Former Nuclear Watchdog: The Iranians “Tricked and Misled Us”


iran-nuclear-power-plantIn an interview with Der Spiegel, Olli Heinonen, the former deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, offers his first assessment of his 27 years at the global nuclear watchdog. He addresses Iran’s nuclear program, his concerns about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and mistakes made in Fukushima.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Heinonen, if you consider your time as the United Nations’ atomic “watchdog,” do you look back in anger? Or did you succeed in making the world safer from nuclear bombs?

Heinonen: There are quite a few things I’m proud of. While I was at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), we played a significant role in putting Abdul Qadir Khan — the most dangerous nuclear smuggler of all times — out of action. But when I think about the nuclear activities of certain states, for instance Iran’s nuclear program, I have to say that we allowed ourselves to be placated too often. We should have done more than carrying out our inspections. Yes, with hindsight you could perhaps even say we failed.

SPIEGEL: You sound worried. Is Tehran really on a direct path to becoming a nuclear state?

Heinonen: It’s undeniable that Iran’s nuclear program is far more advanced than it was in 2003, when the discovery of the Natanz facility brought it to the IAEA’s attention. At the time, uranium enrichment tests were being carried out in secret on a small scale. But at the end of 2003, the Iranians admitted they were also planning to set up a heavy-water reactor in Arak to generate plutonium.

SPIEGEL: In other words, the other ingredient you need to create either nuclear power or an atom bomb.

Heinonen: Iran always told us it was only interested in the civilian uses of atomic energy. I’ve always had my doubts about that, more so now than ever.

SPIEGEL: Why don’t you say what your former boss, Mohamed ElBaradei, said: That you haven’t found the so-called “smoking gun” — i.e. clear proof that Iran is developing nuclear weapons?

Heinonen: Before opponents of the Iranian regime exposed the existence of Natanz, those in power in Tehran had kept parts of their nuclear program secret for two decades. Today the facts are as follows: The conversion plant in Isfahan has produced 371 tons of uranium hexafluoride. Some 8,000 centrifuges in Natanz are being used to enrich this raw material. In February 2010, Iran began increasing enrichment to 20 percent. That’s a significant step closer to making an atomic bomb because it takes only a few months to turn that into weapons-grade material. And at the beginning of this year, Fereydoun Abbasi was appointed the head of the atomic energy organization in Tehran …

SPIEGEL: … a scientist who has been on a UN list of suspected bombmakers since 2007, whom a UN Security Council resolution forbids from traveling abroad, and who just barely survived an assassination attempt in Tehran 10 months ago suspected to have been carried out by the Israeli secret service.

Heinonen: In early June, Abbasi announced that Iran was moving the 20-percent enrichment of uranium from Natanz to Fordow, where they are tripling production. Incidentally, the construction of the Fordow plant near Qom was so shrouded in secrecy that the Iranian authorities first admitted it existed less than two years ago.

SPIEGEL: And none of this makes sense for a civilian nuclear program?

Heinonen: You don’t need 20-percent enriched uranium to generate electricity for light bulbs. And, in any case, the produced volumes far exceed what Iran might possibly need for its research reactor. What’s more, Tehran has announced that it intends to build 10 more enrichment plants, and Iranian experts have conducted experiments with neutron sources and highly explosive detonators that would only make sense for military applications. They’re also making progress at the heavy-water reactor in Arak, so much so, that by 2014 they’ll have enough plutonium to build an atom bomb.

SPIEGEL: So you think Iran will declare itself a nuclear power in 2014? Will the leaders of the theocracy already have a working atom bomb by then, or will they only threaten to build one?

Heinonen: I don’t know. I am, however, convinced that Tehran will reach the “break-out capabilty” — in other words, the capacity to produce weapons-grade uranium — as early as by the end next year. In that sense Iran aims to be a virtual nuclear power with the capability of producing the ultimate weapons at any time.

SPIEGEL: Was the Iranian program not damaged in any way by the Stuxnet computer worm that it appears Israeli scientists engineered and used to infiltrate the Natanz facility?

Heinonen: Sure it was. It had a delaying effect and was so effective that, by my estimates, it knocked out almost 2,000 centrifuges in Natanz. But the Iranian scientists are smart, and they got the problem under control.

SPIEGEL: Do you favor bombing Iran, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still appears to be considering?

Heinonen: Not in the least. I agree with former Mossad Director Meir Dagan, who considers such a first strike to be “insane.” We don’t even know all the sites that would have to be bombed.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean?

Heinonen: It’s pretty certain that Iran has secret facilities where they have hidden materials and could probably start enriching uranium quickly again if Natanz were ever destroyed. Iran’s political leaders certainly wouldn’t let the IAEA back into the country after an attack, and they would put all their efforts into making as many atomic bombs as they could. And I suspect they would have the backing of a very large majority of the Iranian people. I’m not a politician, but I dare not think about the consequences of such armament, not to mention the possibility of retaliatory attacks against Israel and the West.

SPIEGEL: So is it better we let Tehran have its way, and focus on limiting its chances of getting the bomb?

Heinonen: We should push the Iranians to abide by the additional protocol to the safeguards agreement, which Tehran has already agreed to ratify and which grants the IAEA the right to carry out as many checks as it wants, even unannounced. If Iran’s leaders continue to fail to meet their country’s obligations, the UN Security Council must react by continuing to increase sanctions, step by step.

SPIEGEL: That hasn’t achieved anything so far. And with all due respect, it sounds pretty helpless. Looking back, do you think the IAEA has been like a guard dog without teeth?

Heinonen: Every global organization is only as strong as its members want it to be. And let’s not forget that the Iranians have always been very clever in their actions. Officially they have largely stuck to their obligations …

SPIEGEL: … while at the same time leading the international inspectors on a merry dance with new plants again and again.

Heinonen: We protested officially, but they tricked and misled us, and used the time creatively to keep pushing forward. My former boss and good friend Mohamed ElBaradei never understood that it’s too late to act if Iran has violated all agreements, has touched the nuclear material and its weapons program is already in its final stages.

SPIEGEL: ElBaradei’s successor, Yukiya Amano of Japan, who has headed the IAEA since December 2009, has noticeably toughened the rhetoric against Tehran …

Heinonen: … which is also more in line with the (IAEA) Department of Safeguard’s perspective. But the situation has also worsened considerably in Syria in recent years. As Tehran did before it, Damascus is now resisting pressure from the international community.
SPIEGEL: Didn’t Israel do the IAEA’s job for it back in 2007, when it sent planes to bomb a secret Syrian reactor near Deir al-Sur in a night-time raid? Or are there grounds to doubt this story, which SPIEGEL helped to uncover with its reporting but was never confirmed officially?

Heinonen: All the evidence seems to suggest that the destroyed building really was a nuclear reactor. But the IAEA only got one opportunity to inspect the site. I feel the IAEA should have exercised its right to a special inspection. We were refused permission to enter Syria to carry out more research there and at other sites, and that remains the case to this day. It’s a clear, sanctionable breach of the agreements. Incidentally, the Deir al-Sur reactor bears a striking resemblance to the North Korean Yongbyon reactor.

{Der Spiegel/ Newscenter}