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Worrying Signs Overshadow Iran's Nuclear Denials

When Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, says that "no country has been inspected the way Iran has been," he has a point. The U.N. nuclear agency has inspectors on the ground in Iran almost continuously.

Soltanieh is also correct that in eight years of monitoring, the IAEA has uncovered no evidence of nuclear material being diverted to a weapons program.

So why all the suspicion? Interviews with a number of nuclear experts suggest that time and again, Iran has been caught failing to mention or concealing activity that could be part of a clandestine weapons program. If, as Iran says, the program is entirely peaceful, goes this argument, why the secrecy?

These questions will be at the forefront as Iran and six world powers gather Friday in Istanbul for the latest round of nuclear talks. Iran continues to say it is not seeking nuclear weapons and that its nuclear rights, including the right to enrich uranium, are not up for discussion.

Questions Persist On Iran's Nuclear Intentions

Take, for instance, the fact that for several years, the IAEA has known that Iran was working with laser-based uranium enrichment. Former IAEA Director General Pierre Goldschmidt says Iran's interest in this cutting-edge technology raised a number of concerns.

"Laser uranium enrichment technology is one of the most difficult and sophisticated enrichment [technologies]. So far it [has] no industrial or commercial application," he says.

Goldschmidt says the Iranians shut down the site at Lashkar Abad, where this technology was apparently used. But that didn't answer one key question: What was Iran enriching the uranium for?

Iranian ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency Ali Asghar Soltanieh is shown here in November 2009 at the U.N. agency's headquarters in Vienna.
Joe Klamar / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Iranian ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency Ali Asghar Soltanieh is shown here in November 2009 at the U.N. agency's headquarters in Vienna.

"The agency determined — and this is all public information — that they had this enrichment facility, and that some part of the design of the equipments were relevant for the production of high-enriched uranium," Goldschmidt says.

Highly enriched uranium is not necessary for nuclear energy production, but is highly desirable for nuclear weapons.

Iran says enrichment is its right, no matter what technique it may choose. But this gets to a key problem for the IAEA: It only sees what Iran lets it see. Some of the most dramatic discoveries have come from international intelligence or Iranian opposition groups. The revelation of a previously secret enrichment plant near the city of Qom in 2009 is a case in point.

Another example: A few years ago, the agency learned of a 15-page document Iran had received that discussed converting uranium gas into uranium metal hemispheres, a process that experts say could be part of designing a nuclear weapon. Former IAEA inspector Olli Heinonen, now at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, says at that point, the questions became more serious.

"Why would you have such kind of document? Well, Iran said that they got it without asking. But the fact is that the document is there, it came from Pakistan, that's clear. And both of them acknowledge that this [has] to do with the nuclear weapon design," Heinonen says.

The agency also has confronted Iran with information suggesting that the country had been involved in high-explosive testing and other activity "relevant to nuclear weapon research and design." Iran said some of the testing was for conventional weapons only and dismissed other allegations as a disinformation campaign by its enemies.

Hurdles To Resolving The Uncertainties

Heinonen says the only way to put these suspicions to rest is to have a thorough and open discussion between Iran's nuclear experts and the IAEA. But he says for the negotiators coming to Istanbul, getting to that point is probably too much to ask out of the two-day session.

"I think that still people are now testing waters. But they are talking, and I hope now that, after this round, that people start to get closer and look at what needs to be done. It has to be a cooperative effort. It also has to be attractive to the Iranian side, so I hope that someone has the magic formula," he says.

The negotiators face another hurdle of sorts — the recent slowdown in Iran's enrichment program. The assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, and especially the Stuxnet computer virus, have some officials predicting that Iran faces years of delay before it could have nuclear weapons capability.

Analysts point to two likely effects: an increase in Tehran's paranoia and mistrust of the West, and a more relaxed international community that may feel less pressure to make the kind of concessions that might elicit greater cooperation from Iran.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.