Controlling Iran’s Nuclear Program

The country’s slow and indirect progress toward developing nuclear weapons cunningly skirts international nonproliferation rules. Careful diplomacy can stop Iran from achieving this destabilizing capability.

The world would be a more dangerous place with nuclear weapons in Iran. A Persian power with a keen sense of its 2,500-year history, Iran occupies a pivotal position straddling the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. The country has the largest population in the Middle East, the world’s third largest oil reserves, the second largest natural gas reserves, and aspirations to again become the region’s major power. Add nuclear weapons, and this mixture become highly combustible.

There is no evidence that Iran currently possesses any nuclear devices or even enough fissile material (highly enriched uranium or plutonium) to produce such weapons. But for the past two decades Iran has been engaged in a secret, multifaceted program to assemble the equipment and facilities necessary to make these nuclear materials.

Iranian officials have justified this effort as part of an ambitious plan to build 20 nuclear reactors. Though controversial enough in and of itself, Iran’s activities also include the pursuit of several nuclear material production technologies that, if mastered, could provide Tehran with the ability to enrich uranium for fuel rods and to process these fuel rods for disposal. If these facilities are completed, Iran would become only the sixth nation in the world able to convert uranium into gas commercially and only the ninth to be able to enrich that gas for fuel. These same facilities could be used to enrich uranium and to extract plutonium for weapons use. That is the crux of the issue: Do other nations trust that Iran’s program is, as they claim, entirely peaceful?

In 2002, an Iranian opposition group revealed that the country’s nuclear program was much more extensive than Tehran had previously declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA inspections have provided a clear—if still incomplete—picture of the program. However, after three years of intensive investigations, the IAEA reported in September 2005 and reaffirmed in February 2006 that it is “still not in a position to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran.” Iran’s failure to cooperate fully with inspections and to disclose all of its past activities caused the IAEA Board of Governors on February 6 to vote overwhelmingly to report Iran to the UN Security Council.

Iran maintains that all its nuclear activities, even those previously hidden from the IAEA, are intended for peaceful purposes, and it has agreed to place all its nuclear activities under IAEA safeguards. Moreover, in 2003 Iran signed and pledged to implement the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, which includes expanded inspection rights and tools. Iran suspended these more intrusive inspections in February 2006, after the IAEA vote.

Within Iran, the program is now fused with passionate nationalism. Iran’s program is a source of national pride across the political spectrum, with both conservatives and reformers supporting development of full nuclear fuel cycle capabilities as an inherent right accorded by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran’s radical new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, now addresses rallies of tens of thousands of followers chanting for nuclear power. This potentially explosive domestic political dynamic greatly complicates efforts to convince Iranian officials to end the pursuit of these sensitive nuclear programs.

The danger is not that Iran would build and use a nuclear weapon against the United States or its allies. Iranian leaders know that such an act would be regime suicide, as a powerful counterattack would follow immediately. This is not a nuclear bomb crisis, but a nuclear regime crisis. The danger is that a nuclear-armed Iran would lead other states in the Gulf and Middle East, including possibly Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and even Turkey, to reexamine their nuclear options. This potential wave of proliferation would seriously challenge regional and global security and undermine the worldwide effort to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. If the international community is unable or unwilling to impose penalties on Iran, and if Tehran continues its nuclear development unconstrained, the nuclear chain reaction from the region could ripple around the globe.

Iran’s nuclear history

In 1951, the democratically-elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadeq, nationalized the country’s oil assets. The leaders of the United States and the United Kingdom concluded that his policies meant “that Iran was in real danger of falling behind the Iron Curtain,” resulting in “a victory for the Soviets in the Cold War and a major setback for the West in the Middle East.” In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved a joint British-U.S. operation to overthrow Mossadeq. The successful coup toppled the young democratic government and installed Mohammad Raza Shah Pehlavi as the new pro-West ruler, sowing the seeds of Iran’s lingering distrust of Western powers.

Under the Shah’s autocratic rule, relations between the United States and Iran thrived. Today, ironically, the United States is desperately trying to stop the same nuclear program that it helped start under the Shah. In the 1950s, the Shah began initial research into nuclear power. In the 1960s, the United States supplied Iran with its first nuclear research reactor, a small 5-megawatt-thermal (MWt) reactor that is still in operation at the Tehran Nuclear Research Center. After ratifying the NPT in 1970, Iran sought greater international assistance, signing contracts for reactor construction and supply of nuclear fuel with the United States, Germany, and France. A 1975 U.S. National Security Decision Memorandum signed by Henry Kissinger details the US willingness to cooperate with Iran. The document specifies that the US would: “Permit U.S. material to be fabricated into fuel in Iran for use in its own reactors and for pass-through to third countries with whom we have Agreements…we could inform the Government of Iran that we shall be prepared to provide our approval for reprocessing of U.S. material in a multinational plant in Iran if the country supplying the reprocessing technology is a full and active participant in the plant, and holding open the possibility of U.S. participation.”

