The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran: What Role?

October 1, 2014

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear

Author: 

Paul Kerr

Publication: 

Arms Control Today

Iran’s persistent expansion of its uranium-enrichment program and its covert construction of an underground gas-centrifuge enrichment facility at Fordow have contributed to concerns that Tehran harbors nuclear weapons ambitions. Arrangements for constraining Iran’s ability to use its declared enrichment facilities for nuclear weapons programs are a particularly controversial element in the ongoing multilateral negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

Much of the discussion about Iran’s potential production of highly enriched uranium (HEU) for use in nuclear weapons has focused on its three previously secret enrichment facilities that now are under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. The concern is that Iran could use these facilities to produce HEU, perhaps after withdrawing them from safeguards.

Such concerns are understandable, but it is worth examining evidence from official and authoritative, unofficial Iranian and U.S. sources about the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), the entity that controls Iran’s enrichment program, including the Fordow facility and two other centrifuge facilities—a commercial plant and a pilot plant—located at the Natanz nuclear site. This evidence suggests that the AEOI is motivated, at least in part, by a desire to demonstrate its technical prowess via the enrichment program. Moreover, according to the evidence, AEOI nuclear activities appear to be exclusively peaceful, an observation consistent with U.S. intelligence assessments in 2007 and afterward that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in late 2003. If accurate, the evidence described in this article indicates that Iran’s declared facilities are not part of a plan to produce nuclear weapons. It is considerably more likely that Iran would attempt to develop nuclear weapons using covert undeclared facilities.

Nevertheless, although observers understandably suspect that Iran may possess undeclared nuclear sites, there is no public official evidence that Iran has enrichment-related facilities other than those operated by the AEOI. Furthermore, clandestine facilities could not easily substitute for Iran’s declared nuclear program as a source of material for a potential nuclear arsenal. It would be no simple feat for Iran to conceal an entire covert nuclear weapons program—a fact demonstrated by Tehran’s past failure to keep its secret nuclear activities hidden. For these reasons, a discussion of the AEOI’s role is germane to the larger debate over Iran’s nuclear program.

See full text at the Arms Control Association:  The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran: What Role?