What We Know About Iran's Nuclear Program

Guests

Mike Shuster, foreign correspondent, NPR
Seyed Hossein Mousavian, former Iranian nuclear negotiator

A report from the International Atomic Energy Agency shows that Iran has continued its efforts to enrich uranium. Ever-tightening sanctions appear to be putting a strain on the Iranian economy, but have done little to deter Iran's enrichment program.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. There are new questions about Iran's nuclear program after a report from the IAEA late last month. The U.N. inspectors expressed frustration with Iran's tactics. At one site, Parchin, they worry that what may be critical evidence is being destroyed. At another, Fordow, they found that Iran has doubled the number of centrifuges available to enrich uranium, and now there's a report that Iran ran computer models of atomic warhead explosions.

That comes in the context of open debates in Washington and in Tel Aviv about how much time is left for sanctions and diplomacy to work and how long before Iran's program will be invulnerable to attack. Iran, of course, continues to insist its program is both entirely peaceful and entirely within its rights.

If you have questions about what we do and don't know about Iran's nuclear program, give us a call, 800-989-8255 is the phone number, email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, NPR correspondent Richard Harris on the melting ice cap, and we'll remember 9/11. But first, NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster joins us from the studios at NPR West in Culver City, California. Mike, always good to have you on the program.

MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And that IAEA report showing what some long suspected, raising red flags for many in the diplomatic community.

SHUSTER: That's right, and it's getting more and more complicated all the time. The inspectors are there every few weeks in Iran looking at a number of different sites. They are particularly focusing on this uranium enrichment facility in a mountain near a town called Fordow and where Iran seems to be concentrating its production of what is known as 20-percent enriched uranium.

They are expanding the number of centrifuges that are dedicated to this purpose, but according to the IAEA report, they're not making more 20-percent enriched uranium. They're continuing at somewhat of a flat pace to make 20-percent enriched uranium. And they've turned some of that into fuel plates for a reactor in Tehran.

So it's not entirely clear just how much they may have made of this more enriched uranium, it's not known as highly enriched uranium, but it is a number of steps closer to creating bomb fuel that could be used in a nuclear bomb.

CONAN: And that's the critical factor, 20-percent uranium is a step, big step closer to, what, 90-percent or so that's weapons grade.

SHUSTER: That's right, that's what all of the experts say about the nuclear fuel cycle, that 20-percent gets Iran much closer to 90-percent than does under five-percent enriched uranium, which is what they have been making for years.

CONAN: Now if you're going to make a nuclear weapon, and again Iran denies that it's interested in nuclear weapons, but in any case, if you're going to make one, figuring out how to detonate it is one of the most difficult tasks. The technique that's used is lenses of high explosive that are put around a core of highly enriched uranium, and they compress it, and it then achieves critical mass. But designing that warhead is very difficult.

SHUSTER: Well, that's right. The bomb is known as an implosion bomb, that kind of bomb is known as an implosion bomb, and it takes a great deal of work with high explosives to be able to put a core of uranium metal under pressure so that it reaches criticality and initiates an atomic explosion.

And there is suspicion on the part of the IAEA and on the part of a number of intelligence communities around the world, including our own in the United States, there's suspicion that Iran has carried out, over the years, experiments and studies in a lot of the various technologies that would go into the creation of an atomic bomb, not just focusing on enriching uranium but all these other aspects, as well.

And that's where this facility at Parchin comes in. Parchin is a military base southeast of Tehran, not too far, and the IAEA, the CIA, the Mossad and others have been watching via satellite photography for a number of years what the Iranians have been doing there, and there are suspicions that they carried out these high explosives tests inside some kind of a containment building.

And over the last six months or so, there's been evidence that they're really changing the landscape of this place, tearing down buildings, destroying roads, pulling up roads, planting new landscaping of one kind or another to change what it really looks like.

And now recently there are satellite photos that show that some kind of plastic sheeting has been put over one of the buildings there. The head of the IAEA really wants his inspectors to go there and take a look at what's going on, and just this week he expressed frustration that Iran has been hampering the IAEA efforts and that they've been, in their talks, they've been going around in circles, he said.

CONAN: Well, the Iranians say nuclear inspectors can inspect nuclear sites. This is not a nuclear site, it's a military base. We don't want you in there spying I think is the word they would use.

SHUSTER: Well, and they're also saying that the intelligence and evidence that you're basing your request on has been forged; we don't agree with it. But it really does feel like the IAEA and its director Yukiya Amano are really hitting this hard now. They are coming at this issue much harder and much more firmly than they have in the past.

So there is some - I think that that's some indication that they really do have some critical intelligence about the Parchin facility, and they really want to see what's inside.

CONAN: And then the computer modeling, you don't just do experiments in a vacuum, you do them in parallel with various computer models. You do them to test various theses and see how things come out. If they're running computer models, if they've been doing it within the past three years or so, that is after the time they said that there had been no evidence of their working on a warhead design.

There's a report out today that several intelligence agencies, as you noted, are - including the United States and Israel and others, though, have evidence that they've presented to the IAEA that Iran's been running computer models of test explosions.

SHUSTER: That's right. This has been reported by the Associated Press today and distributed to unidentified diplomats. So I'm sure that there is much more to the story, this particular story, to come out. But it's important that it's coming out this week because the IAEA is holding its periodic meeting of its board of governors. These are 35 nations that belong to the IAEA, that run the IAEA's affairs.

And there's a lot of talk that the United States, the other members of the - the other permanent members of the Security Council, including - and Germany, as well, including France and Britain and China and Russia, are working on some kind of a resolution for this meeting to put even greater diplomatic pressure on Iran.

And it could very well be that it is information about computer modeling of atomic explosions that's behind this effort to pass another resolution at the IAEA's board of governors.

CONAN: What do we know, and what don't we know about Iran's nuclear program? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And we'll begin with John(ph), John's on the line with us from Atlantic City in New Jersey.

JOHN: Hey, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JOHN: Whenever I hear these stories of international violations, the press never tells us where do they get the equipment that they need. I mean, where did these new centrifuges come from? Are they smuggled through a bunch of countries, or are they coming from Russia or China? Who's selling them the equipment they need to violate international law? Without that equipment, they wouldn't be able to do it. I'll take the answer off the air.

CONAN: OK, thanks. Mike, do you know?

SHUSTER: Yes, the centrifuges that Iran initially got came from Pakistan, and they were used - early versions of a centrifuge that Pakistan was marketing to a number of different buyers around the world, including the Iranians. And the Iranians have primarily used - they call it the P1 or the IR1 centrifuge.

They have been able to make additional ones. They got some from Pakistan initially, and they've been able to reverse-engineer it and make their own. However, these are not sophisticated centrifuges, according to the nuclear physicists who know about these things. There are new versions that can be much more efficient.

The Iranians have claimed that they are building much more advanced centrifuges, but so far there's no evidence that they've actually done that or installed them at their uranium enrichment facilities. We know this because the IAEA inspectors go there every month and are keeping track of what kind of centrifuges there are.

So the Iranians have shown some expertise in being able to duplicate the earlier version of the centrifuge but have run into serious trouble and have not been able to perfect the more advanced centrifuge. And experts say if they were, they would be able to enrich uranium much, much faster, but so far they're still at the slower pace from when they started, which we're talking almost 10 years ago now.

CONAN: What about specialized materials that are used in those centrifuges like maraging steel? Are the Iranians making that themselves, as well?

SHUSTER: It's not clear, Neal, whether the Iranians are making it, but there is a clandestine procurement effort on the part of Iran and all around the world. And sometimes intelligence agencies get wind of this, sometimes they don't, but the Iranians have been able to procure some of these key, unusual technologies that go into building centrifuges.

It's my sense that the intelligence effort to follow the procurement stream has been able to get in the way sometimes, slow it down. It's not an easy way to build nuclear weapons or nuclear, peaceful civil nuclear program, but it's what the Iranians have been reduced to.

CONAN: Seyed Hossein Mousavian is a former Iranian nuclear negotiator, currently a research scholar at the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton and joins us by phone from there in New Jersey. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION today. And we're trying to get in touch with Seyed Hossein Mousavian. Are you on the line?

SEYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: Yes.

CONAN: Oh hi.

MOUSAVIAN: Yes, good afternoon.

CONAN: Thank you very much for being with us again. You represented, as we mentioned, the Iranian government in previous negotiations, before you came to this country. Iran maintains its nuclear ambitions are entirely peaceful, yet those satellite images Mike Shuster was talking about appear to show a cover-up at the site in Parchin. What is behind that, do you think, in their refusal to let the inspectors see that?

MOUSAVIAN: Actually, what Iran maintains, claiming the Iranian nuclear program is peaceful, this is practically something which frequently have been confirmed by all reports issued by the IAEA since 2003 because in every report of the IAEA, you would see they clearly state that there is no evidence of diversion toward military purposes.

And also the U.S. intelligence confirms that Iran does not have nuclear weapon, Iran has not decided to make nuclear weapon, and Iran has not diverted to nuclear weapon. This is the facts, which it is not only Iran which claims, the international community also confirms.

But the dispute is the IAEA...

CONAN: And...

MOUSAVIAN: Have some suspicions of both possible military dimension...

CONAN: And Mr. Mousavian, forgive me, but we're running out of time in this segment. We'll pick this up as soon as we return from a short break. Forgive me, I asked the question too late in the segment, and we'll be back with him in just a moment. Stay with us. This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency was asked yesterday why there's been no progress on getting access to one suspicious Iranian military site. He responded: You'd better ask Iran.

That exchange sums up the current state of relations between Tehran, which continues to insist its nuclear program is strictly for peaceful purposes, and the United States and other countries that suspect Iran's working towards the technology needed to produce a nuclear bomb.

If you have questions about what we know and what we don't, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Mike Shuster, NPR foreign correspondent; and Seyed Hossein Mousavian, who's a former nuclear negotiator for the Iranian government, now a research scholar at the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton. And I'm sorry I interrupted you in the middle of an answer, but can we get to the site at Parchin? What's behind - is the Iranian government - what's behind...

MOUSAVIAN: The reason is very clear. Currently, Iran is committed to give inspection access for inspections on the safeguard agreement. Iran is member of safeguard; Iran is not member of additional protocol. Iran is not member of subsidiary arrangement Code 3.1. Not only Iran, tens of other countries, they are not member of additional protocol, and they are not member of subsidiary arrangement Code 3.1.

The inspections, like Parchin, which you mentioned, the IAEA is requiring, this means Iran should implement. Iran should be member of additional protocol and should accept the implementation of additional protocol. This is not a mandatory - I mean, the countries, they are not forced to accept international protocols.

As I said, about 60, 70 other countries also they are not member of additional protocol. Nevertheless, Iran - what Iran says is exactly this. Iran is prepared to implement additional protocol. Iran is prepared to implement subsidiary arrangement Code 3.1. Iran is prepared to give access to the IAEA to visit military sites, Parchin. Even Iran is prepared to give access to any other military sites which the IAEA asking.

But in return, Iran is asking for the international community, for the P5 Plus One, five permanent member of Supreme Security - of...

CONAN: United Nations Security Council.

MOUSAVIAN: United Nations Security Council, plus Germany, to recognize the legitimate rights of Iran on the non-proliferation treaty, NPT. Iran is asking reciprocation. If Iran is supposed to be committed to additional protocol, which is something very, very important, and would give the maximum level of transparency, Iran is not rejecting the idea.

And the other fact is that the IAEA and Iran, already they have agreed on the draft for technical cooperation between the IAEA and Iran, which would enable the IAEA to investigate all ambiguities and technical questions they have. This draft of agreement, which already is agreed, would commit Iran to practically - to implement additional protocol and even to give access to IAEA beyond additional protocol.

But the issue is not technical. This is a very, very important issue. The Iranian nuclear crisis is not just technical. It's just a political issue. The technical agreement already is drafted, is agreed, and Iran is prepared to implement it immediately. Iran is asking, on the political side of the issue, it means P5 Plus One, as reciprocation, to recognize the rights of Iran and for gradual lifting of sanctions.

