Wisconsin Project Interview with William H. Tobey on Curbing Iran's Nuclear Program

Interview Series
January 18, 2007

Publication Type: 

  • Interviews and Podcasts

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear

On January 18, 2007, the Wisconsin Project's IranWatch.org web site spoke with William H. Tobey, Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration, U.S. Department of Energy. Mr. Tobey described U.S. efforts to implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 1737, and the impact that this resolution could have on Iran's nuclear program. He argued that despite Iran's progress in building and operating centrifuges for uranium enrichment, export controls could still impair Iran's advance towards attaining a nuclear weapon capability.

The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Iran Watch (IW): Let's start by talking about the status of Iran's enrichment program. There have been reports that Iran is having trouble running its centrifuge cascades, and that the second cascade it installed at its pilot enrichment plant at Natanz was slower than expected to come on-line.

William H. Tobey (WT): The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has made clear that Iran has built and maintained a small-scale centrifuge line, and Iran has talked about having aspirations towards a larger one. There are difficult engineering problems in moving from a smaller scale line to a larger scale one, and it's not clear to me that Iran is yet capable of that. But the desire is clearly there, and Iran clearly possesses pieces of the technology that are required. That's why the enrichment program is of great concern, and that's why U.N. Security Council Resolution 1737 requires an enrichment suspension.

IW: How would you qualify Iran's progress on enrichment? Would you say that it's as expected? Or slower than expected?

WT: That's hard to say. We know that these programs take time. It's not basic science. Setting up centrifuge cascades successfully is a matter of integration, and I think that to the extent that Iran is having trouble, that would be it.

IW: Then Iran doesn't necessarily need anything more from outside suppliers, it just needs to resolve these issues internally and work on integration?

WT: Export controls can still slow Iran down. While no export control system is 100 percent effective, I think that export controls can impair Iran's ability to gain both nuclear technology and materials necessary for manufacturing nuclear equipment, especially when you consider that Iran may be looking to greatly expand the number of centrifuges it's operating from several hundred to several thousand, or perhaps even more than several thousand. That expansion is likely to require technology and materials from outside of Iran. And therefore I think that it's worth the effort to make it difficult for Iran to acquire such items.

IW: To make an analogy between enrichment and integrating rockets: if you look at China, it received advice, and people coming in from outside to provide design concepts and other intangible things. Could you comment on the extent to which the Iranians need that and are getting it? Or might be getting it?

WT: The IAEA has indicated that Iran has received outside assistance. And I don't think Iran would have relied on outside help if it didn't need such help, because there is obviously a risk in terms of possible exposure.

IW: You did say that export control could make a difference. Can you speak more specifically on the types of technology or equipment that Iran might be seeking?

WT: The latest Security Council resolution sent the message that Iran should be denied any technology or equipment that could be useful to enrichment, or reprocessing, or nuclear weapon delivery systems. And while the resolution may or may not block Iranian aspirations, I think that it can impair their efforts.

IW: The Security Council resolution doesn't require states to block the transfer of dual-use nuclear technology to Iran. It calls on states to make a determination of whether or not the item Iran is seeking would be directly useful in specific programs-enrichment, heavy water, or missiles-and to deny exports based on that determination. This seems to leave a lot of room for interpretation.

WT: Well, that's true. But I took a fair amount of encouragement from operative paragraph 3 of the resolution, which says that:

"all states shall take the necessary measures to prevent the supply, sale or transfer directly or indirectly from their territories, or by their nationals or using their flag vessels or aircraft to or for the use or benefit of Iran, and whether or not originating in their territories, of all items, materials, equipment, goods and technology which could contribute to Iran's enrichment-related, reprocessing or heavy-water related activities, or to the development of nuclear weapon delivery systems."

That's a fairly blanket statement. I would argue that states are under an obligation to deny essentially anything that could be to the benefit of the enrichment, reprocessing, heavy water, or nuclear weapon delivery programs.

IW: So, you're saying that paragraph 3 covers all items related to those programs?

WT: I don't think that anything in the paragraphs covering dual-use goods should be construed as diminishing the power of paragraph 3. It's clear that all states should take the necessary measures to prevent the sale, supply, transfer, etc. of all of those items. Our own export control system already blocks these items from being transferred to Iran. And the United States is going to be working to make sure that other countries do the same. That said, I am fully willing to admit that between the writing in a Security Council resolution and the implementation of such resolutions by states, there is sometimes a gap.

IW: What about Bushehr, the light-water reactor that Russia is building in Iran? There's an exception in the resolution for items related to light-water reactors. This exception is obviously meant for Bushehr, so that Russia is not prevented from supplying the fuel for the reactor and from bringing it on-line. Do you think Russia will proceed if Iran's nuclear dossier is still before the Security Council?

WT: That's an interesting question. We've heard various things from the Russians about when the fuel would be delivered. But so far it hasn't happened; the fuel still hasn't shown up. I take that as an encouraging sign.

IW: Regardless of the Security Council resolution, would it be all right to supply the fuel for Bushehr under Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) rules, since there has been a formal finding of non-compliance against Iran by the IAEA?

