Iran Nuclear Crisis (Parts 1-4)

December 22, 2004

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear


Charles Recknagel and Golnaz Esfandiari


Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)

- Part 1:  Is Tehran Trying to Develop Nuclear Weapons
- Part 2:  Tehran Takes Two Tracks on Nuclear Weapon Development
- Part 3:  Where Does the Iranian Nuclear Debate Go From Here?
- Part 4:  Iranian Public Offers Mixed Feelings on Nuclear Issue



December 22, 2004

In the wake of the Iraq invasion, there has been a faint but growing drumbeat sounded in Washington by officials who believe the Bush administration should now confront another member of what it has described as the "axis of evil" -- Iran. Washington alleges that Tehran is a state sponsor of terrorism and that it is trying to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran's nuclear activities include building a commercial reactor with Russian assistance near the Gulf port of Bushehr. But what worries Washington are Tehran's efforts to master uranium enrichment -- a process that can produce fuel for nuclear reactors or, at advanced levels, material for nuclear bombs. Until recently, Tehran kept those efforts secret from the UN's nuclear watchdog agency. Now, as UN inspectors insist that Iran fully disclose all of its activities, the question of whether Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons is the focus of worldwide debate. In the first of a four-part series, "Iran Nuclear Crisis," RFE/RL looks at what is known -- and unknown -- about Iran's nuclear ambitions.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell recently put Washington's position toward Iran's nuclear activities in very clear terms. "The evidence that has been put forward so far demonstrates clearly that Iran has been moving in the direction of creating a nuclear weapon," Powell said. "And that is why the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] got so involved, why the Russians have been careful about providing fuel for the new reactor at Bushehr, and why the European Union sent their three foreign ministers in to get the Iranians to stop."

But Iranian officials, including President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, say Tehran is only interested in nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. "We have made our choice: Peaceful nuclear technology -- yes. Atomic weapons -- no. Not 'no' only for ourselves -- no [nuclear weapons] for the region, no [nuclear weapons] for the world," Khatami said.

So who is right?

Analysts say the only way to decide is to weigh the physical evidence that has kept the crisis at the center of the world stage since 2002. Much of that evidence emerged when an exiled Iranian opposition group exposed a secret pilot project to master the process of uranium enrichment. The project included some 160 assembled gas centrifuges -- plus equipment to build some 5,000 more -- hidden in reinforced underground bunkers strong enough to resist air strikes. In the process, uranium is first converted to uranium hexafluoride gas, a substance that is fed into centrifuges used to enrich uranium. The discovery of the sites was alarming because enriched uranium can be used either as a nuclear fuel or -- at higher levels of enrichment -- as material for nuclear bombs. It also showed that Iran was violating safeguards in the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which it is a signatory. The treaty gives Tehran the right to acquire nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, but also binds it to declare all such facilities to the UN's IAEA and to open such sites to its inspectors.

Later visits to the site by IAEA inspectors revealed that some of the centrifuges had been used to enrich two types of uranium to 20 percent or more. That is far higher than the usual 2 to 3 percent enrichment level required for nuclear fuel. Nonproliferation experts say uranium enriched to a 20 percent level is sufficient to make a very cumbersome nuclear bomb. But it falls well short of the enrichment levels -- 90 percent or higher -- needed to produce the kinds of missile or airplane-deliverable warheads that make a country a nuclear power.

Fred Wehling, an arms-control expert at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, says the discovery of Iran's uranium-enrichment activities made many nonproliferation experts skeptical of Tehran's explanation that it was seeking only to master the nuclear fuel cycle for energy purposes. "If Iran was to develop an indigenous enrichment capacity, it could eventually make its own fuel, which could then be used in Bushehr," Wehling said. "But then if that were really the case, you wouldn't need to go to all the trouble of having a clandestine facility and acquiring uranium under the table to test it and so on."

Equally worrisome, nonproliferation experts said, are indications that Iran might have built some of its uranium-enrichment equipment according to blueprints acquired on the global black market for nuclear secrets. The suspected source is the trafficking network organized by Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. It is not known whether the network also sold Iran information about how to design a nuclear weapon, as it did to Libya. Since the discovery of Iran's clandestine efforts, Tehran has sought to assure the IAEA that it is now fully cooperating with international inspectors to disclose all of its nuclear work. But Tehran said it still insists on its right under the NPT to develop its own nuclear fuel cycle and will not give that up. There are varying estimates of how long it could take Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, if it wished.

