Intelligence provided to U.N. nuclear officials shows that Iran's government has mastered the critical steps needed to build a nuclear weapon, receiving assistance from foreign scientists to overcome key technical hurdles, according to Western diplomats and nuclear experts briefed on the findings, The Washingtonpost reported.
Documents and other records provide new details on the role played by a former Soviet weapons scientist who allegedly tutored Iranians over several years on building high-precision detonators of the kind used to trigger a nuclear chain reaction, the officials and experts said. Crucial technology linked to experts in Pakistan and North Korea also helped propel Iran to the threshold of nuclear capability, they added.
The officials, citing secret intelligence provided over several years to the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the records reinforce concerns that Iran continued to conduct weapons-related research after 2003 - when, U.S. intelligence agencies believe, Iranian leaders halted such experiments in response to international and domestic pressures.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog is due to release a report this week laying out its findings on Iran's efforts to obtain sensitive nuclear technology. Fears that Iran could quickly build an atomic bomb if it chooses to has fueled anti-Iran rhetoric and new threats of military strikes. Some U.S. arms-control groups have cautioned against what they fear could be an overreaction to the report, saying there is still time to persuade Iran to change its behavior.
Iranian officials expressed indifference about the report.
"Let them publish and see what happens," said Iran's foreign minister and former nuclear top official, Ali Akbar Salehi, the semiofficial Mehr News Agency reported Saturday.
Salehi said that the controversy over Iran's nuclear program is "100 percent political" and that the IAEA is "under pressure from foreign powers."
'Never really stopped'
Although the IAEA has chided Iran for years to come clean about a number of apparently weapons-related scientific projects, the new disclosures fill out the contours of an apparent secret research program that was more ambitious, more organized and more successful than commonly suspected. Beginning early in the last decade and apparently resuming - though at a more measured pace - after a pause in 2003, Iranian scientists worked concurrently across multiple disciplines to obtain key skills needed to make and test a nuclear weapon that could fit inside the country's long-range missiles, said David Albright, a former IAEA official who has reviewed the intelligence files.
"The program never really stopped," said Albright, president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. The institute performs widely respected independent analyses of nuclear programs in countries around the world, often drawing from IAEA data.
"After 2003, money was made available for research in areas that sure look like nuclear weapons work but were hidden within civilian institutions," Albright said.