By James Phillips
By end of July, Iran will have enough low enriched uranium to build a bomb
Iran’s hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad celebrated the anniversary of Iran’s 1979 revolution on February 11 by proclaiming that Iran is a “nuclear state”. Iran’s radical Shia Islamist regime clearly sees its nuclear programme as a means of bolstering its sagging legitimacy and popularity, while expanding its prestige and global influence. It also sees nuclear weapons as a potent equaliser that could deter external attack and ensure its own survival. Tehran has spurned aggressive diplomatic offers from the Obama Administration to resolve the outstanding nuclear issue, just as it spurned efforts by the Bush Administration and by Britain, France, and Germany. As Ahmadinejad said in 2007, Iran’s nuclear programme is like a train “with no brakes and no reverse gear”. Despite five UN Security Council resolutions and three rounds of UN sanctions, Iran’s nuclear train speeds onward.
Iran has forged ahead on its nuclear programme despite growing international pressure to comply with its nuclear safeguard agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Since the discovery of its secret uranium enrichment facility at Natanz in 2002, Tehran has failed to keep its repeated pledges to cooperate fully with the IAEA to demonstrate that it has not used its civilian nuclear programme as a fig leaf to mask a nuclear weapons programme. Tehran has refused to fully disclose its nuclear activities and to stop its uranium enrichment efforts, which can produce fuel for nuclear reactors or, with further enrichment, the fissile material for a nuclear weapon. Iran has also pushed ahead on its ballistic missile programme and building a nuclear warhead that can be delivered by a missile.
The Obama Administration has sought to engage Iran diplomatically to defuse the nuclear standoff, but with little success. Instead, over the past year, Iran has spurned Western proposals to resolve the nuclear issue, insisted that it will continue to expand its nuclear programme, installed hundreds more centrifuges to enrich uranium, been caught secretly constructing another uranium enrichment facility, and pledged to build 10 more.
Moreover, on December 14, 2009, The Times of London reported that Western intelligence agencies had uncovered Iranian documents indicating that Iranian scientists had tested a neutron initiator, the component that triggers a nuclear weapon. A neutron initiator has no peaceful application. This discovery directly contradicts the US intelligence community’s position that Iran halted nuclear weapons-related work in 2003. On December 18, Iran announced that it was testing more advanced centrifuges, which could enrich uranium faster.
Since 2002, the IAEA has bent over backwards to give Iran the benefit of the doubt, in large part due to the politicised leadership of IAEA Director-General Mohammed ElBaradei, who was an outspoken critic of the Bush Administration and often acted as an apologist for Iran. In November 2009, Mr ElBaradei was replaced by Mr Yukiya Amano of Japan.
Under Director-General Amano's leadership, the IAEA appears to be taking a more objective look at the Iranian nuclear programme. On February 18, it issued a confidential report that warned for the first time of evidence that Tehran is working on a nuclear warhead for its missiles. This warning contradicts the controversial 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded that Iran had stopped working on a nuclear weapon in 2003.
It is time for the Obama Administration to acknowledge that its engagement policy has failed to budge the dictatorship in Tehran on the nuclear issue or on any other issue. As the history of Iran’s nuclear programme makes clear, Tehran has resisted multiple opportunities to defuse mounting tensions over its nuclear programme.
What Is Known
Tehran claims that its nuclear programme is devoted solely to civilian nuclear power and research purposes. This contention is contradicted by many facts and by a series of recent revelations.
Fact 1: Iran has built an extensive and expensive nuclear infrastructure that is much larger than what would be necessary to support a civilian nuclear power programme.
Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, cloaked within its civilian nuclear power programme, has made steady advances. Iran operates a large uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, which it illegally sought to conceal until 2003, and it is building up a stockpile of enriched uranium that is of no current use in its civilian nuclear energy programme.
Iran’s only nuclear power plant, which Russian technicians have almost finished testing at Bushehr, does not need domestically produced nuclear fuel because Moscow has agreed to provide all the enriched uranium that Iran needs to operate it for the first 10 years of operation. Moreover, Iran does not have a fuel fabrication plant that can produce reactor fuel for the Bushehr facility.
