The agency’s report was published at a moment that the Bush Administration’s efforts to greatly increase the pressure on the country is in disarray.
A National Intelligence Estimate published in early December concluded, to the surprise of many in the White House, that Iran had suspended its work on a weapons design in late 2003, apparently in response to growing international pressure. That report immediately undercut President Bush’s effort, in his last year in office, to rally other nations to impose harsh financial sanctions on Iran for continuing to produce uranium fuel. Russia and China, both of which have deep commercial relationships with Iran, have made clear they would not go along with severe sanctions, and a watered-down set of new sanctions is now headed back to the Security Council.
America’s allies in Europe have expressed puzzlement about the intelligence estimate, and some have suggested its timing was intended to reduce the chances that Mr. Bush could take military action against Iran’s nuclear sites in coming months, a notion intelligence officials deny. In recent weeks the director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, told Congress he now has regrets about how the intelligence estimate was presented, saying it had failed to emphasize that Iran is moving ahead with the hardest part of any bomb project: Producing the fuel. Designing a crude weapon is considered a far easier task.
It was the evidence that Iran was secretly working on such a design for many years that is now at the heart of the confrontation between Iran and the nuclear agency, which is based in Vienna.
Since 2005, the I.A.E.A. has urged the United States and other countries to allow the agency to confront Iran with evidence obtained on a laptop computer that once belonged to an Iranian technician with access to the country’s nuclear program. But the U.S. refused until a few weeks ago, and only agreed on Feb. 15, the report said, to allow original documents to be shown to the Iranians. In the report issued Friday, the agency described some of that evidence in public for the first time, “all of which the Agency believes would be relevant to nuclear weapon R & D.”
The most suspicious-looking document in the collection turned over to the I.A.E.A. was a schematic diagram showing what appeared to be the development of a warhead, with a layout of internal components. “This layout has been assessed by the agency as quite likely to be able to accommodate a nuclear device,” the I.A.E.A. wrote. But that does not prove it was a nuclear warhead, and Iran argued that its missile program used “conventional warheads only.”
The report referred to other documents drawn from the laptop — though the source of the material was never mentioned — that included documents describing how to test “high-voltage detonator firing equipment” and technology to fire multiple detonators at one time, which is required to trigger a nuclear reaction by forcing a nuclear core to implode. The report also described work on whether a detonation could be triggered in a 400-meter-deep shaft from a distance of 10 kilometers, or about six miles, leading to suspicions that the Iranian scientists were already thinking about nuclear testing. But it is unclear whether the shaft would have been wide enough for a nuclear weapon.
In a briefing for reporters and nuclear experts on Friday, a senior I.A.E.A. official said that the agency had reached no independent conclusions about whether the documents added up to an effort to build a nuclear weapon, or whether those efforts were suspended more than four years ago, as the National Intelligence Estimate concluded. “At this point in time we don’t make any conclusion” about the documents, the official said.
David Albright, a former weapons inspector who now runs the Institute for Science and International Security, said that “The issue now is whether this is symptomatic of a comprehensive nuclear weapons effort, or just individual projects. Is it part of a plan to design and develop a weapon that can fit on a nuclear missile? And if so, why are so many pieces missing?”