Memo may add to growing evidence of Iran's nuclear arms expertise

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By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Long denied access to foreign technology because of sanctions, Iran has nevertheless learned how to make virtually every bolt and switch in a nuclear weapon, according to assessments by U.N. nuclear officials in internal documents, as well as Western and Middle Eastern intelligence analysts and weapons experts.

Iran's growing technical prowess has been highlighted by a secret memo, leaked to a British newspaper over the weekend, that purportedly shows Iranian scientists conducting tests on a neutron initiator, one of the final technical hurdles in making a nuclear warhead, weapons analysts said Monday.

There was no way to establish the authenticity or original source of the document, which is being assessed by officials at Western intelligence agencies and the U.N. nuclear watchdog. Even so, former intelligence officials and arms-control experts said that if it is a genuine Iranian government document, it is a worrisome indication of an ongoing, clandestine effort to acquire nuclear weapons capability. Iran has steadfastly denied seeking nuclear arms.

The accumulating evidence of Iran's nuclear momentum emerges as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton conceded Monday that the White House has little to show for nearly a year of diplomatic engagement with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. "I don't think anyone can doubt that our outreach has produced very little in terms of any kind of a positive response from the Iranians," Clinton told reporters.

The internal documents and expert analysis point to a growing Iranian mastery of disciplines including uranium metallurgy, heavy-water production and the high-precision explosives used to trigger a nuclear detonation. Although U.S. spy agencies have thought that Iran's leaders halted research on nuclear warheads in 2003, European and Middle Eastern analysts point to evidence that Iran has continued to hone its skills, as recently as 2007.

"They're slowly weaning themselves off a reliance on importing critical technologies, in favor of being able to manufacture critical components themselves," said Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a retired CIA officer and former Energy Department intelligence director. "Achieving an indigenous production capacity is right up there with mastering uranium enrichment."

Iranian scientists must still rely on outsiders for certain components and materials, such as high-strength metals used in making advanced centrifuges and longer-range missiles. But the remaining technical gaps are shrinking, according to an internal memo drafted by top Iran analysts at the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog. Excerpts from the never-published draft were leaked to a nonprofit group in October.

"Iran has sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable implosion nuclear device," the memo states.

Iran insists that it opposes nuclear weapons, and points out that the technologies that have raised suspicions in the West have peaceful uses. But Iranian officials do not conceal their pride in their ability to develop advanced technology in spite of U.N. sanctions. Ali Soltanieh, Iran's representative to the IAEA in Vienna, said in an interview with The Washington Post this fall that as Iranian engineers conquer the nuclear sciences, they will "jump hundreds of meters up in a short time," pulling even with their counterparts from the West.

"We should thank the Americans for sanctions, because they have united our country," he said.

The newly leaked Iranian memo, first published by the Times of London, purports to show a four-year plan by Iran to develop and test a neutron initiator of a type that weapons experts say has no known civilian use. The document is neither signed nor dated, but the Times, citing unnamed foreign intelligence officials, said it was written in 2007, four years after U.S. intelligence officials think Iran halted research on nuclear warheads.

The creased, two-page document in Farsi script asserts that Iran's capabilities in the field of neutron initiators already "are reasonably good." It calls on scientific teams to build on previous secret research while also maintaining a high degree of security.


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