MANAUS, Brazil (Reuters) – The United States has seen information suggesting Iran is working on the technology to deliver a nuclear warhead on a missile, Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Wednesday.
“I have seen some information that would suggest they have been actively working on delivery systems … you don’t have a weapon until you can put it in something that can deliver a weapon,” he told reporters during a brief stop in Brazil on his way to an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Chile.
“I’m talking about what one does with a warhead,” Powell said. “We are talking about information that says they not only have (the) missiles but information that suggests they are working hard about how to put the two together.”
The United States accuses Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons and wants the matter to be addressed by the U.N. Security Council, which could impose sanctions. Tehran says its nuclear program is aimed at generating electricity.
U.S. officials have estimated that Iran is three to five years from developing a nuclear weapons, but some independent experts have said it could obtain one sooner.
Joseph Cirincione, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Non-Proliferation Project, said arms control experts have long assumed that to the extent Iran was working to develop nuclear weapons and missiles it was also pursuing the separate technological challenge of mating them.
“Powell seems to be hinting at some new information that he has indicating that they are pushing to actually make this warhead design (work) with their existing missiles,” Cirincione said. “We have all assumed that Iran is trying to do this.”
Cirincione said it took considerable expertise to shrink a nuclear bomb to fit on a missile with a one-ton (-tonne) payload and to make it sturdy enough to survive rocket launch and reentry, calling this “a whole separate technological” challenge.
Powell’s disclosure came as the United States and the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency — the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency — jockeyed over Iran’s nuclear program.
On Tuesday, the IAEA, summarizing its two-year probe of Iran’s nuclear activities, said Tehran had not diverted any of its declared nuclear materials to a weapons program.
Although the agency did not rule out the possibility that secret atomic activities existed, the report was a victory for Iran, which has been fighting off U.S. efforts to refer the issue to the U.N. Security Council.
European negotiations this week produced an Iranian promise to halt uranium enrichment activities from Nov. 22 and a U.S. official acknowledged this would prevent the IAEA board from sending the matter to the Security Council at its Nov. 25 meeting.
Instead, the Bush administration will try to obtain a board promise to immediately refer Iran to the Security Council at some future point if, as many U.S. officials expect, Tehran reneges on the deal, this official said.
Separately, Powell said he could not corroborate details of a report by an exiled Iranian opposition group that Iran got weapons-grade uranium and a nuclear bomb design from Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani scientist who has admitted to selling nuclear secrets abroad.