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Iran Primer: Iran's Nuclear Program


20 Oct 2010 22:22No Comments

[ primer ] A majority of the international community is at odds with Iran over its nuclear program because of its history of concealing its nuclear activities, the possible military nature of some of these activities, and its building of facilities in secret. Many of Iran's Arab neighbors, in addition to Israel, fear an Iranian nuclear bomb and could seek their own nuclear deterrent if Iran succeeds in acquiring nuclear weapons.

Iran initially constructed in secret its gas centrifuge uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and a heavy water production plant at Arak. The existence of these major facilities was revealed in 2002, and they are subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. In 2006, Iran significantly reduced the inspection rights of the IAEA with its refusal to continue implementing the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This reversal prompted concern that Iran could conduct significant nuclear activities in secret. The Protocol requires Iran to supply the IAEA more detailed declarations of its nuclear activities and much greater access to nuclear sites than traditional safeguards.

Amplifying worries about Iran's nuclear intentions, in September 2009, the United States, France, and Britain revealed the existence of a small, covert uranium enrichment plant being built in Iran near the city of Qom. The United States suspected the facility could be used to quickly produce enough nuclear explosive material, or highly enriched uranium, for a nuclear weapon -- a potential development commonly called "breakout." The IAEA does not have confidence Iran is not building additional clandestine enrichment sites. Iran has refused to answer the IAEA's questions about evidence of past and potentially ongoing work on nuclear weaponization and the development of nuclear warheads for missile delivery systems.


Iran's controversial nuclear program has evolved through at least six phases.

Phase one: Beginnings -- 1950s-1960s

Iran initiated its nuclear program in 1957, under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, with an agreement on nuclear cooperation with the United States under the Atoms for Peace program. In 1960, it purchased from the United States a small research reactor, which is located at the Tehran Nuclear Research Center. The reactor started operation in 1967. Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, on the day it opened for signature. The United States provided highly enriched uranium fuel for the first several years of the reactor's operation. In the early 1990s, Argentina took over providing low-enriched uranium fuel.

Phase two: Ambitious options -- 1970s

The shah established the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) in 1974 and announced plans to build 20 nuclear power reactors for energy production. The United States, France, and West Germany subsequently sought lucrative power reactor deals. In 1974, Iran signed a contract with the German firm Kraftwerk Union (a subsidiary of Siemens) to build two reactors at Bushehr. It also purchased nearly 600 tons of uranium yellowcake from South Africa.

The shah wanted to keep open the option of developing nuclear weapons by seeking access to the full nuclear fuel cycle. The former head of AEOI, Akbar Etemad, revealed to Le Figaro in 2003 that he tasked a special research team with "giv[ing] the country access to all technologies, giving the political decision-makers the possibility of making the appropriate decision, and doing so while time permitted them to build a bomb if that is what was required."

Iran attempted during the 1970s to develop laser enrichment technology and tried to acquire a plutonium reprocessing capability. Declassified U.S. government documents from 1974 to 1977 indicate that Iran's quest for a reprocessing capability was opposed by the United States during negotiations over sales of U.S. reactors to Iran. The United States also sought to deny the sale of a reprocessing facility from Germany to Iran. Washington eventually secured the right to the return and storage of spent reactor fuel from any reactors it built in Iran in a nuclear agreement concluded in 1978.

Phase three: Revolution, war, and secret contacts -- 1979-1988

After the 1979 Revolution, Iran suspended its nuclear program because of opposition to nuclear power by its new leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Its nuclear cooperation with the United States ended with their rupture in bilateral relations. Construction on two semi-finished reactors at Bushehr and plans for two reactors to be built by France at Ahvaz were scrapped. In 1982, Iran sought to resume work on the Bushehr reactors, partially due to the regime's recognition of the financial complexity of halting the commercial reactor project.

The devastating 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War heavily influenced Ayatollah Khomeini's decision to restart Iran's nuclear program. The war prompted leading political figures to call for Iran's development of a nuclear deterrent, demands that were bolstered by its fear of the United States and growing evidence of a covert Iraqi nuclear weapons program. A 2009 internal IAEA working document reports that in April 1984, then President Ali Khamenei announced to top Iranian officials that Khomeini had decided to reactivate the nuclear program as the only way to secure the Islamic Revolution from the schemes of its enemies, especially the United States and Israel.

Iran began developing an indigenous gas centrifuge program in 1985, according to IAEA reports. Iranians visited potential suppliers abroad in order to acquire and learn how to operate key centrifuge equipment. In 1987, Iran acquired key components from the A.Q. Khan network, a rogue nuclear supply network operating out of Pakistan's state-run nuclear weapons program. The components included:

* A starter kit for a gas centrifuge plant
* A set of technical drawings for a P-1 (Pakistani) centrifuge
* Samples of centrifuge components; and
* Instructions for enriching uranium to weapon grade levels.

