January 5, 2010 / 10:13 PM / 8 years ago

Q+A: Is alleged Iran nuclear memo really a "smoking gun?"

LONDON (Reuters) - A leaked memo appearing to show Iran trying to design an atomic bomb trigger would undercut its assertion that it seeks only peaceful nuclear energy and harden fears it is nearing the capability to make nuclear weapons.

But caveats are in order. The memo in the hands of Western intelligence services and the U.N. nuclear watchdog has not been authenticated. Even if genuine, it may prove no more than a bid to develop competency for a possible nuclear “breakout” in the future, not an outright, illicit program to build bombs.

The following outlines the issues involved and where the International Atomic Energy Agency’s investigation into alleged military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear ambitions stands.

WHAT IS THIS MEMO AND WHAT DOES IT SAY?

The Times of London published on Monday what it said was the Farsi-language document, along with an English translation, entitled, “Outlook for Special Neutron-Related Activities Over the Next Four Years.” It describes steps to develop and test parts for a neutron initiator, a device that floods the core of highly enriched uranium with subatomic particles to touch off the chain reaction of a nuclear explosion.

“At present our capabilities are reasonably good although, of course, not perfect,” the translated memo reads. It alludes to the need to minimize the number of agencies involved in the work to keep it secret “in view of Iran’s situation.”

Tehran is concerned about attack by arch-foe Israel, and has stonewalled IAEA investigators seeking access to check intelligence reports about covert nuclear “weaponization” work.

WHEN WAS THE MEMO ISSUED?

It is not dated or signed. Western diplomats said analyses indicated it was drafted in 2007 -- even though a U.S. intelligence report that year assessed Iran had stopped nuclear warhead research for fear of attack after the 2003 Iraq war.

If true, this would bolster the view of U.S. allies such as Britain, France, Germany and Israel which believe Iran continued bomb research beyond 2003, or resumed it after an interruption.

The memo implies Iran has done such work before. “The most appropriate way of obtaining the required personnel ... to cover the field of neutron calculation ... is to employ individuals involved in the relevant projects in the past.”

An updated U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran is in the works and due for completion soon, diplomats say.

WHAT IS IRAN‘S POSITION?

“(Such reports) are baseless ... not worthy of attention, intended to put political and psychological pressure on Iran,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said.

Tehran says it wants nuclear energy only for electricity so it can export more oil and that Western intelligence indicating it has researched how to make nuclear warheads is fabricated.

WHAT DOES THE IAEA SAY?

It has declined comment. But diplomats say the U.N. watchdog has obtained the memo as part of regular intelligence updates on Iran it receives from certain member states, mainly the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Israel.

IS THE MEMO A “SMOKING GUN?”

If genuine, the memo will fan Western concern that Iran’s stated civilian enrichment program is a Trojan horse for nuclear weapons ambitions, but does not prove it has embarked on assembling bombs, breaking the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

“This type of work is consistent with a plan to have all research and development in place in the process of creating a reliable nuclear warhead for a ballistic missile such as (Iran‘s) Shahab 3,” the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a Washington think-tank that tracks nuclear proliferation, said in an emailed commentary this week.

Iran regularly test-launches missiles to show it will not be intimidated by Western sanctions or war threats, with the latest display on Tuesday -- an improved, long-range Sejil 2.

“The document could describe work to develop and maintain a capability rather than being part of a program to build (bombs). It does not mention nuclear weapons and we have seen no evidence of an Iranian decision to build them,” ISIS cautioned.

WHAT DO IAEA INVESTIGATORS KNOW?

The agency says it has collected credible, although unverified, intelligence indicating Iran has coordinated efforts to process uranium, test explosives at high altitude and revamp a Shahab missile cone in a way suitable for a nuclear warhead.

Parts of a classified, draft IAEA analysis leaked to ISIS in September said agency experts believed Iran had developed enough expertise “to be able to design and produce a workable implosion nuclear device” -- the type that uses a neutron initiator.

“Overall, the IAEA does not believe Iran has yet achieved the means of integrating a nuclear payload into the Shahab 3 missile with any confidence that it would work,” the working document reads. “Nonetheless, with further effort it is likely that Iran will overcome problems...”

editing by Paul Taylor

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