Daniel Keohane, an international security expert at the Center for European Reform in London, put the timeline this way: "If you ask the Europeans how far away are the Iranians from a bomb, the general consensus seems to be four to six years. And in Washington, I understand, the consensus is closer to three years and possibly even sooner, depending on how the Iranians behave over the next year or so."

Keohane said any progress Tehran might make in developing a nuclear weapon will be determined by how much it cooperates with current efforts by European states to persuade it to give up programs related to uranium enrichment in exchange for trade incentives.






December 22, 2004

The challenge for any country clandestinely seeking to become a nuclear power is how to acquire enough fissile material for such weapons. Most countries begin by starting a commercial nuclear program, a right to which any state that has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is entitled. The commercial program can then provide a cover for engaging in so-called dual-use activities, which can have either peaceful or military uses. In Part 2 of our series on the crisis over Iran's nuclear program, looks at the progress Tehran is believed to have made along two separate routes to making a nuclear bomb.

One of the "dual-use" activities often exploited by nations who are seeking to acquire nuclear weapons is the enrichment of uranium. Enriched uranium can be used for nuclear fuel or -- at high levels of enrichment -- for nuclear bombs.

The other method is the production of plutonium, a material that can be used in medical research or -- again -- for nuclear weapons.

Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell reiterated Washington's concerns over how Tehran intends to use this technology. "We have to be nervous when a nation such as Iran continues to take action that, at least suggests to us, that it continues to be interested in a nuclear weapons program," Powell said.

Iranian officials said Tehran will not give up its right under international treaties to produce its own reactor fuel, but said they have no interest in nuclear weapons. President Mohammad Khatami put Tehran's position this way in late October: "We are ready for complete cooperation and [to reach an] understanding with the world and also with the [International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA] to make sure that Iran's [nuclear] activities do not move toward nuclear weapons."

Shannon Kile, an expert in nonproliferation issues at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in Sweden, noted that although Iran maintains that its programs are entirely aimed at civilian nuclear energy and research, there are aspects of each that are highly troubling to experts because they appear to go well beyond normal civilian activities. "Well, Iran basically has two uranium-enrichment facilities that we know about," Kile said. "They are both located at Natanz, which is south of Tehran. One is a very small-scale facility, holding about 1,000 centrifuge cascades. The other one is a much larger facility, holding up to 50,000 centrifuges. And what is striking about it is that it is built deep underground with heavily reinforced walls and roofs, which would indicate that, a) the Iranians are interested in hiding it, and b) they are concerned about the possibility of military strikes against it."

Tehran did not declare the existence of these facilities to UN arms inspectors -- as required under the NPT -- until the sites were exposed by an exile Iranian opposition group in 2002. Follow-up UN inspections of the facilities raised serious questions about whether they were being used to enrich uranium to levels above that needed for nuclear fuel.

" There are some specific activities that are troubling," Kile said. "The International Atomic Energy Agency has detected the presence of high-enriched uranium on some of the centrifuge components that they have examined. Now, they do accept that it is possible that some of that contamination has come, in part, from a third-country supplier, which would most likely be Pakistan. But it is difficult to accept that all of it has come from a third-country supplier. And that means that Iran might have enriched uranium. And it is difficult to know why it would enrich [uranium] to that level if it were going to simply use it for a nuclear fuel program."

The UN nuclear agency's inspectors found traces of uranium enriched to 20 percent -- far higher than the usual 2 to 3 percent enrichment level required for nuclear fuel. Kile said many nuclear experts believe that unless Iran commits to abandoning its uranium-enrichment activities, it could acquire enough weapons-grade material for a bomb by 2007 or 2008.

However, he said it remains uncertain whether Iran is seeking to produce a bomb immediately or is merely trying to perfect a technical capacity for future production. That would permit Tehran to "break out" as a nuclear power anytime in the future, should it feel the need.

As for the second route to making a nuclear weapon, Iran has a program to produce plutonium that centers on a heavy-water nuclear reactor to be built near the central city of Arak. The project -- which was again not declared to arms inspectors until it was exposed in 2002 -- is described by Tehran as an effort to produce isotopes for medical use.

But Iran's plans worry many nuclear experts because it is building what is commonly known as a "breeder reactor." Such reactors are efficient at quickly producing significant amounts of plutonium, particularly for military use.

Kile said the "breeder" design exceeds normal specifications for reactors generating plutonium for civilian uses. "The 40-watt heavy-water reactor at Arak is ideally suited for producing weapons-grade plutonium," Kile said. "And, in fact, this is the type of reactor that was used by all of the [original] nuclear weapons states [United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China] in the early years of their nuclear programs."

Construction of the reactor is just now getting under way, and it will be eight to 10 years before it becomes operational.