Weapon-grade uranium is the most desirable highly enriched uranium for fission nuclear weapons and is over 90 percent enriched.

Phase four: Enrichment and procurement -- 1988-2002

Iran made deliberate, steady progress in its quest to achieve the full nuclear fuel cycle. It advanced its uranium mining infrastructure, uranium conversion capabilities, indigenous heavy water reactor and associated heavy water production plant, and uranium enrichment programs. In 1990, Iran and China signed a nuclear cooperation agreement. In 1991, Iran secretly imported from China one metric ton of uranium hexafluoride (UF6), which it was obligated under its IAEA safeguards agreement to report to the Agency, but did not. Uranium hexafluoride is the feed gas for gas centrifuges and is difficult to make. Between 1994 and 1996, Iran also purchased from the A.Q. Khan network design drawings and components for 500 P-1 centrifuges, according to the IAEA. It received drawings for the more sophisticated P-2 centrifuge from the network in 1995 but claimed that it did not start work on the P-2 until 2002.

In early 1995, Russia began reconstructing one of the reactors at Bushehr, which had been badly damaged during the Iran-Iraq War. The United States persuaded Russia to halt its negotiations to sell Iran a centrifuge enrichment facility. Russian companies also provided technical assistance in designing a heavy water reactor that Iran was constructing at Arak, but U.S. pressure succeeded in convincing Russia to halt cooperation on this venture in the late 1990s. After years of delay, the Bushehr reactor was started in 2010 and will be under IAEA safeguards, with Russia providing the fuel and taking it back.

In 1999 and 2002, Iran conducted tests on test centrifuges installed at Kalaye Electric Company, its secret centrifuge R&D facility, using the Chinese-supplied UF6. These tests constituted violations of Iran's safeguards agreements, or violations of Iran's verification requirements under the NPT. In 2001, again in secret, Iran began constructing a vast underground enrichment facility near the city of Natanz. In 2002, the National Council of Resistance of Iran held a press conference in Washington, D.C., to disclose secret nuclear activities taking place at Natanz and Arak, and revealed the names of entities and officials involved with the nuclear program. The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) located these sites and released satellite imagery of both Natanz and Arak in December 2002. ISIS identified Natanz as a gas centrifuge facility.

Phase five: Investigations, diplomacy, and sanctions -- 2003-2009

The IAEA visited Iran's newly disclosed nuclear facilities in February 2003 following substantial international pressure for Iran to open its facilities to inspection. The Natanz above-ground pilot enrichment plant could hold 1,000 centrifuges, while its underground halls were equipped to hold 50,000. The agency also inspected the heavy water production facility at Arak.

Britain, France, and Germany, referred to as the EU-3, succeeded in the fall of 2003 in persuading Iran to verifiably suspend its uranium enrichment activities and implement the NPT's Additional Protocol. These two measures significantly strengthened the IAEA's ability to inspect Iran's nuclear program and ensure that it did not have secret nuclear sites. In 2004, Iran and the EU-3 signed the Paris Agreement, which extended the temporary suspension of Iran's nuclear activities, pending negotiations of long-term arrangements.

Iran's suspension lasted for three years, and then Iran restarted its gas centrifuge program and the manufacturing of centrifuges. It also resumed operations at the Isfahan uranium conversion facility that makes uranium hexafluoride. It stopped voluntarily implementing the Additional Protocol in 2006, and refused to answer satisfactorily the IAEA's questions about past or ongoing experimentation on nuclear weaponization and the development of nuclear warheads for missile delivery systems.

In mid-2009, the United States joined the EU-3 in diplomatic negotiations with Iran, after years of refusing to do so. These negotiations did not produce a breakthrough. In September 2009, the leaders of the United States, France, and Britain publicly revealed the existence of a secret uranium enrichment site being built underground near the holy city of Qom. The facility's revelation prompted concern that Iran intended to construct a potential breakout facility where it could quickly make weapon-grade uranium for a bomb.

Against the backdrop of diplomatic negotiations, the U.N. Security Council passed four rounds of economic sanctions against Iran between 2006 and 2010 for its failure to suspend enrichment and cooperate adequately with the IAEA. The sanctions target entities and officials associated with the nuclear program and Iran's illicit banking, shipping, and trading activities that support its nuclear program.

Phase six: International tensions -- 2010

Iran continues to refuse to halt its enrichment program, and has expanded work at Natanz. It has also increased the level of enrichment at the Natanz pilot plant. In 2010, Iran began enriching its 3.5 percent uranium to 20 percent at the Natanz pilot plant, purportedly for use in fueling the Tehran Research Reactor. Suspicions remain that the underlying motivation is to learn to enrich even further, to 90 percent, or weapon-grade. International efforts to broker a deal in which Iran would send most of its 3.5 percent enriched uranium out of the country, in return for 20 percent enriched fuel from abroad, stalled in 2009. The deal would obviate the need for Iran to make 20 percent uranium. The United States proposed the deal as a way to build confidence in negotiations and extend the timeline of Iran acquiring the capability to make enough weapon-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon.