WT: Well, there is an NSG guideline not to supply nuclear trigger-list items to states that have been found in non-compliance with their safeguards obligations. Fuel would be a trigger-list item. Iran would be a state found in non-compliance. The syllogism isn't that hard to complete. That said, our focus is on denying technologies listed in Security Council Resolution 1737.

IW: What do you think the Russians will do? Would the United States expect them not to supply the fuel under these circumstances?

WT: We would hope that Russia would do what is necessary to encourage Iran to change its course--that it would use all the elements of its diplomatic and economic power to do that.

IW: On Bushehr in general and on this exception for light-water reactor related items that Iran would still be able to import, do you see Bushehr being able to act as a cover for Iran to continue to import what it might need for other parts of its nuclear program?

WT: Well, the real concern that we've got is Iran's enrichment work. The logic of the U.S., European and Russian position has been to present the Iranians with a choice. They could have a nuclear power program, and enjoy international nuclear cooperation, if they provide the necessary assurances that their program is strictly for peaceful purposes. But if they insist on pursuing a program that has its roots in activity that is 20 years old and covert, then they have not provided the necessary assurances and therefore cannot enjoy international nuclear cooperation. The Iranians can have the benefits of civil nuclear cooperation, or they can continue on their current course, but they can't have both.

IW: Still, nothing in the resolution prevents Iran from purchasing items for Bushehr, notably from Russia. The question is whether that technology might have other applications.

WT: I think that the technology of utmost concern is related to enrichment and reprocessing. In addition, the logic of the Bushehr is that there would be fuel supply by and "take back" to Russia.

IW: Is it clear that the Russians will only supply fuel if there's take back? Is there anything executed in writing that confirms this agreement?

WT: The Russians have said that there is a contract that provides for take back.

IW: What do you see as the IAEA role in terms of verifying the end-use of those items Iran is still allowed to import under the terms of the Security Council resolution?

WT: Beyond its safeguards mission, I don't know that the IAEA has such a role at this point.

IW: Then do you think that the IAEA's role in this regard could be expanded?

WT: We certainly would be in favor of expanding the IAEA's role, for instance in verifying that Iran is in compliance with the Agency's Additional Protocol. Iran had agreed to act as if the Additional Protocol were in force, and also had agreed to ratify it--neither of which is still the case. But both IAEA and Security Council resolutions mandate, and certainly the United States would prefer that Iran enact and ratify the Additional Protocol.

IW: Verifying the end-use of dual-use nuclear and missile imports would be beyond even the Additional Protocol. Would you consider that to be a useful task for the IAEA?

WT: I think it's potentially useful and something that's worth considering.

IW: How likely is the Security Council to endorse such an expanded role for the IAEA?

WT: I think it depends ultimately on whether or not Iran shows any willingness to pay attention to the current Security Council resolution.

IW: We haven't talked about a parallel program. There is evidence which raises the question of whether Iran has a parallel program. If you look at the evidence that points to the possibility of one, how do you come out? Do you think the evidence is pretty strong?

WT: I would refer you to the various reports prepared by the IAEA. The IAEA is able to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material. But the Agency is unable to make further progress in efforts to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities; it cannot verify the absence of a parallel program. So, this will remain a significant issue, both at the IAEA and at the Security Council, until Iran reverses course on a number of issues, including the implementation of the Additional Protocol and of additional transparency measures.

IW: In your judgment, are there particular questions about a parallel program that one should concentrate on, or that one should in particular be concerned about?

WT: The IAEA has catalogued a number of them. One is the so-called Green Salt Project, as well as studies related to high explosives testing and the design of a missile re-entry vehicle. Another is a document related to the casting of uranium metal into hemispherical form. There are also unexplained and troubling results from a series of environmental samples. These are all important issues to resolve. In its November 2006 report, the IAEA revealed a certain sense of frustration in its inability to get Iran to answer longstanding questions. Until those questions are answered, the IAEA can't verify the absence of undeclared activities or materials in Iran.

IW: How do those unanswered questions affect your sense of the timeline, of how much time we have?

WT: That's a fair question, but one that's difficult to answer. I would say that based on what is known about Iran's activities, it has made serious progress in its ability to enrich uranium. We are therefore working within some fairly serious time constraints.

IW: So you are not reassured by the argument that Iran is having trouble operating its centrifuges together, in a cascade?

WT: I'd be reassured by a cessation of Iran's enrichment and reprocessing activity and a return to serious negotiations. Iran's acceptance of IAEA and Security Council resolutions that requires it to cease those activities and to return to negotiations would be reassuring. Anything short of that is not.

IW: You say reprocessing. Do you have any information about current reprocessing activities underway in Iran?

WT: No, I simply spoke of reprocessing as one of the activities that Iran is required to suspend under the terms of the Security Council resolution.

IW: The development of the more advanced P-2 centrifuge is another open question. Iran originally said that it had abandoned the project. But more recently, Iran's president and other officials have suggested that they plan to pursue the P-2 or that they are pursuing it. That would obviously be worrisome and would change the timeline. Could you comment on the status of this program?

