Q/A with David Albright: Iran should come clean about past research

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Two telexes–part of a trove of 1,600 obtained by American nuclear expert David Albright– would seem to suggest that Iran’s current foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi was aware of Iran’s efforts to acquire whole body counters to detect nuclear radiation back in the early 1990s. That is among the findings published in a new series of reports by Albright and his colleague Paul Brannan, of the Institute for Science and International Studies (ISIS).

Albright, in an interview Wednesday, told me that he and Salehi actually have met each other and indeed argued at some “track 2″ events among nuclear experts held in New York in the 1990s.

Salehi insisted Iran “had no secret centrifuge programs,” Albright told me. “I responded that ‘based on procurements, you do.'”

“I always found Salehi pretty duplicitous,” he added. “But what surprised me in the current work we did, is he was apparently more involved than I realized.”

Salehi, a fluent English speaker who earned a PhD from MIT in 1977, served for eight years in Vienna as Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), from 1997-2005. (Born in Karbala, Iraq, Salehi is also a fluent Arabic speaker–one of the reasons he was tapped in 2010 to become Iran’s foreign minister, at a time when Arab leaders’ hostility to Iran was unusually publicly exposed, including in classified U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks.). Some Iran experts believe Salehi may be well positioned to run for Iran’s presidency when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s second term expires in 2013.

Back in 1991–the year of the two Salehi-linked telexes Albright uncovered–Salehi was chancellor at Iran’s Sharif University. Albright’s report suggests that the university was, in the late 1980s/early 1990s, part of a network of academic facilities linked to Iran’s Physics Research Center (PHRC), that were used as cover to acquire dual-use materiel for secret parts of Iran’s nuclear program. American intelligence and ISIS believe that Iran halted its secret military research program in 2003.

But Albright believes it’s essential that Iran own up to past alleged weaponization research in order to come in from the cold.

“If Iran comes clean on weaponization, other things can be solved much more easily,” he told me.

“Only by understanding Iran’s past military nuclear activities can confidence develop that Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons today,” Albright and Brannan write.

I asked Albright Wednesday if resolving the historical record and pressing Iran to ‘fess up to alleged past weaponization research that most IAEA nations believe ended in 2003 was in fact the most urgent priority. After all, from Washington’s perspective, the more immediate threat that could draw the US into a new Middle East war comes from Israel’s threat to strike Iran if it doesn’t curtail some of its current nuclear activities, particularly on the enrichment front.

Therefore, shouldn’t the near-term diplomatic priority be on trying to get Iran to take steps that “put time on the clock” for negotiations, rather than fess up to alleged work that may only confirm suspicions at an incredibly tense moment? (Namely, halt its 20% enrichment, send out its higher enriched stockpile and curb operations at Fordo, since those are the activities that would potentially trigger an Israeli military strike?)

Albright disagreed, saying little trust would be generated by a “little deal” on Fordo.

“How quickly they can make nuclear weapons depends on what they did in the past,” he said. “Accomplishments don’t disappear.”

“Traditionally once countries declare an active program, they are more convincing that they have given it up,” he said, citing the example of South Africa.

“South Africa tried to get away without declaring it had nukes,” he said. “It signed the [nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty] NPT in 1991, but said we won’t talk about anything prior to the signature date. It gave over its high enriched uranium, but but said you can’t ask about it.”

“And within two years, the IAEA couldn’t verify that there were not secret nuclear weapons in South Africa,” he continued. The country’s veracity was undermined by a prevailing suspicion that wasn’t removed until DeKlerk acknowledged the past program but said they had given them up, Albright said.

“The trouble with Fordo is, if you think they want to get nuclear weapons,” he said. There is a third suspected enrichment site that may be under construction, he said. The Iranians announced last summer they were suspending construction on it for two years, but who knows if that is indeed true today.

“Where is the site?” he asked. “Who knows. Iran says it does not have to tell the inspectors.”

(Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi answers questions after addressing the main U.N. Disarmament conference at the end of his two-day visit at the United Nations in Geneva, February 28, 2012. REUTERS/Valentin Flauraud.)