Kile said there is ample precedent for countries successfully using both uranium enrichment and plutonium production as clandestine routes to nuclear weapons. He noted that Pakistan is believed to have derived a bomb using uranium enrichment, while India and Israel are thought to have taken the plutonium route.

The five "nuclear-weapons nations" recognized under the NPT -- the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China -- have used both technologies to produce their nuclear arsenals.






December 23, 2004

When Iran agreed to negotiate with Europe over its nuclear activities, much of the international community breathed a sigh of relief. The negotiations -- which opened on Monday (Dec 20) -- focus on an offer by Britain, Germany and France to give Iran trade advantages and technical assistance in exchange for Tehran indefinitely -- that is, permanently -- giving up its uranium enrichment activities. While a final deal has yet to be worked out, the three European Union nations view their initiative as already partly successful because Tehran has agreed to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment while the negotiators meet. That has defused -- for now -- U.S. and European worries that Iran was progressing with its efforts to master uranium enrichment while the world only discussed what to do. In Part 3 of a four-part series on the crisis over Iran's nuclear program, RFE/RL looks at where the debate goes from here.

Even as the diplomatic initiative by the three European Union nations proceeds, there are signs that a final deal to end the Iranian nuclear crisis could be very hard to reach. One reason is Tehran's insistence of its right under the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to produce its own reactor fuel -- a right that it says it might briefly suspend but will never give up.

Hussein Musavian, Iran's chief delegate to the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), put Tehran's position this way: "We have emphasized that the suspension [of uranium-enrichment activities] should be for confidence-building, not as a legal obligation."

Analysts say statements like those make Washington skeptical that Iran and the three EU states can reach a long-term accord that satisfies all sides. A similar "suspension" deal between European powers and Iran in late 2003 fell apart amid disagreements over the terms. Iran has already come under criticism by diplomats for breaking the spirit of its nuclear accord with the EU by using a loophole to keep preparing raw uranium for nuclear enrichment.

David Albright, a nuclear expert at the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, said U.S. officials are watching the EU deal with interest because -- if successful -- it could be an ideal solution to the crisis. "I think many in the U.S. government want [the European effort] to succeed," Albright said. " It's a dream deal in terms of U.S. objectives to get Iran to give up its ability to make nuclear explosives material and have that verified, and then have Iran shift its civil nuclear energy program toward just nuclear electricity production using imported reactors."

Earlier this week, U.S. President George W. Bush reiterated Washington's desire to see the nuclear disputes with both Iran and North Korea resolved through talks. "Diplomacy must be the first choice and always the first choice of an administration trying to solve an issue of, in this case, nuclear armament, and we'll continue to press on diplomacy," Bush said.

But Albright said U.S. officials do not really believe Iran is ready to give up what Washington says has been a determined effort to acquire nuclear weapons. Iran has denied such allegations, saying it needs nuclear power stations to meet domestic energy demands.

Analysts said that means that, over the coming months, the Iranian nuclear crisis could go in either of two directions. One possibility is that the European initiative will lead to good-faith negotiations with Iran. Then, the United States would have to decide whether to abandon its skepticism and join the talks in an effort to reach a final "grand bargain" that would end the nuclear crisis.

Neil Partrick of the Economist Intelligence Unit in London said Washington's participation would be necessary because Iran would most likely want incentives from the United States, too, as part of any final deal. "The Iranian version of a grand bargain -- as far as it's possible to divine a clear line on this -- would be one that involves a significant degree of engagement by the U.S.," Partrick said. "And the Europeans must be seen as really rather secondary players on this issue, ultimately. And along with that engagement would come some [demands for] clear guarantees about [Iran's] own security."

But Partrick said hostile relations between the United States and Iran could make it difficult for any American administration to join the EU nations in negotiating directly with Tehran. "It's very hard to imagine a U.S. administration of any kind being prepared to make those kind of guarantees to an Iranian regime that remains extremely controversial [in America]," Partrick said. Washington has had no formal relations with Iran since U.S. diplomats were taken hostage for 444 days in Tehran immediately after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The second possible course for the nuclear crisis is that Tehran could balk at abandoning its uranium-enrichment activities. Then, a frustrated Europe might move closer to Washington's position -- that is, that Iran must be forced to do so. In that case, Washington would likely try to enlist the Europeans in its own efforts to persuade the International Atomic Energy Agency to refer Tehran to the UN Security Council for discussion of possible sanctions. The United States might also seek to persuade the European Union to join it in its efforts to isolate Iran politically or economically. With so many variables at play, analysts said it is impossible to predict how the Iranian nuclear crisis might end. But many said the least likely scenario at the moment is U.S. military action against Iran.

