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Keeping tabs on Iran

Interview: Richard WalkerApril 23, 2015

Skeptical US lawmakers have been probing the "framework agreement" on Iran’s nuclear program. DW spoke to one of the leading experts giving testimony on Capitol Hill, former UN weapons inspector David Albright.

Rede Ajatollah Ali Chamenei zu Atomgesprächen
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Offical Supreme Leader Website

You've expressed concern that much of the detail on verifying Iran's compliance with a possible deal is unresolved. You stress that inspections need to be possible anywhere, at any time. Why is that so important?

The basic reason is that Iran has cheated on its obligations in the past and has been very uncooperative on an ongoing basis. So you have to do extra things in order to make sure there are not secret nuclear sites. Iran has built many sites in secret, so you have to have this extra insurance, a more powerful tool to try to ferret out any secret nuclear activities or facilities that Iran would build.

So if there is not further progress made on this issue, do you say the deal should be rejected?

There's been a lot of progress made. The US position is that you're going to have to have inspections anywhere and essentially at any time. Whether they'll get that or not, I don't know. And whether a deal could be supported - I'd have to see it first.

Präsident von ISIS David Albright
Albright supports the talks, but says if military action may be needed if Iran cheats againImage: ISIS

Another point that you always stress is that it is essential for the Iranians to own up to any military dimensions to their nuclear program in the past. Why is that so important? Why is it not better to look to the future at this point?

The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Authority) used to try to do that. They tried to do it in places like Iraq and South Africa. And what happened is that they couldn't do their job. In some sense you can't know the present without understanding the past. In the past, a country could have created a whole fairly substantial nuclear weapons program and hidden it.

So you need to have countries declare all of their nuclear activities historically so that you can build a verification regime where you have a much better chance of not being caught in a situation where the country has hidden away part of their nuclear program and then reconstitutes it in secret later.

For all of your concerns over these and many other issues, you still say that engaging with Iran is a far better option than military action - bombing its nuclear sites. Why?

The experience with bombing isn't great. Israel bombed the Iraqi reactor in 1981. Iraq proceeded to make a much more secret - and much bigger - nuclear weapons program. And it was only Saddam's miscalculation in invading Kuwait in 1990 that kept Iraq from getting nuclear weapons. If they hadn't invaded Kuwait in 1990, Iraq could have had tens of nuclear weapons by now. So I think bombing by itself can delay a program, but it can't stop it.

A negotiation can stop it - although it doesn't have to, as the case of North Korea shows. But the negotiations are a far better way to proceed. And it's also important to buy time. The North Korean nuclear weapons program was nipped in the bud in a sense in 1994. It was on the verge of being able to make tens of nuclear weapons per year - it was building very large nuclear reactors to do that. The agreed framework prevented that from happening and delayed the day when North Korea got nuclear weapons.

In the case of Iran, the stakes are higher. The Middle East is a much more dangerous region. The effort has to be to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. The negotiations are tougher, they require a lot more, and the Iranians are going to have to be watched much more carefully during the implementation of a deal. And if Iran goes to make nuclear weapons in the future, the United States and its allies are going to have to stop it. And that may require military strikes.

Just to add to that, part of what you would have to do if you were to pursue a military strategy - and it's by no means ideal - is you have to be able to have a strategy that keeps Iran from rebuilding the day after. And that ultimately would also require negotiations. So even if it came to military strikes, there would still have to be negotiations to keep Iran from reconstituting a nuclear weapons program.

Given those problems with military action, why do you believe it might be the best option if Iran reneges on a deal?

The negotiations deal with this idea of "snapping back" the sanctions, then that creates pressure on Iran to not build a bomb. It takes a long time for sanctions to work, so you're going to have to do more. I think ultimately from a US point of view, there's going to have to be a recognition that military options could be used to stop Iran. It would have to be sustained - it can't be like an Israeli attack, it's not going to be a one-off effort. It would have to be designed to keep Iran from rebuilding, which means they may have to go back. And certainly they're going to have to threaten. So it's certainly a very dire situation. But unfortunately you're forced into that because sanctions don't act quickly.

There's lots of focus on the "breakout time" - how long it would take Iran to amass enough nuclear material for a bomb if it reneged on a deal. But having the material is one thing; you also need a weapon to deliver it. What are your estimates on that?

Making the explosive material is the long pole in the tent - that's the fundamental one. Also in designing policies, you want to prevent Iran from reaching that point. Once they have the material, it could just be a matter of three, four, five months before they can put together a nuclear explosive device. They could use it underground in a test - in a sense as a political act. They could use it to create some deterrence against attack. It could be delivered by ship or truck, or a large plane. If they wanted to put it on a ballistic missile, that could take a year or two more.

IAEO-Hauptquartier in Wien, Österreich
The IAEA says Iran must come clean about any efforts to develop a bombImage: Reuters

Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei has said that the idea that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapon was a myth propagated by the US. What is your response to that - what is the core evidence that something was going on?

The core evidence is assessments by governments. What's interesting in this case is that you have the US government, the German government, the French government and of course the Israeli government who judge with high confidence that Iran had a structured nuclear weapons program prior to 2004.

And you also have the IAEA - which is by no means a forward-leaning analytical group on this question - which gathered information from these same states and they put together an analysis, and they came to the same conclusion. And so in this case you have overwhelming evidence that they had a nuclear weapons program, and you don't see the kind of breaks that you'd see among these governments that you'd see in the case of Iraq in 2002-2003, when there were real divisions among the intelligence agencies.

In terms of what Iran says, of course it's going to deny it. It has every incentive. There's a twist in this that's come up in the negotiations. Iran is having a hard time with this not because the Supreme Leader would have to reverse himself - leaders often reverse themselves. I think what's come up is that Iran wants to blame the West for the sanctions and all the misery created among the domestic Iranian population. If they admit to having a bomb program, then it's their fault. One of the proposals in the negotiations is to do it right before the sanctions come off, so that the population will be focused on the relief of having sanctions removed, and Iran can then, in that process, come clean with the IAEA.

David Albright is the founder and current president of the non-governmental Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), and author of several books on proliferation of nuclear weapons.