Technical and Diplomatic Analysis of the IAEA PMD ReportPosted: December 11, 2015
I wanted to follow up about the new IAEA PMD report by pointing to a couple of very good analytical pieces that have been written about it from, respectively, technical and diplomatic perspectives. Both are at Lobelog:
Robert Kelley’s technical piece here,
and Peter Jenkins’ diplomatic/political piece here.
I highly recommend both. They are a breath of fresh air compared to most of the think tank commentary going on right now.
I really try to stay away from personally commenting on technical questions that come up in the nuclear nonproliferation area. I try to be very careful in recognizing that I am simply not qualified to provide my own original analysis on such technical questions. This is precisely the kind of self-awareness that I don’t see in far too many members of the arms control think tank community who, with either no or thin legal education qualifications, have zero qualms about confidently asserting their own original analysis of legal questions.
In that vein of prudential personal reserve, I will not comment at length about Jeffrey Lewis’ new piece over at Foreign Policy, in which he interprets the IAEA PMD report as having made
a straightforward assertion that Iran attempted to build a nuclear weapon prior to 2003.
But let’s do remember what the report actually concluded:
The Agency assesses that a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device were conducted in Iran prior to the end of 2003 as a coordinated effort, and some activities took place after 2003. The Agency also assesses that these activities did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies, and the acquisition of certain relevant technical competences and capabilities. The Agency has no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009.
The Agency has found no credible indications of the diversion of nuclear material in connection with the possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.
Again, from a non-technical-specialist point of view, it seems to me that Lewis is overstating the case. I don’t see that the PMD report findings substantiate an assertion that, prior to 2003, Iran was in fact attempting to build a nuclear weapon – as if there was a full blown Iranian Manhattan Project going on.
It seems to me that a more reasonable and responsible interpretation of the technical findings of the PMD report would be that Iran was, prior to that date, engaging in a coordinated effort to gain the technical capability necessary to build a nuclear bomb, should the political decision at some point be made to do so. Again, the report says that the agency found “no credible indications of the diversion of nuclear material” to this capacity building R&D program. So they apparently weren’t actually experimenting with nuclear material at any point. And the report further says that “these activities did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies.” Again, this doesn’t seem to support the identification of an intent to in fact manufacture, or at least attempt to manufacture, a nuclear weapon. It seems to me that this identification is an unwarranted assumption, in a case where other intentions are just as persuasively indicated.
That’s all I’ll say. Perhaps technical specialist types can chime in in the comments section. I do think, though, that it is important to be as clear as we can be about what the PMD report actually says, and what we should understand about Iran’s past weaponization program. I’ll mostly leave it to the likes of Bob Kelley and other actually qualified people to provide that interpretation. But Lewis’ assertion struck me as particularly excessive and unsupported by what the report actually says.