Many of the same officials involved in stopping the program today were involved in promoting it then. During the 1970s, the Shah developed plans to build 22 nuclear power reactors with an electrical output of 23 gigawatts. This effort was supported by Donald Rumsfeld (then secretary of defense), Dick Cheney (then White House chief of staff), and Paul Wolfowitz (at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency). These nuclear activities were halted when a popular revolution overthrew the Shah in 1979 and installed an Islamic regime led by Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini. The new revolutionary government inherited two partially completed West German–built nuclear power reactors at Bushehr, but Khomeini froze construction of these reactors and all other work on “Western” nuclear technologies and forced many Western-educated scientists and engineers to flee the country.

An air strike against a soft target, such as the uranium conversion facility at Isfahan would inflame Muslim anger, rally the Iranian public around an otherwise unpopular government, and jeopardize further the fragile U.S. position in Iraq.

Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980—not Israel’s nuclear arsenal or fear of the United States—drove Iran’s more recent pursuit of nuclear technologies. Iranians often point out that no nation came to Iran’s aid when it was invaded and attacked by Iraq with chemical weapons. U.S. relations with Iraq actually improved during this period, as U.S. officials aided the secular Saddam Hussein as a counter to what was seen as the greater threat of Iran’s militant Islamic theocracy.

The IAEA is still trying to uncover what exactly Iran did and when. So far, it seem certain that Iran restarted its program in 1985, contacting the A. Q. Khan network and beginning negotiations for the covert import of the equipment and technical assistance necessary to enrich uranium. It is unlikely that Iranian officials were primarily concerned with the production of electricity at this point. Although some aspects of the nuclear power program in the 1990s, such as the agreement with Russia to finish the construction of the reactors at Bushehr and the agreement with China to build a uranium conversion facility at Isfahan, were open and well-known, it was not until 2002 that IAEA investigations began in earnest, following reports from an Iranian opposition group of the clandestine construction of a uranium enrichment facility in Natanz and a heavy water plant in Arak. The IAEA is still investigating this complex nuclear history.

Iran’s nuclear capabilities

Taking natural uranium and producing either low-enriched uranium (LEU) for nuclear power or highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons is a long, complex, and expensive process. The steps include mining, milling, conversion, and enrichment. Below is an explanation of the fuel-cycle itself, coupled with estimates of Iran’s plans and capabilities.

Mining and milling. Uranium is a naturally occurring element distributed more or less equally throughout the world. Mining includes identifying large uranium ore deposits, extracting the rock from the ground, and then delivering it to the mill. Uranium mills, usually set up next to the mine, crush the rock and separate the usable uranium from the other elements. Uranium concentrate is known as “yellowcake,” a term derived from the yellowish color of the powdery substance. Generally, 1,000 tons of uranium ore produces 9-13 pounds of yellowcake. In addition to the uranium, the ore usually also contains traces of almost a dozen other elements including lead, polonium, bismuth, thorium, radium, protactinium, and radon gas (these are radioactive decay products from uranium) and nickel, cadmium, molybdenum, vanadium, arsenic, and mercury.

Iran has two mining/milling operations, one in Saghand and one in Gachin. The Gachin facility was undeclared prior to 2002. Iranian officials estimate that the known reserves are about 3,000 tons and say they are actively prospecting for more deposits. A U.S. State Department briefing given to foreign diplomats in September 2005 estimates that Iran has 1,427 tons of known uranium reserves and 13,850 tons of speculative reserves. According to U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State Stephen G. Rademaker, “Iran does not have sufficient domestic uranium reserves to support a significant nuclear power program. Based on Iran’s own geological data that it submitted to the IAEA and the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development], Iran does not have enough ’known reserves’ of uranium to support the Bushehr reactor for more than six years. Even if one adds in all the ‘peculative reserves’ that might be in Iran, Iran has only enough domestic uranium to support the seven-reactor plan it claims it is pursuing for less than 10 years.”

Conversion. Conversion is the next step in the process, transforming yellowcake uranium concentrate into pure uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6). The goal of conversion is to remove all the impurities from the yellowcake in order to make enrichment possible. The uranium concentrate comes in the form of U3O8 and is converted in a series of processes into UO2, then into UF4, and finally into UF6. This is a very difficult process to master, especially since some of the reactions involve corrosive hydrogen fluoride (HF) gas. UF6 exists in a gaseous state when hot and when cooled becomes a solid. It is usually shipped in a liquid form inside special stainless steel canisters from a conversion facility to an enrichment plant.

Nuclear cooperation with any state for which the IAEA cannot provide sufficient assurances regarding the peaceful nature of its nuclear program should be suspended.

Iran’s main conversion facility is in Isfahan. The conversion process is presenting difficulties for Iran. Iran’s scientists do not seem able to produce pure high-quality UF6 at this time. Richard Stone in Science magazine reported that according to a U.S. State Department official, “Iran has struggled to convert UF4 into UF6, a dangerous process involving highly toxic and corrosive fluorine gas. The official also claims that Iranian UF4 is tainted with large amounts of molybdenum and other heavy metals. These oxyflouride impurities in UF6 ‘might condense’ and thereby ‘risk blockages’ of valves and piping.”

Officials from several other countries confirmed the accuracy of these reports to this author. All are apparently based on samples of the gas taken by IAEA inspectors. Intelligence estimates vary on how long it will take Iran to produce pure UF6: from a few months, according to Israeli government analysts, to about 18 months, from European estimates. Iran’s difficulties are the result of a little-heralded non-proliferation victory achieved by Clinton administration officials when they convinced China in 1997 to end its nuclear assistance to Iran. At the Isfahan facility, much of the equipment is still labeled in Chinese. China’s abrupt withdrawal severely set back the Iranian program. Almost ten years later, Iran is still struggling to produce the key ingredient necessary for the centrifuge enrichment process.

Enrichment. Uranium enrichment is the most sensitive part of the fuel cycle due to its connection to nuclear weapons. Natural uranium is almost entirely made up of two isotopes, U-238 and U-235. The U-235 isotope is fissile, meaning that it is capable of sustaining a fission chain reaction, thus making it the critical element for nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs. However, U-235 is only 0.7% of natural uranium, with U-238 making up nearly all the rest. Most uranium enrichment techniques take advantage of the very slight difference in mass between the two isotopes, separating out the desired U-235. Nuclear power reactors usually run on low-enriched uranium in which 3-5% is U-235. Nuclear weapons require highly enriched uranium, with concentrations of U-235 greater than 90%.

Centrifuge enrichment, the main technique pursued by Iran, takes the UF6 gas from the conversion facility and runs it through a series of centrifuges, which are basically tubes under vacuum pressure. Within each tube is a spinning rotor between one and two meters long and around 20cm in diameter. As the gas flows through each centrifuge, the rotors are turning at about 60,000 rpm, forcing the heavier U-238 molecules towards the outside and leaving the lighter U-235 closer to the middle. The slightly enriched uranium gas is drawn out from the center and fed into the next centrifuge in line. Hundreds or even thousands of centrifuges are linked together in cascades to achieve the desired enrichment level. The same centrifuges that are used to enrich uranium to low levels for nuclear power reactors can easily be made to produce HEU for weapons. According to David Albright and Corey Hinderstein, experts at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), if “just 1,500 of these centrifuges were installed and optimized to produce HEU, these centrifuges could produce enough highly enriched uranium for about one nuclear weapon per year.”

Iran is currently operating its Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) at Natanz and is trying to work out the kinks in a 164-machine test cascade. Iranian scientists in January 2006 restarted uranium enrichment research for the first time since Iran’s voluntary suspension began in late 2003. Albright and Hinderstein state in their ISIS report that Iran has a lot of work to do to get its test cascade in full working order, including repairing/replacing damaged centrifuges and fine-tuning the procedure. This process will likely take between six months and a year. Then, “once Iran overcomes the last technical hurdle of operating its test cascade, it can duplicate it and create larger cascades.”

Also at Natanz, Iran is constructing its Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP), where it has plans for a 50,000-machine cascade. Iranian officials say the facility would be used to supply fuel for the Bushehr reactor, but Albright and Hinderstein estimate that the FEP could produce roughly 500 kilograms of weapon-grade uranium annually. A basic gun-assembly uranium bomb, similar to that used at Hiroshima, requires about 15 to 25 kilograms per weapon. With a fully functioning Natanz plant, Iran could theoretically produce enough highly-enriched uranium for 20 to 30 nuclear weapons a year.

