reference this original resolution, 1,696.

SPECTOR: Well, I think what’s happened is the level of concern has been compounded over the years by the continued reluctance of Iran to divulge a lot of these details. And it’s not–as I say, it’s not the United States. It’s the French, the Chinese, the Russians. I mean, everyone is up in arms about this because of the suspicious behavior and the sort of stonewalling that we’re seeing by the Iranian government. So [crosstalk]

BEEMAN: If the Chinese and Russians have sold them arms, why aren’t they supporting this? The Chinese and the Russians are not supporting this at all.

SPECTOR: Well, excuse me, they signed the last round of sanctions that took place in 2010 in the summer, and they are complying with them, we hope. [crosstalk]

BEEMAN: They signed the last round of sanctions, which sanctioned about four people and two banks. It was such a weakened set of sanctions that they were quite willing to sign it. Then the Europeans enacted the more stringent sanctions that they wanted to enact, and the Chinese and Russians were furious because they had been undercut completely.

JAY: Let’s just jump a little bit to another issue here. Leonard, do you accept what I think most observers accept, that Israel does have nuclear weapons? And then, if you do accept that, does–what do you make that is being primarily driven by the United States and Israel, in terms of their own issues in terms of containing Iranian influence in the region?

SPECTOR: Well, I think there’s unquestionably a dimension of, you know, US and Israeli security concerns. It’s absolutely true. But there is another dimension as well, and that is that whereas Israel never joined the treaties and, you know, has operated in that environment–with some care, I’d say–Iran had pledged never to do this. And we’re seeing it, you know, in many respects reach a point where people do not trust that it is actually complying. It may be complying with the letter, but certainly the underlying purpose of not developing and moving toward the development of nuclear weapons, not behaving in a suspicious manner that gives the impression that you are doing this, certainly Iran has gone well beyond what’s really tolerable [crosstalk]

JAY: But do you accept that Israel is a nuclear weapons power?

SPECTOR: I’d say that’s been widely accepted internationally.

JAY: So in terms of where to go, if the objective is nonproliferation, if the objective is to have less nuclear weapons in the region, what do you think is an actually constructive next step? Well, let’s start with Bill. I mean, you know, we can kind of debate what’s going on and what isn’t going on now, and there’s more detail, I suppose, we could get into. At the very most, this report suggests there might be an ongoing weaponized program in Iran. But one way or the other, how do we get to a nonnuclear region? Bill, go ahead.

BEEMAN: I just want to repeat that if we think that Iran, on the basis of this evidence, is in violation of the Nuclear Non-Perforation Treaty because it has a military weaponizations program, so is Japan, so is Brazil, so are 19 other nations in the world who have exactly the same level or more advanced level of development of these ancillary kinds of technical materials. And Japan, as I said, has declared already that it wants to be capable of making a nuclear weapon. So if Japan–if Iran is in violation, so is Japan. And one of the things that is also important to understand is that the IAEA and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty are separate things. Many–a number of nations that do not belong to the–didn’t sign the NPT, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, are also members of the IAEA. So it is very, very weird to have the IAEA board with India and Pakistan sitting on it, who are not signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, sitting in judgment of Iran on this, when they have not signed the treaty themselves. And, of course, whether Israel is a city on the board or not is irrelevant, because Israel is first and foremost in the forefront of condemning Iran for its nuclear activities, while Israel will not declare its own nuclear weapons, and we all know that they have any number of nuclear weapons in Israel–it’s a completely open secret.

JAY: I mean, as we know, there’s a real debate going on in Israel now about whether to actually launch an attack or not. It’s hard to say how serious the intention is, but the rhetoric certainly seems to be serious. Leonard, does this report create some rationale for that?

SPECTOR: I think what you’re seeing here is an effort in this Israeli political environment and with the report to ratchet up the pressure on Iran. I mean, I think that’s where we are heading. It’s to see if with a bit more diplomatic pressure they will be brought to the negotiating table and we can strike some kind of a deal. I don’t think this a precursor to a military strike, and I’d say there is not any indication in the IAEA report that something is imminent or that there was complete success on the part of Iranians. So I think we have sort of more time to work the problem. And from the standpoint of trying to reach the stage where Iran decides that the better deal is to sort of slow down and try to reintegrate with the international community, I think the report will be helpful in that regard. But I don’t think it’s going to tip the balance about whether, you know, jets are going to fly over, you know, the nuclear facilities in Iran anytime soon. I think that’s pretty much a very distant prospect.

JAY: Bill, final word.

BEEMAN: The Israeli military leaders do not favor an attack on Iran. It is the Israeli political leaders, notably Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and also Ehud Barak, who changed his course on this. Barak said that Iran was no danger last year. Suddenly he’s saying Iran is a danger. And Prime Minister Netanyahu is the chief cheerleader for some kind of an action against Iran. All of his generals say that it would be a ridiculous and counterproductive move to have any kind of military action against Iran. I really do hope that the Israeli politicians will listen to their military leaders, because in my opinion they’re quite correct.

JAY: Well, thank you both for joining us. And to our viewers, if you have further questions about all of this, please write in, and we will also send your questions on to our two guests, and I hope they’ll participate and respond. And thank you both for joining us, Bill and Leonard. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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William Beeman is a professor at the University of Minnesota and the author of, The “Great Satan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other. He will be traveling to the Iran later this month to meet with officials there. He also does consulting for the U.S. State Department.


Leonard S. Spector is Deputy Director of the Monterey Institute of International Studies' James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Previously, he served as an Assistant Deputy Administrator for Arms Control and Nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration.