AP/GeoEye Satellite Image, IHS Jane's Analysis
This Sept. 26, 2009, satellite image shows a facility under construction inside a mountain located about 20 miles north northeast of Qom, Iran. It's believed Iran plans to start enriching uranium at the previously secret facility in 2011. The recent revelation of a document purportedly from Iran about a nuclear trigger device further fuels suspicions about the country's nuclear ambitions.
This Sept. 26, 2009, satellite image shows a facility under construction inside a mountain located about 20 miles north northeast of Qom, Iran. It's believed Iran plans to start enriching uranium at the previously secret facility in 2011. The recent revelation of a document purportedly from Iran about a nuclear trigger device further fuels suspicions about the country's nuclear ambitions. AP/GeoEye Satellite Image, IHS Jane's Analysis
Intelligence agencies around the world are trying to determine whether a puzzling document purported to come from Iran is authentic.
Its legitimacy is important because the document lays out a series of experiments with technology that could be used to trigger nuclear explosions.
If it isn't a forgery, some experts believe it could be proof Iran is working on developing a nuclear weapon.
But the document — which first became public earlier this week — raises questions that it doesn't answer.
The document concerns a device called a neutron initiator, which is a component of a nuclear warhead. It generates a short burst of neutrons that ignites the chain reaction that leads to a nuclear explosion.
There are different kinds of neutron initiators in nuclear weapons. The one described in the document is associated with a compound called uranium deuteride.
The document, which appears to come from an office in Iran's Defense Ministry, lays out a series of experiments designed to test such a device. It also discusses how many people would be necessary to perform such experiments, and it hints at precautions that might be needed to keep the experiments secret.
The document is titled "Outlook for special neutron-related activities over the next four years."
It was first disclosed by The Times of London earlier this week, and it was posted on the Web site of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, D.C.
David Albright, head of the group, points out an obvious problem — the document has no date.
"It's a little hard to pin down how long this was envisioned to last. But if you take the title literally, then it was a four-year program to master the development of this kind of device, that when compressed by high explosives would give off a small spurt of neutrons," he says.
So it's not known whether this is a proposal for future experiments, or whether these experiments are now under way. Albright says he was told the source of the document came from inside Iran and the source says the document was written in 2007.
If that is true, it could be evidence that Iran is engaged now in work on components of a nuclear weapon — in contrast to the most recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. That NIE in late 2007 concluded that Iran stopped work on nuclear weapons a few years earlier.
The CIA is believed to be studying the document. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked about it this week at the State Department. She declined to discuss the document but did point to other worrying developments in Iran.
"The concerns that we have regarding Iranian intentions with their nuclear program have been heightened already in the last months with the disclosure of the concealed facility at Qom. Certainly the recent announcement by their Parliament that they intend to build 10 or 20 more nuclear plants should raise deep concerns among all people," Clinton said.
The existence of the facility near Qom — a secret uranium facility — was revealed in September. It is just one of several recent developments that raise new suspicions about Iran's nuclear intentions.
Analysts are leery of giving too much credence to the neutron initiator document, especially after the intelligence fiasco on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which did involve some forged documents.
But Ivan Oelrich, an expert on nuclear weapons with the Federation of American Scientists, says the document is consistent with the other recent disclosures about Iran's hidden nuclear activities.
"Whether they intend to build a nuclear weapon or not, they certainly are investing a great deal of effort in maintaining that option into the future. If this document is real and it's recent, then that would indicate that they're aggressively exploring some of the components that would be needed to build a weapon and it looks more and more suspicious for Iran," Oelrich says.
Iran's government continues to maintain that its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only. But analysts say a neutron initiator is good for only one thing — to spark a nuclear explosion.