In the ISIS report, the authors lay out a worst case estimate for how quickly Iran might produce its first nuclear weapon. Based on the components that Iran is known to possess and past rates of production, it is estimated that they could have 1,300 – 1,600 centrifuges by the end of 2006. At this rate, without any major complications, Iran could construct a weapon in 2009. The official national intelligence estimate on Iran is more pessimistic, or realistic, depending on your point of view. As reported by the Washington Post, it estimates that if Iran went all out for a nuclear weapon it could not produce the material for one until sometime in the next decade.

One of the reasons Iran refuses to accept guaranteed nuclear fuel from Russia is the fear of becoming energy dependent and thus subject to the whims of the fuel providers. However, as discussed above, Iran does not have sufficient uranium ore reserves to secure energy independence for any significant amount of energy generation. A complete domestic fuel cycle is not a requisite for having a strong and efficient civilian nuclear program. In fact, although 31 countries are currently operating 440 nuclear reactors and 56 countries have 284 research reactors, only 8 countries enrich uranium on an industrial scale. Most countries buy their fuel from these fuel-producing countries. It does not make economic sense for any nation to invest the billions of dollars needed for indigenous fuel fabrication unless the national infrastructure consists of 20 or more nuclear reactors. Iran has yet to begin operation of its first reactor. Its original plans detailed the construction of 7 reactors by 2020. Only when this economic fact of nuclear life was pointed out by critics of the Iranian program did officials quickly revise their plans to include 20 reactors by 2030.

With a global nuclear fuel production over capacity expected to last for several more decade, Iran’s claims that it is only seeking peaceful nuclear energy does not quite add up. As French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said, “no civilian nuclear program can explain the Iranian nuclear program.”

Ending Iran’s program

It appears that Iran, unlike Iraq or Israel, does not have a dedicated crash program to build a nuclear bomb. Iran’s strategy is more cunning—and more difficult to stop. Iran seems to be following the Japanese model, trying to acquire all the capabilities necessary to build nuclear weapons should it make a decision to do so sometime in the future. The fact that the NPT allows states to acquire these duel-use capabilities is one of the greatest weaknesses of the current non-proliferation regime. Iran is now exploiting this legal loophole.

Thus, Iran may not be conducting any weapon-specific research now, for fear that discovery of such activity would, as the United States hopes, bring united international condemnation, a cut-off of all nuclear assistance, and economic sanctions. But is is doing everything short of that. Now that its clandestine program has been disclosed, Iran is trying to minimize embarrassing disclosures of past weapons-related activities, persist in its fuel production activities, and force the rest of the world to accept a fait accompli.

No simple solution exists for the Iranian nuclear problem, but a series of coordinated steps offers the best chance of rolling back the country’s program.

First, start with an accurate threat assessment. If we have learned anything from the ill-fated Iraq War, it should be that worst case assessments should never form the basis for government action. Though some experts and officials who campaigned for the invasion of Iraq are now raising the alarm over Iran, we should recognize that we are not a few months away from some mythical “point of no return” as Charles Krauthammer and others claim. There is time to attempt diplomatic solutions, as the Bush administration is now correctly attempting.

Second, we should try as best we can to depoliticize the issue at home. Democrats are now trying to get to the right of the administration, blasting officials for failing to stop Iran. Although it is true that this administration missed several opportunities over the past five years to improve and perhaps permanently change relations with Iran, so did the previous administration. is the goal should be to move on from here with a bi-partisan effort.

Third, we must realize that the military option is a last resort. An air strike against a soft target, such as the uranium conversion facility at Isfahan, would inflame Muslim anger, rally the Iranian public around an otherwise unpopular government, and jeopardize further the fragile U.S. position in Iraq. The strike could momentarily delay the program, but the Iranian government would almost certainly recover and speed up its efforts, newly convinced that only a nuclear weapon can protect it from what it would see as U.S. aggression.

Fourth, the key to solving the problem is to keep the UN Security Council united. The Bush administration is now playing its relatively weak hand well. By giving Europe the lead and softening its regime-elimination rhetoric, it has let Ahmadinejad’s demagoguery do what its own efforts of persuasion could not: convince Europe, Russia, and China that this government cannot be trusted and that its enrichment program must be stopped. This unity has brought in its wake the support of the so-called nonaligned states, which joined them in a 27 to 3 vote (with five abstaining) at the IAEA board. This result shocked the Iranian government and surprised much of the public, who thought the rest of the world also opposed what the Iranian government portrayed as a new western colonialism. If these majorities can be maintained at the Security Council, the international isolation will weaken the Iranian government’s resolve, widening existing fissures among the governing factions. The trick will be to slowly ratchet up the pressure. This is precisely what the administration and its allies seem to be planning through a series of Security Council resolutions that would move from urging Iran to suspend its program, to requiring that suspension, to possibly imposing targeted sanctions.

