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Doubts renewed over Iran aims

Iranian long-range Shahab-3 missile before testing 28 September 2009
Iran has been developing and and testing long and short range missiles

The Guardian newspaper in the UK has reported that there is evidence Iran may have experimented with a highly advanced nuclear warhead design, prompting the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ask Tehran for an explanation.

BBC Diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus assesses the revelations.

This report derives from a broader dossier, or working document, compiled by the IAEA's Safeguards Department, which explores various potential military aspects of Iran's nuclear programme.

This dossier has led to various questions being put to the Iranians which, so far, appear to have had no satisfactory answer.

The specific issue raised in this latest report focuses on the means of initiating a nuclear chain reaction using a highly sophisticated arrangement of high explosives.

This "two-point implosion device", as it is known, is significant because it would allow for the production of a much smaller and less cumbersome nuclear warhead - one that experts believe could easily fit onto Iran's existing Shahab 3 missiles.

Western divisions

Iran's reported failure to respond to the IAEA concerns inevitably raises all sorts of questions about its long-term nuclear ambitions.

It also highlights a fundamental division between western intelligence agencies.

A satellite image of what analysts believe is the facility at Qom

The US decided two years ago that while Iran had conducted research on a nuclear bomb, that work was probably halted in 2003. British and French intelligence agencies are thought to be far more sceptical that this programme was ever terminated.

There has been a long-running debate within the IAEA about just how far its suspicions about Iran's potential nuclear activities should be publicised and acted upon.

There were initially internal concerns about the potential authenticity of some of the material and also a reluctance at the highest levels to take steps that might damage progress with Iran on other fronts.

The climate, though, is changing.

In a recent safeguards report the IAEA noted that "the information contained in the documentation appears to have been derived from multiple sources over different periods of time, appears to be generally consistent, and is sufficiently comprehensive and detailed that it needs to be addressed by Iran with a view to removing the doubts which naturally arise."

Troubled talks

These reports about Iran's potential military research work come just as the latest efforts to negotiate a deal with Tehran are running into trouble.

Iran's response has been so miserable that it is hard to be optimistic
Mark Fitzfaptrick
IISS

A confidence-building proposal under which Iran would export low-enriched uranium from its stocks and in return would get fabricated fuel for a medical research reactor seems to have been rejected by the Iranians, at least in its present form.

"Iran's response has been so miserable that it is hard to be optimistic that this will go anywhere," says Mark Fitzpatrick, a proliferation expert at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), a London based think-tank.

The key thing about this proposal, he said, was that it would have set "an important precedent".

Some had even hoped that this might be the answer to constraining Iran's wider enrichment effort and in return providing fuel for its Russian-supplied power generating reactor.

Hopes are not exhausted but there are growing concerns in Western capitals that either Iran is seeking to drag out the talks or that political differences in Tehran simply mean that it is unable to respond in a definitive fashion.

Other experts though take a different view, though, wondering if the decades of mistrust between Iran and the West now require a greater understanding of Tehran's position.

It is clear, though, that if the current efforts to negotiate with Iran fail, then there will be ever-stronger scrutiny of Iran's past research activities.

The pendulum will also inevitably swing back to talk of tougher economic sanctions and renewed worries about possible Israeli military action against Iran.



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