Ahead of Iran talks, slew of reports should be taken with grain of salt
Experts are divided on the whether the 'exclusive' details and 'revealing' diagrams published in recent days do indeed tell us something we did not already know.
The slew of new reports and "exclusive" details on Iran's nuclear weapons program do not enhance in any significant what we already know on the subject, nor do they present the definitive "smoking gun" needed to convince whoever still needs convincing, that Iran is actually developing a nuclear bomb, not just researching the various scientific fields necessary for such a product.
Their provenance is not totally clear either, but the motives behind the specific timing of publications – which represent a serious concern in a number of quarters – are the possibility that the negotiators on behalf of the five permanent Security Council members and Germany will cut a fast deal with Iran over uranium enrichment at the Baghdad talks next week. And in doing so, they would disregard the other aspects of Iran's nuclear research that continue apace.
On Sunday, the Associated Press published a drawing of an explosives containment chamber allegedly built in the Parchin base near Tehran. This is of course interesting and if indeed based on intelligence obtained by one of the member-nations of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - "that is severely critical of Iran's assertions that its nuclear activities are peaceful and asserts they are a springboard for making atomic arms" - could serve as solid proof of Iran's intentions to carry out small-scale nuclear tests.
But all there is so far is a drawing, without any additional verification, and besides - the IAEA and western intelligence agencies have been convinced for a while that Parchin is the hub of Iranian weapons testing, so there is nothing very new about this. Just last week, there were reports of Iranian clean-up attempts of traces the Parchin explosives chamber.
Meanwhile, on Friday, German newspaper Die Welt published a report, prepared apparently by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (the political wing of the MEK – the People Mujahedin of Iran), which claims Iran has stepped up its nuclear development and contained details the command structure of its nuclear program - including the names of sixty scientists, engineers and officials involved with the various related projects. While there are some new details and names in the report, essentially it is similar to the details which appeared the last two IAEA reports. Once again, there is no way to verify the specific assertion that work has been stepped up in recent months.
Experts do not agree on the value of the NCRI report. Emanuele Ottolenghi, senior fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, seemed to think that it had the potential of a "game changer" since it could force the international community to face the fact that Iran is seriously pursuing a nuclear weapon, though he said to Die Welt that "for anyone who is familiar with the long history of Iran's secrecy and deception, these explosive revelations are actually no surprise."
On the other hand, David Albright, head of Institute for Science and International Security, said he was "extremely skeptical of whatever they (the NCRI) say." He has a point, NCRI are a front for an organization trying to fight the Iranian regime from within, desperately lobbying to change their definition of a terror istorganization by the U.S. administration. They have a clear interest in convincing the international community that Tehran is building a bomb.
According to Albright, based on the available reliable evidence, Iran "doesn't have a structured, coherent, active nuclear weapons program ... Most of their effort is really focused on developing the capability to make nuclear explosive material... The real bottleneck in their program is the lack of any ability to make weapons-grade uranium quickly."
Albright is playing it safe, while other experts are certain that there is sufficient proof of activity that is clearly focused on producing a nuclear weapon, even if the final "breakout" decision is yet to be made on going all the way. As Anthony Cordesman wrote last week in Rethinking Our Approach to Iran's Search for the Bomb:
"Iran has pursued every major area of nuclear weapons development, has carried out programs that have already given it every component of a weapon except fissile material, and there is strong evidence that it has carried out programs to integrate a nuclear warhead on to its missiles."