The Bush administration should be prepared to give Iran the same deal it offered Libya and has offered North Korea, that is, resolution of the nuclear issue can lead to diplomatic recognition and an end to hostilities.

Fifth, diplomacy should be augmented by the realistic potential of economic sanctions targeted on the Iranian government, not the Iranian people. The goal should be to widen the gap that exists between a generally pro-Western public and a theocratic government. These sanctions could prohibit private and official travel by Iranian officials, restrict foreign bank accounts, and include targeted bans on investment into Iran that would be imposed by all countries, not just a few.

Sixth, the United States should build on the positive incentives offered to Iran in the comprehensive proposal tabled by the European Union negotiators last August. The EU has linked settlement of the nuclear issue to agreement on a new trade and cooperation agreement. But Europe cannot give the carrot most desired by Tehran: assurance that it will not be attacked or subverted by the United States. The Bush administration should be prepared to give Iran the same deal it offered Libya and has offered North Korea, that is, resolution of the nuclear issue can lead to diplomatic recognition and an end to hostilities. The United States need not disavow political support for democratic reformers in Iran; rather it should do as it did with the Soviet Union: pursue nuclear negotiations while concurrently championing reform.

Finally, the international community, especially the United States, must act on the reality that Iran’s size, resource-base, history, and mobilized population will always make it a major power in the Persian Gulf region and the broader Middle East. Stability in Iraq and the broader region therefore require cooperation, or at least shared rules of the road, among Iran, Iraq, the Gulf Cooperation Council states, more distant neighbors, and, of course, the United States. To remove pressures for proliferation of nuclear (and chemical and biological) weapons in this region, progress needs to be made in constructing a regional security system. A regional security dialogue should be convened to facilitate this process of communication and regional rule making.

To buttress Iran-specific initiatives, an effective nonproliferation strategy should also include steps elaborated in the 2005 Carnegie Endowment study, Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security. States should work to clarify that nuclear cooperation with any state for which the IAEA cannot provide sufficient assurances regarding the peaceful nature of its nuclear program should be suspended. The IAEA board of governors could call for a suspension when its director-general reports that a state is in “serious breach” or “noncompliance,” or when an “unacceptable risk of diversion” exists or the agency cannot carry out its mission. The UN Security Council should adopt a new rule making clear that if a state withdraws from the NPT, it remains responsible for violations committed while still a party to the treaty. The Council should also establish that if a state withdraws from the treaty—whether or not it has violated it—it may no longer make use of nuclear materials, facilities, equipment, or technology that it acquired from another country before its withdrawal. Such facilities, equipment, and nuclear material should be returned to the supplying state or dismantled under international verification. (A state’s failure to comply with these obligations would strengthen the legitimacy of military action to dismantle the relevant facilities and equipment.)

Furthermore, the Nuclear Suppliers Group should establish a rule that all purveyors of nuclear technology require contracts that specify that if a state receiving such technology withdraws from the NPT, the provided nuclear supplies may not be used or transferred.

To remove pressures for proliferation of nuclear (and chemical and biological) weapons in this region, progress needs to be made in constructing a regional security system.

More broadly, it should be instituting through relevant international bodies a general rule that no new uranium enrichment and plutonium separation facilities should be established on a national basis in non-nuclear weapon states. This rule must be set up and applied immediately in Iran, but it should become a universal standard.

Finally, the United States, the European Union, and others must not ignore Iran’s location in a volatile region, where one of its adversaries, Israel, possesses nuclear weapons. This does not absolve Iran of its obligation to reassure its neighbors and the world that it will not seek nuclear weapons, but it makes it incumbent on the five permanent members of the Security Council to intensify efforts to create of a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, a policy the United States has long supported but done little to implement. This should be backed by dramatic reductions in both the massive U.S. and Russian arsenals

Only with such a comprehensive approach can the world be sure that Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions have been ended, not simply been driven underground or suppressed for the moment only to rise again in the next generation.

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Cite this Article

Cirincione, Joseph. “Controlling Iran’s Nuclear Program.” Issues in Science and Technology 22, no. 3 (Spring 2006).

Vol. XXII, No. 3, Spring 2006