Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing on Foreign Policy Aspects of the War Against Terrorism: Memorandum from Dr. Gary Samore

February 11, 2003

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear

1. I would like to discuss Iran's nuclear weapons program and what options we have for stopping it, especially after Iraq is dealt with.

2. For years, government experts like myself have warned that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapons capability, but we were constrained by classification restrictions from publicly presenting any details to back up our warnings.

3. Now, thanks to an Iranian opposition group called the National Council of Resistance of Iran, Iran's nuclear cover has been blown. Last August, the group held a press conference in which it revealed the existence of two previously secret nuclear facilities in Iran, along with details about the organization structure and the front companies Iran has established to procure materials and equipment for these facilities. In December, an American think tank called the Institute for Science and International Security published further details and commercial satellite pictures of the two facilities. More recently, the Iranian government has itself begun to acknowledge the existence of the facilities, in anticipation of a scheduled visit by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohammed El Baradei to the facilities later this month.

4. What are these two facilities? One facility, located near the town of Arak in central Iran about 150 miles south of Tehran, is a plant for the production of heavy water. Heavy water is natural water enriched in the deuterium, which is used as a critical ingredient (called a moderator) in a type of natural uranium fueled reactors that are ideal for the production of weapons grade plutonium. For example, the Dimona reactor in Israel and the Cirus reactor in India are heavy water moderated reactors of this type used to produce plutonium for the nuclear weapons programs in these countries.

5. The second facility, located near the town of Natanz about 25 miles southeast of the city of Kashan, appears to be a gas centrifuge uranium enrichment plant under construction. A gas centrifuge enrichment facility can produce highly enriched, weapons grade uranium for the production of nuclear weapons. Gas centrifuge technology is the basis for Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, and is currently being pursued by both Iraq and North Korea for their nuclear weapons program.

6. In theory, both heavy water and gas centrifuge can also support peaceful nuclear energy. For example, some types of nuclear power plants, such as the Canadian-designed Candu reactor, use heavy water as a moderator, and gas centrifuge technology can produce low enriched uranium as fuel for light water power reactors. For example, the British-Dutch-German consortium URENCO uses gas centrifuges to produce low enriched uranium fuel for nuclear power facilities in Western Europe.

7. Because these technologies are dual use-with both civilian and military applications-Iran will attempt to justify these fuel cycle facilities as part of its civilian nuclear power program. Tehran claims, for example, that it has long term plans to generate 6,000 MW of electricity from nuclear power plants and it needs fuel cycle capability to produce fresh fuel and dispose of spent fuel.

8. In Iran's case, however, this justification makes no technical sense whatsoever. Iran's only nuclear power plant is the 1,000 MW light water Bushehr nuclear power plant under construction by Russia, which uses low enriched uranium for fuel. Moscow has contracted to provide a lifetime supply of fuel for this facility so Iran hardly needs to produce its own enriched uranium. Moreover, Russia has agreed to take back the spent fuel from Bushehr for storage and processing, so Iran does not need a reprocessing facility to manage nuclear waste. Equally clear, Iran has no plausible need for a heavy water production facility because the Bushehr plant does not require heavy water and Iran's existing research reactors do not use heavy water or too little heavy water to justify a heavy water production facility.

9. The best explanation is that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons break out capability under cover of the NPT and IAEA safeguards. In some respects, Iran's strategy represents a more difficult challenge than NPT parties such as Iraq and North Korea who have tried to violate their NPT commitments by building secret nuclear facilities not declared and inspected by the IAEA. Legally, under the NPT, Iran can build and operate fuel cycle facilities under IAEA safeguards, while preserving the option to withdraw from NPT under three months notice if it decides to exercise a nuclear weapons option. Alternatively, Iran could try to divert material from these facilities or even build parallel covert facilities not declared to the IAEA.

10. What can be done about Iran's program to develop a nuclear weapons capability? Certainly, it would be helpful if the enrichment plant is placed under IAEA safeguards as soon as possible. Under its current safeguards agreement with the IAEA, Iran is not required to allow IAEA inspections of the facility until 180 days before nuclear material is introduced into the facility. However, the public exposure of the plant has put pressure on Iran to allow IAEA access to the plant much sooner. Since the plant appears to be several years from completion, the IAEA may be able to insist on design and configuration details that would make more difficult for Iran to produce high-enriched uranium or divert the material without detection. In addition, it would be extremely helpful if Iran signs an enhanced safeguards protocol with the IAEA. Under the protocol, Iran would be required to declare nuclear facilities to the Agency 180 days before construction begins and allow environmental sampling that could help detect undeclared facilities.

11. Safeguards are good, but I believe they are not good enough. If Iran proceeds under its current course, it will eventually develop a nuclear weapons breakout capability under IAEA safeguards. With three months notice, it can withdraw from the NPT and convert civilian fuel cycle facilities to produce materials for nuclear weapons within a relatively short period of time. Moreover, Iran could set a precedent for other NPT parties in the region who might want to develop a similar breakout capability. Once one country left the treaty, others could follow suit and the Middle East could become nuclearized in a relatively short period.

12. So, the key policy issue for me is whether Iran can be persuaded not to proceed with its current plans to develop fuel cycle facilities under IAEA safeguards. It won't be easy, but there may be new opportunities to influence Teheran's calculations after Iraq's nuclear threat has been dealt with, either through inspections or (more likely) an invasion to replace Saddam with a government prepared to comply with Iraq's treaty commitments. There appears to be some internal debate within Teheran about how far to proceed with a nuclear weapons programs. Some in Iran see real or potential enemies-Iraq, Israel, and the United States-that support the need for acquiring nuclear weapons. Others in Iran see the danger of proceeding with programs that would attract widespread international pressure and even military attack.

13. Arguably, a successful outcome in Iraq could help tip the balance in favor of those in Teheran arguing for restraint. In principle, elimination of the Iraqi threat could reduce Iranian motivations for acquiring nuclear and set an example for avoiding actions that would make Iran a target of international pressure. At the same time, if Tehran feared that the U.S. was intent on forcing regime change in Iran, it might strengthen those arguing that only nuclear weapons and long range missiles could deter American pressure.

14. In practice, whether Tehran is prepared to limit its nuclear weapons program will depend largely on the outcome of Iran's complex internal political struggle, over which outside actors have only limited influence. However, to the extent that we can influence Iran's calculations and perceptions, it will be essential for the U.S. and Europe to coordinate their positions. If Iran persists in pursuing fuel cycle facilities under IAEA safeguards (that have no reasonable peaceful uses), what kind of political, economic, or even military actions are the U.S. and Europe prepared to support? If Iran agreed not to pursue its present course, what kind of measures are the U.S. and Europe prepared to take to address Iran's political, economic, security, and energy needs?

15. Once the current transatlantic differences over Iraq are behind us, we will need to work together to answer these questions and develop a coordinated approach to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.

Dr Gary Samore International Institute of Strategic Studies


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