Rouhani Stopped Iran’s Weaponization Research

This is a really interesting op-ed in the NYT by Francois Nicoullaud, who was France’s ambassador to Iran from 2001-2005.  Nicoullaud claims that Rouhani was the prime mover in Iran’s termination of its nuclear weapons research program in 2003.  You can read about the data points on which he bases this claim.  I’m not sure what else to say about this – there are a number of possible implications. One being the implication that Iran had a nuclear weapons research program prior to 2003. This is of course something that Western intelligence agencies have asserted, but that has never been confirmed.  Another implication being that if this claim is true, and Rouhani really was behind the cessation of this research program, it would be a feather in his cap in terms of his credibility to negotiate on the nuclear issue now, and hopefully to be able to bring Khamenei along to an agreement if necessary.


23 Comments on “Rouhani Stopped Iran’s Weaponization Research”

  1. yousaf says:

    I think we should be bit careful in reading Francois Nicoullaud’s piece where he states “weaponization” pre-2003. Not sure if this is what he intended or it was edited down. I don’t (obviously) know what Iranians were doing pre-2003 but it seems to me they may have been researching dual-use technologies and computations that may have relevant to weaponization should they have been called upon to weaponize in the future.

    i.e. I think what people term “weaponization” pre-2003 was perhaps only “looking into the technologies and computations relevant to weaponization”, and not actual “weaponization”.

    Of course, this is just my hunch based on the fact that they had little ability to actually weaponize back them — why? Because that ability to weaponize is still not close 10 years later. If they would have a hard time weaponizing right now, they likely did not have the needed material and ability 10 years ago.

    I think we ought to be careful about loose semantics: “weaponization” is not the same as “researching weaponization”.

    I am glad you got it right in your post: “the implication that Iran had a nuclear weapons research program…”

    Importantly, “researching weaponization” is not against the CSA (so long as fissile materials are not diverted) and only against the spirit of the NPT.

    • Dan Joyner says:

      Good point on terminology. I did use those words quite deliberately. And I agree with your points about the CSA/NPT.

    • Nick says:

      Your argument for lack of any serious weaponization (and only dual use activity on modeling and etc..) pre-2003 has been mentioned by others as well.

      I recall hearing one of the Russian officials mentioned it a few years back; perhaps it was the current foreign minister Lavrov.

      I also think Sahimi had opined on this before, that there is no available evidence for pre-2003 weaponization activity, except for that dreaded laptop that was never fully proved to be genuine.

      • yousaf says:

        Thanks Nick — would be good to track down that material.

        I strongly doubt that the Iranians could be manufacturing nuclear bombs without the requisite fissile material, 10 years ago.

    • Johnboy says:

      That rather hinges upon the definition of the word “manufacture”, does it not?

      After all, signing the NPT means pledging “not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices; and not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”

      So you can’t “manufacture” a nuke, or can you go out and attempt to “acquire” nukes.

      Equally, you also can’t go out and “seek” to look at someone else’s cheat-sheet on how to manufacture a nuke.

      Q: Does that leave a hole in the middle for researching an indigenous cheat-sheet?
      A: To my way of thinking, yes, it does.

      And, furthermore, I don’t doubt that there are any number of countries around the world who have enlisted armies of their own PhD students for that purpose, resulting in filing cabinets bulging with top-secret documents entitled “An Idiot’s Guide To D.I.Y. Nukes”.

      • Cyrus says:

        The old saying is that under the the NPT as long as you’re “one screw turn away” from nukes then you’re OK. In fact nothing in the NPT prohibits “weaponization studies” as long as you 1- declare your nuclear material, and 2- allow inspectors to ensure that none of the declared nuclear material has not been diverted to non-peaceful uses.

  2. S. Batsanov says:

    Amb. Nicoullaud’s article in New York Times appears to me very credible and useful – in the sense that it helps understand correctly the past and the present.

  3. masoud says:

    Rowhani was the secretary general of Iran’s national security council, for most of the time the (falsely)alleged weaponisation program was in existence.

    Dumbass liberals who are crediting him today for ‘ending’ this non-existent program are ready to smear him for presiding over that same illusory program at the drop of a hat, and will happily render such services the minute the US administration realises Rohani is no position to offer up Iran’s sovereignty to the West on a silver platter.

    • yousaf says:

      Masoud, what is your interpretation of the alleged pre-2003 weaponization [research] program? Outside of laptop-of-death…do you think it is just trumped up charges based on computations etc.? Any ref’s?

  4. yousaf says:

    Here is some info from the relevant time:

    “Much of the intelligence on Iran’s nuclear facilities provided to UN inspectors by American spy agencies has turned out to be unfounded, according to diplomatic sources in Vienna.
    The claims, reminiscent of the intelligence fiasco surrounding the Iraq war, coincided with a sharp increase in international tension as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran was defying a UN security council ultimatum to freeze its nuclear programme.”


