*Breaking News Update on the Polonium Issue*

We’ve all been tricked.

Basically, the piece by Fredrik Dahl that I referred to in my last post, made a mountain out of a molehill. Amano didn’t in fact bring the polonium issue up at all. He only responded to it very briefly, when a reporter, Joseph Joffe, raised it as a question which he posed to Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif.  Frankly, it was a dumb question to ask, but Zarif humored the reporter and answered the question. Only then did Amano make his very brief remarks on the matter, which I think really amounted only to a boilerplate answer that this was among the various issues about which that the IAEA would like more information from Iran. This was not, as the sensationalism of the Dahl article would lead us to believe, something that Amano raised himself out of the ether, during a speech or other pre-planned presentation. This was just Amano responding briefly, and probably fairly disinterestedly with regard to the specific matter in question, to a query from a reporter.

You can see the exchange yourself in this video from the Munich conference. The exchange happens at the 1hr 2 min mark of the video. Here is a rough transcript of the exchange (I don’t guarantee its 100% accurate, but it’s close):

Joseph Joffe: Mr. Minister. I wish we had a few more like you in our Western diplomatic services who can handle words and arguments so nicely as you do. this whole argument has revolved around trust, verification and facts. I think there’s a nice little case study, which you mentioned yourself, which is the Tehran Research Reactor which went online, I don’t know, 1967. What you forgot to say is that it was fueled with highly enriched uranium under the Shah’s reign. So by 1991, the United States, which delivered this stuff, thought maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to give weapons grade uranium to the Iranians. And then the Iranians went around and begged a little bit and scaled down the reactor to the use of 20 percent so that it can be ostensibly for the use of medical purposes. That’s under safeguards and that’s good. However, there’s a little thing that’s called polonium, which this reactor produces. It’s a tiny, tiny quantity which is extremely important for creating neutron, neutron eruptions, which trigger nuclear explosions. And that our friends from the IAEA say that they cannot control. So why not start with that old clunker, which is worthless to begin with, and really open it up and say `you know, you think we’re making plutonium here, why don’t we go and check it out.’ That builds trust! Not [your] appeals to trust. I think if we can start with these things, as we have, I think we’ll be doing fine.

Javad Zarif: I don’t know whether I should take that as a compliment, but I will. We didn’t build that reactor. It was a part of Atoms for Peace. The United States built it. We didn’t ask for highly-enriched uranium to fuel that reactor. It was the United States that did it at that time. Then it decided to convert it to medium-enriched uranium, or low-enriched uranium because 20 percent is just the border line between medium and low. Sorry Dr. Solana, I’m not a physicist, you know this more than I do. And we did, we brought it down. We did, we had to. But then the United States had to give us the fuel. Why didn’t it? Because they don’t have to. That’s the problem. Now that reactor is under full IAEA safeguards. The IAEA controls it. The polonium issue — it’s not plutonium, it’s polonium. We didn’t design that to come out of that reactor. And the reactor is under IAEA safeguards. As I said very clearly to you: nuclear technology for peaceful purposes and nuclear technology for weapons are twin sisters, or twin brothers. It’s the role of the IAEA to make sure that the more benign parts of nuclear technology are implemented and the other side is not and we are open to that. The IAEA has full access to Tehran nuclear reactor and it’s under inspection, has always been, and we’ll continue to work with the IAEA to answer any questions they may have about it.

Yukiya Amano: Just a brief intervention. As Minister Zarif mentioned, the Tehran Research Reactor is under IAEA safeguards and we can tell that stays in peaceful purpose. You have raised issues of polonium. Polonium can be used for civil purpose like a nuclear battery but it can also be used for a neutron source for nuclear weapons. We would like to clarify this issue, too.

Not cool, Fredrik Dahl.  Not cool.



Sort of a weird development that has many observers scratching their heads – yesterday Reuters published this report in which IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano’s remarks are reported as follows:

The head of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, Yukiya Amano, said possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme needed to be clarified and he said his agency also wanted to clarify the issue of small amounts of polonium-210 that had been produced by the Tehran research reactor.

“Polonium can be used for civil purposes like nuclear batteries but can also be used for a neutron source for nuclear weapons,” Amano told the Munich Security Conference.