I mean, as much as Iran cooperates with the IAEA, as much as Iran gives more access and transparency, as much as the technical ambiguities are removed, then at the same time, in parallel, in different steps, gradually, the international community should remove the sanctions.

CONAN: And Mike Shuster, that brings us back, as Seyed Hossein Mousavian points out, to the political realm. Those talks between the P5 Plus One, the five members of the - permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, and Iran, restarted over the summer and quickly hit the shoals, and they have not restarted come the fall.

SHUSTER: No, they haven't, and these are - these are - just so our listeners understand, these are two sets of negotiations with Iran running parallel. One, the IAEA plus Iran, focusing on Parchin and other possible questions about the militarization of their nuclear program, that's one line of negotiation. And there's a wider line of negotiation involving the United States, the other members of the U.N. Security Council, including Russia and China, very important, plus Germany.

And there has been - a lot is going on, I think, with these negotiations behind the scenes, Neal, but outside of that, when you're not privy to what's being said behind closed doors, it looks like it's at a stalemate. It looks like it's frozen. I think that that may well be true superficially.

But I think that the strategy of the P5 Plus One is to allow the sanctions, much tougher banking and oil embargo sanctions that went into effect at the beginning of July, to put pressure on Iran, and I think Iran also continues to enrich uranium, at a relatively slow pace, but still build their program. And they see that as putting pressure on the other side.

And I think that this very much suits President Obama because he's in a re-election campaign, and I think that the Obama administration at this point would like to see the pressure build from the economic sanctions, particularly let that happen over the course of the next two months before November 6.

CONAN: And in the meantime, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu says he wants the president of the United States to draw a red line, to say if Iran does these certain things, it will trigger an attack by the United States. The Obama administration refuses to do that, at least - refuses to do that, I think is safe to say. And it was just the other day that Prime Minister Netanyahu said those who will not put a red line in front of Iran cannot put a red light in front of Israel, i.e., threatening, saying time is running out, soon we will not have the ability to put an end to or delay Iran's nuclear program through a military attack - tick, tick, tick.

In the meantime, those sanctions continue to tighten. And Seyed Hossein Mousavian, the sanctions, are they having an effect, a real effect in Tehran? One group of Americans say it's tightening, it's very serious. Others say it's not changing anybody's mind.

MOUSAVIAN: No, to be realistic, the sanctions have effect. But first, the sanctions are harming the ordinary people, the nation. Second, definitely sanctions, even more crippling sanctions, would not compel Iran to accept international demand on suspension of its nuclear enrichment activities, because Iran believes enrichment is legitimate right of every member of NPT, like 14 other countries, which they have already enrichment, including the U.S., Europeans, Brazil, Japan.

They are all doing enrichment. Therefore the rights Iran would not be ready to give - to give up the rights just under the pressures and sanctions. But the red line already is clear. This is a red line stated by President Obama. The red line is nuclear bomb. This is the red line which Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, also has put not only for Iran, he believes this should be red line for every other country.

He gave his religious fatwa that all weapons of mass destruction religiously are forbidden. Therefore about the red line, there is agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader. Here is clear. But Netanyahu's statement's surprising me because Israel already has broken the international red line, and they possess nuclear weapon. Iran does not possess nuclear weapon. I mean...

CONAN: Israel is not a signatory to the nuclear...

MOUSAVIAN: Is not member of NPT, which possess hundreds of nuclear weapons. They want to put a red line for another country, which is member of NPT, and does not have nuclear weapon. I mean, this is something really shocking.

CONAN: Mike Shuster, as this argument goes on, the importance of Russia and China cannot be overstated, as you mentioned before. Here's an email from Paul in Durham, North Carolina: Clearly, Russia and China have significant influence with the Iranian government. Why aren't they concerned with a nuclear Iran? How did these two countries benefit from a nuclear Iran, if indeed that's what happens?

SHUSTER: Well, in fact, Russia and China have signed on to this so-called P5-plus-1 process, and every position that the United States and Europe has taken within this group in these talks with Iran have been backed by both China and Russia. Neither China nor Russia want more sanctions imposed on Iran, and there's talk right now - both in Vienna, where the IAEA is meeting and elsewhere - that there could be another round of additional pressure from sanctions.