    “At the heart of the debate are accusations, spearheaded by the US, that Iran is secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons. However, most of the tip-offs about supposed secret weapons sites provided by the CIA and other US intelligence agencies have led to dead ends when investigated by IAEA inspectors, according to informed sources in Vienna.

    “Most of it has turned out to be incorrect,” said a diplomat at the IAEA with detailed knowledge of the agency’s investigations. “They gave us a paper with a list of sites. [The inspectors] did some follow-up, they went to some military sites, but there was no sign of [banned nuclear] activities.”

    “Now [the inspectors] don’t go in blindly. Only if it passes a credibility test.”

    One particularly contentious issue concerned records of plans to build a nuclear warhead, which the CIA said it found on a stolen laptop computer supplied by an informant inside Iran. In July 2005, US intelligence officials showed printed versions of the material to IAEA officials, who judged it to be sufficiently specific to confront Iran.

    Tehran rejected the material as forgeries and there are still reservations about its authenticity in the IAEA, according to officials with knowledge of the internal debate inside the agency.

    “First of all, if you have a clandestine programme, you don’t put it on laptops which can walk away,” one official said. “The data is all in English which may be reasonable for some of the technical matters, but at some point you’d have thought there would be at least some notes in Farsi. So there is some doubt over the provenance of the computer.”


    • These comments by the”official” are rather facile and naive. Of course you put senstive data on a standalone computer and not a LAN if you are really concerend about being hacked. A laptop is certainly standalone and can be easliy locked up. Memory sticks and CD’s are equally or even more vulnerable. Didn’t IAEA recently announce that it was removing desktop computers and giving all the inspectors encrypted laptops to use in the office AND take on travel? Does the official not know his own house security rules? And until one sees the documents wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that anything shown to IAEA would be in English and not Farsi? Farsi is not an official UN language. And finally do we know if the defector dumped all his disparate notes into the laptop before rushing away to sell it?

  5. Cyrus says:

    While the IAEA welcomed the NIE’s conclusion that there was no extant nuclear weapons program in Iran, the IAEA never endorsed the NIE’s view that a nuclear “weaponization studies” existed in the past in Iran and in fact the IAEA has repeatedly stated that it has no evidence of a nuclear weapons program in Iran **ever** existing.

  6. Nick says:

    Gareth Porter is reporting today that Amb. Nicoullaud had told him recently that the leadership (including Khamenei!) did not know about what the military was doing with the weaponization program.

    I have a hard time believing this. Somebody would have reported it to the leadership, it was not a simple single event.


    ….Nicoullaud told IPS he believes the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which controls Iran’s ballistic missile programme, was also carrying out a clandestine nuclear weapons programme. The IRGC’s own ministry had been merged, however, with the old Ministry of Defence to form a new ministry in 1989, which implies that any such clandestine programme would have necessarily involved a wider military conspiracy.

  7. Russ Wellen says:

    Would just like to note op-ed let’s those on the fence about Iran and nukes — too afraid of losing credibility if they debunk it — to have their cake and eat it, too. They can still say Iran’s interested in nukes, but . . . the Iranian government isn’t. In an ideal world, would sow seeds for rolling back sanctions.

    Outstanding blog; only recently started reading it. (Referred by Yousaf.)

  8. The point I was trying to make in my article on the Nicoullaud recollections is that he is confirming that Iran never changed its formal stance of opposition to nuclear weapons on both religious and practical grounds. That means that the Supreme Leader, the President and the Supreme National Security Council had never approved any “nuclear weapons program” or “weaponization program”. Nicoullaud believes that there was an awareness that some individuals or offices were carrying out some research related to the subject but that they had not approved it and were not briefed on it.

    The background is that there was a debate going, as I reported, about whether having a “nuclear weapons capability” meant merely having the capability to enrich uranium or actually knowing how to make a nuclear weapon. The debate had not been resolved, according to Nasser Hadian, a Tehran University political scientist. But Rouhani resolved the issue when he became the first nuclear coordinator in October 2003. The implications of the new information from Nicoullaud seems clear: the idea that Iran changed its policy from having a “nuclear weapons program” to having no such program is inaccurate. It fails to give sufficient weight to the evidence that Iran could not have nuclear weapons.

    • yousaf says:

      it ought to be pretty obvious to all that Iran could not have been manufacturing nuclear weapons ten years ago if even now they do not have the needed material.

      Looking into weaponization — making calculations etc. — is something any grad student can do.

      I don’t know what was going on but if some scientists wanted to do some calculations on nukes it would not have been a big deal necessarily.

    • Dan Joyner says:

      Hi Gareth, welcome and thanks very much for your comment. I think Amb Nicollaud’s piece and your report are extremely valuable in bringing clarity to our understanding of what was going on in Iran pre-2003. Thank you for your good work in this area.

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