WT: Statements made by Iranian officials that they would pursue the P-2 in the face of IAEA and Security Council resolutions calling on them to stop all enrichment work are troubling. In its November 2006 report, the IAEA noted that Iran has refused to provide any further information on the P-2.

IW: This has been Iran's answer on a number of open questions. The IAEA appears to have hit a wall in its investigation.

WT: Yes, I think that's right, which is very troubling.

IW: Do you have any reason to think that there might be a development that would shed more light on these questions?

WT: Not at the moment. It is going to take time. The Security Council resolution was only recently passed. I have seen press reports that there is a growing sense of unease in Iran. Iran is a multi-faceted society and isolation is not what is sought by many segments of the Iranian population. The passage of the Security Council resolution sends a message to those groups that if Iran continues on its present course, matters are likely to get worse for them, not better.

IW: So you think Resolution 1737 could make a difference?

WT: Well, it will be difficult to stop Iran with anything short of effective sanctions. And at the same time, the Security Council has historically been reluctant to adopt the strongest of these measures at the outset of a process. The logic of those historical facts is that a gradual set of measures is likely to be pursued by the Security Council. I would imagine that a further negative report by the IAEA would be a strong motivation for the Security Council to take further action.

IW: Why would one more report, using the same language about not being able to finish the job, strongly motivate everyone to take further action? Could new information on Iran's activities prompt the Security Council to act more quickly?

WT: Yes, and part of the new information may be a confirmation that Iran has increased its enrichment capacity.

IW: How do your efforts at the Department of Energy (DOE) fit into U.S. government efforts concerning Iran? What does DOE provide?

WT: We provide technical support for policy makers, both in the United States and at the IAEA, to help them understand the context of the Iranian program. For example, we provided a briefing on the Iranian power program and the economic illogic of a domestic fuel enrichment base to support that program, as limited as it is. Iran would be far better off, from an economic standpoint, importing its nuclear fuel. Its nuclear industry is just too small for an indigenous enrichment program to make economic sense.

If Iran were truly interested in generating more power for its economy, it would do better to capture the natural gas that it flares at a higher rate than most other Middle Eastern countries. If Iran took down its rate of flare by one percent, as I recall, it could essentially generate the energy provided by the Bushehr reactor. And its flare rate is in the seven percent range.

IW: That argues against a nuclear power program entirely, as opposed to just arguing against enrichment.

WT: If Iran wants a nuclear power program, it would make more sense for it to buy the fuel from overseas and not to produce it indigenously. That's part of the logic of the various proposals that have been made by Russia and the United States and others in terms of making an assured fuel supply available to countries that are meeting their proliferation obligations.

We've actually received an encouraging level of support for our nuclear energy partnership proposal, which is largely consistent with Russian President Vladimir Putin's proposals for an international fuel center. And there is a complimentary proposal by the six enrichment countries for assured fuel supply. The United States has already set aside seventeen metric tons of highly enriched uranium to be down-blended and made available as a reserve. That seventeen metric tons is worth close to $500 million, so it's a substantial investment. We won't necessarily give it away, but it will be available if there is an interruption in supply that can't be met by the market.

IW: Could you comment on U.S. efforts to strengthen the various protections against illicit imports by Iran of items that would be useful for its enrichment, heavy water, reprocessing and missile efforts? Could you give us an idea of what the United States is doing, and if there is a push going on in that regard?

WT: There is a diplomatic campaign underway urging states to take seriously their responsibilities under Security Council Resolution 1737. That involves day-to-day contacts, demarches, continuing our work through the Proliferation Security Initiative, and a whole range of other activities.

IW: How is it going? Could you describe the U.S. effort to get the Security Council resolution vigorously implemented around the world?

WT: Well, the State Department has the lead on this. But it is one of the issues that we raise on a frequent basis during overseas trips and in day-to-day contacts by embassies. We want to make sure that countries realize how important it is that they implement this resolution.

And the implementation of Resolution 1737 is only one part of our overall nonproliferation effort. In my view, one of the most important initiatives that we have underway is the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, which held its first meeting in Rabat, Morocco last fall. This initiative started with a conversation between President Bush and President Putin, based on efforts to use lessons learned in the former Soviet Union in terms of securing dangerous nuclear material. It was codified at the St. Petersburg G-8 Summit, when the G-8 endorsed the Global Initiative. A total of 13 states met in Morocco, and our hope is that participation in the initiative will expand in ways similar to how the Proliferation Security Initiative has expanded.

The Global Initiative also gives practical means for countries to implement the legal requirements of Security Council Resolution 1540. 1540 criminalizes proliferation by non-state actors and requires states to enact and enforce effective export controls and to secure proliferation-sensitive materials. In a number of cases it was difficult for states to do this. They didn't have the expertise or the institutional means. In some cases coordination among countries was also difficult.

We're also instituting a system of best practices, including through programs like DOE commodity identification training. We've currently provided training in 40 countries to help customs inspectors identify nuclear sensitive material so that it can be interdicted.