It's not clear to me what that would be because the current sanctions and oil embargo are quite tough. But both Russia and China have been moved by the United States and the Europeans to stick with this process and continue to put pressure on Iran. I think - and I think that that has been understood significantly in Tehran as well.

CONAN: And the sanctions, is there a point in which people believe the Iranian government will be forced to change its mind and act?

SHUSTER: Well, that's the whole point, and people shouldn't forget about this. The point of the sanctions is not simply to punish Iran. The point of the sanctions is to change Iranian behavior with regard to its nuclear activities. And one of the first things that might occur as far as the United States and Europe are concerned is that Iran would agree to suspend uranium enrichment open-endedly. And as Mr. Mousavian said, the Iranians would expect that they would get something in return, specifically the lifting of sanctions.

We're not anywhere near that. The ultimate goal is quite clear, I think, from both sides. But we're not anywhere near that. And so in the meantime, both sides continue their strategies to see who can outlast the other.

CONAN: We're talking about Iran's nuclear program, what we know about it and what we don't. Our guests are Mike Shuster, NPR foreign correspondent, and Seyed Hossein Mousavian, former Iranian nuclear negotiator, now research scholar at the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University, author of "The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: A Memoir." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And here's a caller in San Antonio. Al is on the line.

AL: Both the president, Ahmadinejad, and Khamenei have said unequivocally they want Israel to be wiped off the face of the Earth. That kind of a statement cannot - we have to take it at its face value. How can we allow such a country to develop their nuclear prowess?

CONAN: Well, that's something that a lot of Americans find very difficult to understand, Mr. Mousavian.

MOUSAVIAN: Yes, of course. And I recognize the problem. First of all, Ahmadinejad stated that that his statement has been misinterpreted. Second, just two, three months ago, deputy prime minister of Israel officially stated that Israel knew from the beginning that Ahmadinejad has not said Israel should be wiped off the map, and this was misinterpretation. Nevertheless, Ayatollah Khamenei's statement is - position is very clear, which he even stated 10 days ago in front of delegations from 118 countries in Tehran. He said on Palestinian and Israeli conflict, we believe there should be democratic election with the participation of Palestinians, Muslims, Jewish and Christian.

And they would decide about their destiny. That's it. This is one big issue which I think the American public's opinion should be aware of. And the second issue is that the last 30 years this has been Israel which continuously has threatened Iran by military strike. If Israel is emphasizing, reiterating, pushing the United States, international community for military strike against Iran, they also should be prepared for the same reciprocation from Tehran.

Israel should stop at military threat and, of course, Iranian based on international rule, regulation and United Nation security - United Nation charter also - they did - they should not make public statements against the existence of other members of United Nation, which this is exactly what Iranian leaders said. He said our position is democratic election. That's it. Muslims, Christians, Jewish, they should go democratically to decide about their future.

CONAN: Mike Shuster, there are other ways to interpret all of those remarks that are not so settling to Israel, the United States and the rest of the international community.

SHUSTER: No. I think that there has been not just a single statement on the part of President Ahmadinejad some years ago when he was first elected president, but there have been over the years a number of different formulations from both Ahmadinejad and from Ayatollah Khamenei and others and it just feels like they fail to understand that their comments have become a real concrete factor in this ongoing controversy and this ongoing struggle about Iran's nuclear weapons.

So whether that initial statement by President Ahmadinejad was mistranslated or misinterpreted, there have been many statements since that time which have mirrored or echoed some of the earlier utterings from Iranian leaders, and it's something that that I think everybody outside of Iran understands has to be taken seriously. And I think many people in Iran understand that as well.

CONAN: In the meantime, the suspicion continues that despite contacts with the IAEA and the stalled diplomatic agreements that time is running out, if not before the election, that within the next six months to a year, there will be a time for a decision unless transparency is achieved. Seyed Hossein Mousavian, thank you very much for your time today. Again, nice to speak with you.

MOUSAVIAN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And, NPR's Mike Shuster, always good to have you on the program.

SHUSTER: You bet, Neal.

CONAN: Coming up, the record-breaking ice melt in the Arctic this year. NPR's Richard Harris will join us. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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