Iran has pursued virtually every possible technology for producing nuclear fuel and did so covertly and in violation of its treaty obligations to keep the IAEA informed. This includes laser separation, a costly and complex technology to enrich uranium that is ill suited to producing fissile fuel for a reactor. Iran has also conducted plutonium experiments and is building a reactor that appears intended for the large-scale production of plutonium.
The Iranian nuclear programme cannot be justified on strictly economic or energy grounds. Iran lacks sufficient uranium reserves to run power reactors for more than 10 years and would eventually be forced to import either uranium yellowcake or finished fuel rods to operate them. Moreover, harnessing Iran’s enormous natural gas reserves to generate electricity would be far less expensive, given that Iran is currently flaring and burning off natural gas as a byproduct of oil production.
Iran had produced approximately 1,400 kg of low enriched uranium metal at Natanz by January 31, 2010. The LEU is enriched to the level of about 3.5 per cent, and Tehran claims that it will be used for fuel rods for civilian nuclear reactors. Approximately 1,900 kg of LEU is needed to produce enough highly enriched uranium (20 kg) to build a nuclear weapon. At its current rate of production, Iran will have enough LEU by the end of July to produce a nuclear weapon if it were further enriched. Once the decision is made, the uranium processing and weapon manufacturing could take as little as six months. Experts quoted by The New York Times in December 2009 claimed that Iran’s centrifuges could probably produce enough LEU for two weapons per year.
Tehran is also building a heavy water reactor at Arak, which it tried to build secretly in violation of its treaty obligations. If this reactor is brought online, the plutonium that it produces can be accessed at any time. Once a state has acquired a functioning heavy water reactor like the one at Arak — or even a light water reactor like the one at Bushehr — and it is reprocessing spent fuel rods to extract the plutonium, it gains access to a much easier and more plentiful source of weapons-grade fissile material than is produced in most uranium enrichment facilities. Plutonium also offers the advantage of having a smaller critical mass (the minimum amount needed to produce a nuclear explosion) than uranium-235. Using plutonium allows construction of smaller and lighter nuclear warheads, which are more easily delivered by missiles.
Tehran claims that it needs the Arak facility to produce isotopes for medical purposes. In late-October, IAEA inspectors discovered 600 barrels that Iran said contained heavy water, which is used in heavy water reactors as a neutron moderator and coolant. Producing heavy water is very difficult and a major obstacle to operating a heavy water reactor. The heavy water discovered in October may have been secretly imported and is evidence of yet another failure of Tehran to disclose relevant information to the IAEA. Moreover, the provision of heavy water to Iran would be an alarming case of nuclear proliferation, given its weapons-related applications.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards control key sectors of the nuclear programme. Nuclear installations are concealed on military bases, dug into hardened sites built underground, and defended with anti-aircraft missiles. Tehran’s continued claims that it is building only a civilian nuclear power programme appear increasingly ludicrous in light of these facts and each new revelation.
Fact 2: Iran sought to buy technology from A Q Khan’s nuclear weapon proliferation network, which also provided assistance to Libya and North Korea.
Concrete evidence has confirmed long-held suspicions that Iran advanced its nuclear weapons programme in close cooperation with A Q Khan’s proliferation network, which dealt in weapons-related nuclear technologies. After initially denying this cooperation, Tehran eventually admitted that it had contacts with the network, but maintains that it broke off contact long ago.
Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, has proudly admitted his role in helping Iran’s nuclear programme. He admitted in a televised interview in August 2009 that he and other senior Pakistani officials had helped to advance Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. If Iran’s nuclear efforts were exclusively focussed on civilian uses, as it maintains, it would have had no reason to collude with AQ Khan’s nuclear smuggling operation, which specialised in the proliferation of nuclear weapons technologies.
Fact 3: Iran continues to conceal and lie about its nuclear weapons efforts.