Fredrik Dahl then wrote up this report about the incident today.

What’s weird about this is that the issue of polonium-210 related experiments in Iran was dealt with in 2008, and this Director General’s report issued in February 2008 contained the following passage concerning the agency’s findings:

 A.3. Polonium-210

20. Polonium-210 is of interest to the Agency because it can be used not only for civilian applications (such as radioisotope batteries), but also — in conjunction with beryllium — for military purposes, such as neutron initiators in some designs of nuclear weapons. On 20–21 January 2008, a meeting took place in Tehran between the Agency and Iranian officials during which Iran provided answers to the questions raised by the Agency in its letter dated 15 September 2007 regarding polonium-210 research (GOV/2007/58, para. 26). The Agency’s questions included a request to see the original project documentation.

21. According to Iran, in the 1980s, scientists from the Tehran Nuclear Research Centre (TNRC) were asked to propose new research activities. A project called “Production of 210Po by the irradiation of 209Bi in the TNRC reactor” was proposed and eventually approved by the Scientific Advisory Committee of TNRC in 1988. The project consisted of fundamental research aimed at enhancing knowledge about this process. According to Iran, it was not aimed at a specific immediate application. However, a potential use in radioisotope batteries, if the chemical extraction of polonium- 210 proved successful, was mentioned in the initial proposal.

22. Iran reiterated that the project was not part of any larger R&D project, but had been a personal initiative of the project leader. According to Iran, the chemist working on the project left the country before full chemical processing had been performed, the project was aborted and the decayed samples were discarded as waste (GOV/2004/11, para. 30).

23. To support its statements, Iran presented additional copies of papers and literature searches that had formed the basis for the request for approval of the project. Iran also provided copies of the project proposal, the meeting minutes and the approval document from the Scientific Advisory Committee of TNRC, as well as a complete copy of the reactor logbook for the entire period that the samples were present in the reactor.

24. Based on an examination of all information provided by Iran, the Agency concluded that the explanations concerning the content and magnitude of the polonium-210 experiments were consistent with the Agency’s findings and with other information available to it. The Agency considers this question no longer outstanding at this stage. However, the Agency continues, in accordance with its procedures and practices, to seek corroboration of its findings and to verify this issue as part of its verification of the completeness of Iran’s declarations. (emphasis added)

So the question people are asking is, if the issue was resolved in 2008, why bring it up again now six years later? It is possible that some new information has been brought to light on the issue. That’s what Mark Hibbs suggests in the Dahl piece. But it still seems strange to bring up an issue involving past experiments with a material that my technical friends tell me is really not at all useful in modern nuclear weapons programs.

What should one read into this decision by Amano to bring this issue up now, in light of the very sensitive stage at which we are currently in diplomacy between Iran and the P5+1, and in parallel between Iran and the IAEA? One possible interpretation is that Amano is bringing up this issue now in order to keep pressure on Iran, to force concessions in the respective negotiating fora. The more cynical interpretation would be that this is a strategy aimed at making a diplomatic settlement in both fora more difficult. It’s difficult for me to see whose interests that would serve, other than of course Israel’s. It’s hard for me to see this as an instance of one of the P5 pulling Amano’s strings. Is he going rogue and interjecting this rather lame and tangential PMD issue into the mix for some reason only he knows/understands? Hard to say. This is a weird one.   

Julian Borger on Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal

This new piece by Julian Borger, detailing the history of clandestine and illicit means by which Israel developed its nuclear weapons stockpile is an absolute must read.  Borger subtitled the piece:

Israel has been stealing nuclear secrets and covertly making bombs since the 1950s. And western governments, including Britain and the US, turn a blind eye. But how can we expect Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions if the Israelis won’t come clean?

Good question. There’s some very damning stuff in here – a lot of information I’d never read before. Here are just a few excerpts, but you really need to read the whole thing:

Israel, unlike Iran, never signed up to the 1968 NPT so could not violate it. But it almost certainly broke a treaty banning nuclear tests, as well as countless national and international laws restricting the traffic in nuclear materials and technology.

The list of nations that secretly sold Israel the material and expertise to make nuclear warheads, or who turned a blind eye to its theft, include today’s staunchest campaigners against proliferation: the US, France, Germany, Britain and even Norway.