In mid-2010, most estimates put Iran within a year of being able to build a crude nuclear weapon, and longer to make a reliable warhead for a ballistic missile. International discussion about the merits of a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities by Israel, the United States, or some combination of countries continues, at odds with those favoring sanctions or engagement to induce Iran to change its apparent course.


* The Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant has approximately 4,000 P-1 centrifuges enriching, and almost 9,000 P-1 centrifuges installed. The Qom site has a few installed centrifuges, but Iran halted work at the site following its discovery.

* Iran has produced approximately 2,400 kg of 3.5 percent low-enriched uranium (LEU) as of May 2010, and 17 kg of 19.75 percent uranium as of June 2010 at Natanz. Iran continues to refine its ability to efficiently produce 19.75 percent enriched uranium and to expand its centrifuge efficiency, as well as the numbers in operation.

* Iran has enough low-enriched uranium to produce about two nuclear weapons, if it decided to enrich the LEU up to weapon-grade.

* Other undeclared enrichment sites may be under construction. Iran announced it will begin construction on the first of ten new sites in March 2011. But Iran lacks the capability to outfit ten enrichment sites.

* A parallel nuclear program could be used for breakout. A secret enrichment site using diverted low-enriched uranium from Natanz would require approximately 2,000 P-1 centrifuges to produce about 25 kilograms to 40 kilograms of weapon-grade uranium in one year. The upper bound would require the P-1 centrifuges to operate better than they currently do at Natanz. However, Iran is working to improve the P-1 centrifuges' operation and in parallel to develop more powerful, reliable centrifuges. Operating with 1,000 centrifuges, a covert enrichment site using P-1s could produce about 40-70 kilograms of weapon-grade uranium per year, starting with 20 percent enriched uranium. A nuclear weapon test device could require less than 20 kg of weapon-grade uranium. A nuclear warhead for a missile may contain as much as 25 kilograms of weapon-grade uranium.

* The IAEA believes Iran has sufficient information to design and produce a workable implosion nuclear device based upon highly enriched uranium as the fission fuel. A high-explosive implosion system developed by Iran could be contained within a payload container small enough to fit into the re-entry body chamber of the Shahab-3 missile. The IAEA does not believe that Iran has yet achieved the means to integrate a nuclear payload into the Shahab-3.

Organizations and individuals

Atomic Energy Council (AEC): Iran's general nuclear policy is directed by the AEC, which was created by the same law that created the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran in 1974.

Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI): The AEOI was established in 1974 to oversee Iran's civil nuclear program. It also oversees Iran's clandestine nuclear activities.

Field for Expansion of Advanced Technologies' Deployment (FEDAT): This is reportedly the current name of the sector working on Iran's clandestine nuclear activities.

Ministry of Defense: The IAEA believes the ministry plays an active role in the development of a nuclear payload for the Shahab-3 missile.

Supreme Leader: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ultimate say over Iran's nuclear program, and all major decisions on the nuclear issue require his approval.

Supreme National Security Council (SNSC): The SNSC is concerned mainly with defense and national security policies. Key nuclear decisions are dominated by the Supreme Leader and a relatively small group of senior leaders and advisors, including those in the Supreme National Security Council.

The future

* It is not known whether Iranian leaders intend to break out and build a nuclear weapon. A breakout using facilities under safeguards at Natanz is likely to be detected within weeks, which would likely precipitate a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.

* To avoid risking an attack, there are two main ways for Iran to secretly produce highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. One way is to produce it through an entirely secret parallel program, which would duplicate its current capabilities. The other way is to build a secret enrichment facility and divert low-enriched uranium from Natanz to the new facility for further enrichment. Diversion would be detected but inspectors may not be able to determine the new location of the low-enriched uranium.

* Using a military strike to significantly set back Iran's nuclear program poses immense difficulties. Many of Iran's nuclear facilities are constructed partially or entirely underground. Research and development as well as centrifuge manufacturing facilities -- at least those that have been identified -- are widely dispersed and often located in major population centers.

* Several of Iran's neighbors are now seeking to build nuclear reactors. And Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have not ruled out enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium domestically. The spread of advanced nuclear technology in the Middle East, combined with the perceived Iranian threat, raises the potential for significant regional proliferation.

The Obama administration has stated that it will prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Its priority means to achieve this goal is diplomacy, but it has not ruled out use of military force.

David Albright, a physicist and former U.N. weapons inspector, is the president and founder of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington, D.C. Andrea Stricker is a research analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). This article is presented by Tehran Bureau, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as part of the Iran project at iranprimer.usip.org.

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