Referring Nuke-Threats to Security Council

Last month the New York Times reported that unnamed senior “intelligence officials” had told them that – as part of a campaign to increase international pressure on Iran – they had “briefed” International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Mohamed El-Baradei and senior staff in mid-July on some of the sensitive “intelligence” they had gleaned from a “stolen Iranian laptop computer.”

They presented what they claimed was the strongest “evidence” yet that Iran must be developing lightweight compact nukes for its Shahab ballistic missile, which could “reach Israel.”

However, “sources close to the IAEA” said what they had been briefed on appeared to be aerodynamic design work for a ballistic missile reentry vehicle, not a nuclear warhead.

Furthermore, according to David Albright, a sometime consultant to the IAEA, the information on the “stolen Iranian laptop” is all about reentry vehicles and does not even mention "nuclear" or "nuclear warhead.”

The distinction between “reentry vehicle” and “warhead” is all important.

During the Iran-Iraq war in the late 1980s, each side launched 300 to 400 Scud ballistic missiles – carrying high explosive warheads – at each other’s cities.

The Scud is a liquid-fueled single-stage missile.

The entire missile – containing the warhead – reenters the atmosphere, frequently tumbling end-over-end, breaking up into several pieces.

It is a very expensive, very inaccurate delivery vehicle for high-explosives.

Since then the Iranians have been attempting to develop a super-Scud ballistic missile wherein a cone-shaped “reentry” vehicle – in which the warhead is protected from the intense shock-heating of reentry into the atmosphere – detaches from the missile in flight.

A properly designed reentry vehicle can deliver a warhead with great accuracy.

Of course, if you’ve got a lightweight compact nuke capable of being delivered by ballistic missile you don’t need great accuracy.

So, whether the “briefing” unnamed senior intelligence officials made to El-Baradei and other IAEA officials convinced them that Iran had a relatively sophisticated ballistic missile reentry vehicle development program is irrelevant.


The IAEA has two missions: (a) to facilitate the international transfer of nuclear-related technologies and materials, and (b) to ensure – insofar as is possible – that “source and special nuclear materials” are not used in furtherance of some military purpose.

Under the Iranian Safeguards Agreement – in force since 1974 – Iran agreed to allow IAEA inspectors to satisfy themselves that no amount of Iranian uranium or plutonium – however physically or chemically transformed – is being used or has been used “in furtherance of any military purpose.”

However, under that agreement the IAEA is only authorized to inspect facilities and activities that Iran has “declared.”

In 2003, at our insistence and at the urging of the IAEA Board, Iran signed an Additional Protocol to their Safeguards Agreement. The Iranian Parliament has yet to ratify it, but, pending ratification, the Iranians volunteered to cooperate with the IAEA as if the Additional Protocol was in force.

Among other things, the Iranians have allowed El-Baradei to inspect any Iranian facility he had good reason to suspect housed materials and/or activities that should have been "declared," but hadn’t been.

At our insistence, the Iranians even allowed El-Baradei to visit certain Iranian military research and development sites at Parchin and elsewhere where we suspected the Iranians were doing something we don’t want them to do.

Maybe we’re right.

Maybe they are.

But, as of now, El-Baradei has yet to find any indication that Iran is or has been engaged in any activity involving the use of source or special nuclear materials in furtherance of any military purpose.

In any case, unless El-Baradei finds materials and/or activities at those sites that should have been Safeguarded – but were not – then under the IAEA Statute he is prohibited from telling us or anyone else what he does find there.

For all those “senior intelligence officials” know, El-Baradei may already have known about the Iranian ballistic missile reentry vehicle development program.

In any case, whether Iran has such a ballistic missile program or not is none of the IAEA’s business.

In fact, as the 24 September 2005 resolution of the IAEA Board of Governors explicitly acknowledged, these are “questions that are within the competence of the Security Council, as the organ bearing the main responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.”

So, since the IAEA Board won’t, Condi-baby is threatening to take Iran’s suspected nuke-missile program directly to the Security Council herself.

That might not be a good idea. Some Council member might note that Israel almost certainly has lightweight compact nukes mounted on ballistic missiles capable of “reaching Iran.”

Author: Gordon Prather

Physicist James Gordon Prather has served as a policy implementing official for national security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla. -- ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.