EBWs: Detonation, Procrastination, Explanation

Another day, another bit of progress on Iran.

This time it’s the IAEA that’s had some success: they’ve convinced Tehran to address several aspects of the IAEA’s ever-expanding file on Iran’s nuclear program. You can read the press release here

The IAEA has wheedled some decent concessions. For the first time, IAEA inspectors will get boots on the ground at Iran’s Saghand (معدن اورانیوم ساغند) and Gachin uranium mines (معدن اورانیوم گچین). Gachin, you’ll recall, was earmarked to produce uranium for the AMAD (آماد) nuclear weapons program before being repurposed for civil use in 2004.

Iran has also promised to provide the IAEA with further information about the plutonium-capable heavy water reactor at Arak (راکتور آب سنگین اراک), as well as data on other acquisitions of nuclear material Iran might have obtained from abroad, or from phosphate mining.

And the IAEA will get access to Iran’s National Laser Research Centre (مرکز ملی علوم و فنون لیزر ایران) at Lashkar Abad (لشکر آباد), home to Iran’s pre-2004 laser enrichment work - and the location for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s best ever photo shoot



All very positive stuff.

But where things get particularly interesting is the final concession that Iran has made to the IAEA: a promise to explain why it conducted experiments on devices called exploding bridgewire detonators, widely known as EBWs, prior to 2004. EBWs were invented in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. They’re detonators used in the implosion systems of nuclear weapons. Their utility outside nuclear weapons programs is marginal, at best.

Iran knows this. The IAEA knows this. So with Iran agreeing to talk about about EBWs, it means that the weaponisation issue is back on the table for discussion and debate. This comes after a long period of stonewalling by Tehran on the so-called Possible Military Dimensions of its nuclear program.

Nice work, IAEA. Slightly more problematic is the issue of just what the IAEA hopes to coax out of Iran on the question of EBWs.

After all, it’s not the first time that the IAEA has tried to get Iran to admit that its pre-2004 EBW research was for nuclear weaponisation purposes. In 2008, based on information provided to it by various intelligence agencies, top IAEA inspector Olli Heinonen told IAEA members that Iran’s research on EBWs was “not consistent with any application other than the development of a nuclear weapon.”

And indeed, Heinonen went so far as to suggest that Iran’s EBW work was part of research conducted by the AMAD nuclear weapons program on two nuclear weapon designs - an unwieldy design that used 64 EBWs, and a more elegant design that used only two. (The first design, we might speculate, came from AQ Khan)

This was damning stuff. But Iran, as usual, stonewalled - admitting working on EBWs but saying that they were doing so for ‘conventional [i.e. non-nuclear] purposes.’

And then came stalemate. So what, five years on, can the IAEA do to build the case on EBWs - and, more broadly, on Iran’s historic work on nuclear weapon implosion systems? Unfortunately, one of the men the IAEA would probably most want to speak to about EBWs is dead.

That’s Darioush Rezaeinejad (داریوش رضایی نژاد), one of the talented young researchers recruited by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh (محسن فخری زاده) to continue work on Iran’s detonation systems after the termination of AMAD. Rezaienejad, like other members of Fakhrizadeh’s METFAZ/CREST (مركز تحقيقات و فناوري انفجار و ضربه) explosives team, would have been a prime candidate to explain the civil uses - or lack thereof - of EBWs.

While Rezaienejad can’t provide any answers, there are still other leads that the IAEA might pursue. Naturally your Redline correspondent will look to help out.

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