As more and more evidence of Israel’s weapons programme emerged, the US role progressed from unwitting dupe to reluctant accomplice. In 1968 the CIA director Richard Helms told President Johnson that Israel had indeed managed to build nuclear weapons and that its air force had conducted sorties to practise dropping them.

The timing could not have been worse. The NPT, intended to prevent too many nuclear genies from escaping from their bottles, had just been drawn up and if news broke that one of the supposedly non-nuclear-weapons states had secretly made its own bomb, it would have become a dead letter that many countries, especially Arab states, would refuse to sign.

The Johnson White House decided to say nothing, and the decision was formalised at a 1969 meeting between Richard Nixon and Golda Meir, at which the US president agreed to not to pressure Israel into signing the NPT, while the Israeli prime minister agreed her country would not be the first to “introduce” nuclear weapons into the Middle East and not do anything to make their existence public.

In fact, US involvement went deeper than mere silence. At a meeting in 1976 that has only recently become public knowledge, the CIA deputy director Carl Duckett informed a dozen officials from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the agency suspected some of the fissile fuel in Israel’s bombs was weapons-grade uranium stolen under America’s nose from a processing plant in Pennsylvania.

Not only was an alarming amount of fissile material going missing at the company, Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (Numec), but it had been visited by a veritable who’s-who of Israeli intelligence, including Rafael Eitan, described by the firm as an Israeli defence ministry “chemist”, but, in fact, a top Mossad operative who went on to head Lakam.

“It was a shock. Everyody was open-mouthed,” recalls Victor Gilinsky, who was one of the American nuclear officials briefed by Duckett. “It was one of the most glaring cases of diverted nuclear material but the consequences appeared so awful for the people involved and for the US than nobody really wanted to find out what was going on.”

The investigation was shelved and no charges were made.

A few years later, on 22 September 1979, a US satellite, Vela 6911, detected the double-flash typical of a nuclear weapon test off the coast of South Africa. Leonard Weiss, a mathematician and an expert on nuclear proliferation, was working as a Senate advisor at the time and after being briefed on the incident by US intelligence agencies and the country’s nuclear weapons laboratories, he became convinced a nuclear test, in contravention to the Limited Test Ban Treaty, had taken place.

It was only after both the Carter and then the Reagan administrations attempted to gag him on the incident and tried to whitewash it with an unconvincing panel of enquiry, that it dawned on Weiss that it was the Israelis, rather than the South Africans, who had carried out the detonation.

“I was told it would create a very serious foreign policy issue for the US, if I said it was a test. Someone had let something off that US didn’t want anyone to know about,” says Weiss.

Israeli sources told Hersh the flash picked up by the Vela satellite was actually the third of a series of Indian Ocean nuclear tests that Israel conducted in cooperation with South Africa.

Wow.  How many times have you heard Israeli officials blast Iran’s nuclear program for being clandestine and illicit? How do you translate “the pot calling the kettle black” into Hebrew?

Cyber operations as a nuclear counterproliferation measure

My article on ‘Cyber operations as a nuclear counterproliferation measure’ has just been published in the Advance Access section of the Journal of Conflict and Security Law. It will appear in print later in 2014.

Abstract: Focusing on recent malware that allegedly targeted Iran’s nuclear programme, the article discusses the legality of inter-state cyber operations as measures to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons approaching the problem from the perspective of the law of State responsibility, in particular the circumstances precluding wrongfulness. After examining the role that cyber attacks and cyber exploitation can play in preventing nuclear proliferation, the article explores whether cyber operations can be justified as countermeasures in response to a possible breach by Iran of its non-proliferation obligations. It then discusses whether counterproliferation cyber operations amounting to a use of force are submitted to a more lenient legal regime than other more traditional forms of the use of force in international relations. Finally, the article explores the legality of counterproliferation cyber operations from the perspective of Chapter VII of the UN Charter, and in particular of the resolutions adopted against Iran by the Security Council. The article concludes that the legality of counterproliferation cyber operations must be assessed in the light of the general primary and secondary rules of international law: neither the means used (cyber instead of kinetic) nor the aim pursued (the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons) justify a special legal regime.