Iran has a long record of denial and deceit on the nuclear issue. The Iranian regime ordered covert research and development on nuclear weapons and built secret pilot projects on uranium conversion and uranium enrichment in violation of its safeguards agreement with the IAEA, and it lied about these activities for years. In 2003, after the US military overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime in neighboring Iraq, in part because of Hussein's lack of cooperation with UN inspectors, Iran admitted some of these activities and agreed to cooperate more fully with the IAEA investigators. However, Tehran reneged on its promise to cooperate and reverted to a hardline policy after Mr Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became President in 2005.
Today, Iran continues to stonewall IAEA efforts to investigate its suspect nuclear programme. It refuses to answer questions about the mounting evidence of its past nuclear weapons development efforts, contending that documents indicating that it has carried out weapons design and testing work are forgeries. It has illegally neglected its treaty obligations to provide advance notice of new nuclear facilities and allow IAEA inspectors to have regular access to facilities under construction. The IAEA has also discovered that Tehran engaged in clandestine nuclear activities that violated its nuclear safeguards agreement, such as plutonium separation experiments, uranium enrichment and conversion experiments, and importing uranium compounds.
Iran continues to play a cat and mouse game with IAEA inspectors by hiding facilities, equipment, and materials from them and by refusing to give them timely access to other facilities. In September, Tehran was forced to admit the existence of a clandestine uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qom. US President Barack Obama announced its discovery shortly after Western intelligence agencies had identified it.
Further stoking suspicions about Iran, The Times reported on December 14, 2009, that Iran was working on a trigger mechanism for a nuclear weapon as recently as 2007, four years after
American intelligence agencies assessed that Iran had suspended its weaponisation efforts. The documents describe a four-year plan to test a neutron initiator, a sophisticated trigger that is one of the final hurdles for building a nuclear weapon. Significantly, the documents described the same type of neutron initiator that Pakistan received from China in the early 1980s and then passed on to Libya in the early 2000s. The IAEA also found evidence of work with polonium-210 in 2004, which suggests that Iran may have been working on a neutron generator. Iran has not adequately explained the discovery.
Mr Mark Fitzpatrick, a former US State Department official who focussed on Iranian nuclear issues, reacted to the discovery of the documents by saying: “Is this the smoking gun? That’s the question people should be asking. It looks like the smoking gun. This is smoking uranium.”
There are also worrisome signs that Iran has made advances in uranium metallurgy, heavy water production, and the high-precision explosives used to detonate a nuclear weapon. Iran already claims to produce four kinds of centrifuges used for enriching uranium. The fact that Iran’s centrifuge output remained basically level in 2009 despite a high breakdown rate suggests Iran has improved its centrifuge designs and may be using more advanced designs.
A 2009 trial in Germany revealed that the German intelligence agency, BND, assesses that Iran is still pursuing a nuclear weapons programme. The trial was interesting because the accused — Mohsen Vanaki, a German-Iranian arrested in 2007 for brokering the transfer of dual-use nuclear equipment to Iran — attempted to use the 2007 NIE as a defence. A lower German court ruled in Vanaki’s favour and against the BND based on the NIE’s conclusion that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003. However, a higher German court sided with the BND’s position that Iran’s nuclear weapons programme is active and provided a report that noted the similarities between Iran’s procurement efforts and those of countries with known nuclear weapons programmes, such as North Korea and Libya.
More recently, the IAEA issued a confidential report to its Board of Governors on February 18 stating for the first time that it had received extensive information from a variety of sources that “raises concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile”. The report also noted that Tehran has not cooperated in confirming that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities. Tehran has failed to adequately address IAEA concerns on a wide spectrum of issues including: activities involving high precision detonators; studies on the initiation of high explosives and missile reentry engineering; the “green salt project”, which involves the conversion of UO2 to UF4; and various procurement-related activities.
The report also confirmed that Iran has begun to enrich uranium to 19.8 per cent using a small number of centrifuges, supposedly for the Tehran Research Reactor, a source of medical isotopes. The IAEA reported that Iran already has moved centrifuges from the Natanz uranium enrichment facility to the new facility at Qom. Centrifuges may also have been moved to other, unknown facilities. This is a major cause for concern because IAEA safeguards apply only to nuclear material, not to equipment such as centrifuges.
Tomorrow: What is unknown and where are we now?
(The writer is Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.)
Source: The Pioneer, New Delhi