FPI Bulletin: Nuclear Deal Could Give Iran Warhead Detonators

August 12, 2015

As part of the nuclear deal with Iran, the U.S. and its negotiating partners pledged that they “will cooperate, as appropriate, in the field of peaceful uses of nuclear energy and engage in mutually determined civil nuclear cooperation projects.” (Paragraph xiii) While not objectionable in principle, this cooperation may entail the transfer of dual-use technologies that may advance Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities. One specific cause of concern is the potential transfer of what Annex IV describes as “multi-point explosive detonation systems suitable for a nuclear explosive device.” (Section 2, Paragraph 5)

The first annex to the nuclear deal prohibits Iran from developing or purchasing a multi-point detonation system “unless approved by the Joint Commission for non-nuclear purposes and subject to monitoring.” (Paragraph 82) The nature of such monitoring is never specified. More important is the question of why the agreement would even consider allowing Iran to acquire such technology.

In 2011, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported its strong suspicion that Iran had conducted extensive experiments to develop a multipoint initiation system suitable for a nuclear warhead. (A multi-point initiation system and a multi-point explosive detonation system are alternate descriptions of the same device.) A multi-point initiator employs conventional explosives to create a very powerful but precise shockwave that helps to initiate the implosion of the uranium or plutonium that gives a warhead its destructive potential.

The relatively small size of a multipoint initiator makes it possible to mount a warhead on a ballistic missile. According to a 2011 report from the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), the IAEA discovered that Iran had been working on “a round multipoint initiation system that would fit inside the payload chamber of the Shahab 3 missile tri-conic nose cone.”

The same ISIS report identified Vyacheslav Danilenko, a scientist with decades of experience in the Soviet nuclear weapons complex, as the one who provided Iran with the expertise necessary to develop multipoint initiators. Along with his colleagues, Danilenko’s research led to the discovery that powerful explosions can produce microscopic diamonds, or nanodiamonds, that have numerous commercial applications.

After the Cold War, Danilenko went into the nanodiamonds business. When his firm fell on hard times, Danilenko turned to Iran. While Danilenko disputes the assertion that he intentionally contributed to nuclear weapons research, his business ventures provided a very convenient cover for Tehran’s acquisition of weapons-related technology.

The suggestion that Iran be allowed to acquire multipoint initiators seems especially foolhardy given that it has an established record of misusing this exact technology in order to pursue nuclear weapons.

To acquire multipoint initiators, Iran would have to file a request with the Joint Commission, an oversight body established by the nuclear deal. The U.S., the EU, Iran and the other five countries who negotiated the deal will each appoint one representative to the Commission. According to Annex IV, Section 4, “decisions by the Joint Commission are to be made by consensus.” Presumably, this means that each member of the Commission has veto power, so the U.S. alone could block any proposal to let Iran develop or purchase multipoint initiators.

On the other hand, Section 3 of the same annex specifies that “the work of the Joint Commission is confidential and may be shared only among JCPOA participants and observers as appropriate, unless the Joint Commission decides otherwise.” This raises the question of whether the executive branch can or would share with Congress a full account of decisions made by the Joint Commission, including those related to dual-use technologies such as multipoint initiators.

At first blush, it seems inconceivable that the U.S. would ever approve the development or purchase of multipoint initiators by Iran. Yet while negotiating the nuclear deal, the current administration made a number of concessions that it previously described as unthinkable. If there is no external review of Joint Commission proceedings, there is reason to be concerned that this administration or a similarly inclined successor might allow Iran to acquire multipoint initiators.

The question of open communication between the executive and legislative branches has become increasingly important as a result of undisclosed agreements between Iran and the IAEA that are part of the nuclear deal. These side agreements address the extent to which Iran will have to cooperate with an investigation of the possible military dimensions (PMD) of its nuclear program, including the development and testing of multipoint initiators. While any acquisition of multipoint initiators would entail serious risks, it would be a travesty if Iran were allowed to acquire them without even disclosing the extent to which it misused such technology in the past.

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