Albright called U.S. air strikes a "poor option," precisely because Washington's greatest worry about Iran is that it could be pursuing weapons development work at sites that have not yet been discovered. He said that means Washington could never be sure its air strikes had destroyed all of any clandestine nuclear program. And such strikes would raise a new problem of how to deal with an Iranian government that would be only more convinced it needs nuclear weapons for its own security.






December 23, 2004

Iran's nuclear program has become the subject of international debate and concern. Iranian and U.S. officials frequently comment on the issue, and numerous articles and analyses about Tehran's nuclear aspirations are published on an almost daily basis in the international press. But little is known about the views of ordinary citizens. RFE/RL reports on the results of a recent poll, and also speaks with several residents of Tehran to get their opinions about the controversy.

Iranian officials say the country's civilian nuclear program is a matter of national pride and claim widespread public support for continuing research and development. According to a poll published in October by Iran's semi-official Mehr news agency, around 80 percent of respondents said they were opposed to halting nuclear activities. More than 65 percent said Iran should continue its nuclear pursuits under any circumstances. And 80 percent believe the United States and other Western countries are pressuring the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to crack down on Iran.

But some observers question the validity of such polls and reject the idea that Iranians are united in their desire for the country to have a nuclear program. An analyst who travels to Iran on a regular basis -- who wished to remain anonymous -- told RFE/RL that he believes people have mixed feelings about the issue. "The overwhelming feedback I get from people is ambivalence or mixed thoughts," he said. "They feel that the money could be better spent or that lots of people are not even paying attention. It doesn't affect their daily lives."

Several Iranian citizens interviewed by RFE/RL endorsed the view that Iran should continue its peaceful nuclear activities. Hamid is a 54-year-old businessman in Tehran: "It's [Iran's] legitimate right, and other countries in the region have these possibilities. This is our right. Why shouldn't we use it?" He said he believes the Islamic Republic is not secretly trying to produce nuclear weapons.

Tehran says its nuclear program is peaceful and is aimed at producing energy for civilian use. The United States and Israel accuse Iran of pursuing a clandestine nuclear-weapons program.

Ladan is a 45-year-old office manager in the capital: "One thing is very strange for me, and that is why there is so much pressure [on Iran], because I think every country has the right to have some plans of its own, apart from [producing] nuclear weapons. If [nuclear activities] are for peaceful purposes, then there is nothing wrong. Israel now has about 200 to 300 nuclear bombs. Why isn't there any pressure on Israel?"

But she added that it is possible that UN inspections have succeeded in preventing Iran from producing a nuclear bomb: "I don't think Iran has [a nuclear bomb]. But I think that if the inspectors hadn't come to Iran, it would possibly have produced one." She said the Iranian regime would consolidate its power by developing nuclear weapons, and that's not something most people are in favor of.

Twenty-two-year-old Ali said students at his university do not talk much about the nuclear issue. "There isn't much talk about it among the youth, maybe only small talk regarding, for example, whether the case has been referred to the Security Council,"

Ali said. "Otherwise, they don't go into too many details. At Azad University, where I study, it's like that, I think. For students at other universities, the issue might be more important because the atmosphere there is more political."

Ali said he believes Iran is interested in developing nuclear weapons, but said the country should have a nuclear capability only for energy production. "I think it is something that is necessary," he said. "It means that Iran should by all means have a nuclear capability -- not military nuclear capabilities -- but for producing energy. I think we are after nuclear weapons, but I'm not sure if they've reached them or not."

The anonymous analyst who spoke with RFE/RL said inconsistencies in statements by the Iranian government over the past year have convinced many people that the regime is pursuing a clandestine weapons program. But he said most Iranians do not see how a nuclear program can improve their lives and solve problems, such as unemployment and inflation.

Ladan, the Tehran office manager, said she agrees that most ordinary Iranians are concerned with day-to-day problems: "There was some concern about the possible referral of Iran's case to the Security Council [for possible sanctions] because, in such a case, it would be the people who would have to carry the burden on their shoulders. People are facing so many problems regarding the economy; pollution in Tehran, which makes people nervous; terrible traffic jams; unemployment; and other issues. Nuclear activities are really lost among these [other issues]."

Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi recently said that while she, too, opposes nuclear weapons, the West would do more good by focusing not on Tehran's nuclear program but on promoting democracy in the Islamic Republic. "In a country or a society where people supervise decisions and everything else, like a democratic country, the existence of an atomic bomb cannot be dangerous," Ebadi said.

Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.