Iran's Nuclear Program

Part III: The Emerging Crisis
October 6, 2003

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear


Muhammad Sahimi


Payvand Iran News

This article is the last of a three-part series on Iran's nuclear program. In this Part, the dispute - many consider it a crisis - between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is described.

Recall that after the February announcement of President Mohammad Khatami regarding the construction of the facilities in Natanz for uranium enrichment, and other associated plants needed for this purpose, Dr. Mohammad El Baradei, the head of IAEA, accompanied by a team of inspectors, visited Iran. Since then, the IAEA's inspectors and experts have visited Iran several more times. A preliminary report was published in July, with a follow-up one on August 26.

Before the revelations about the Natanz facility, there had been reports for years that Iran had sought, albeit unsuccessfully, the uranium enrichment technology, both in the international market and from the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy. Although not definitively established yet, it now appears that the Natanz facility is similar to what Pakistan had built for its nuclear program in the 1980s. Various reports indicate, however, that the Natanz facility is in fact far more sophisticated than both Pakistan's and what was discovered in Iraq after its defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

The process of converting uranium ore to enriched uranium is actually long and very complex. It has been known for many years that Iran has natural uranium reserves, in the form of uranium ore. In 1985, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) located over 5,000 metric tons of uranium ore in the desert in eastern part of Yazd province. This represents one of the largest deposits of uranium ore in the Middle East. The ore must first undergo a semi process to be converted to a powder, usually called the yellowcake. Iran is building a facility in Ardakan for this purpose. The yellowcake is then further processed to produce uranium hexafluoride (UF6) which is in gaseous state. The facility for doing this is being built in Esfahan (Isfahan). Uranium has two important isotopes (that is, two slightly different versions of it with slightly different atomic masses) which are uranium-235 and uranium-238 (the numbers represent the atomic masses). It is uranium-238 that may be used in making nuclear weapons, but also in nuclear reactors. The Esfahan facility will also produce uranium oxide and uranium metal, both of which have civilian as well as military applications.

The Natanz facility is equipped with the instruments for what is currently considered to be the standard uranium-enrichment technique, namely, a large number of centrifuges that spin uranium hexafluoride gas at very high speeds. Under such conditions, centrifugal forces help separate the lighter uranium-235 hexafluoride from the heavier uranium-238 hexafluoride. The facility has a pilot gas centrifuge plant that, by the end of 2003, is supposed to house 1000 centrifuges (at the time of the IAEA visit in February, there were 160 centrifuges in the facility), and a large-scale production plant which will house up to 50,000 centrifuges, the installation of which (which is supposed to begin in 2005) will take up to 10 years. Such a facility would then have the capability for producing enough uranium for annual consumption of a nuclear reactor of the Bushehr-type. Note that only 10 countries have access to the centrifuge technology.

Development of a uranium-enrichment facility is an important step (but not the only one) towards making nuclear weapons. For example, the Natanz facility, when complete and in full operation, could produce 500 kg/year of weapon-grade uranium. As it typically takes about 20 kg of enriched uranium to make a single nuclear bomb, the produced uranium would be enough to make about 25 bombs every year. We must, however, keep in mind that a uranium-enrichment facility is also utilized for peaceful purposes it can produce low-grade enriched uranium for use in nuclear reactors.

Since, typically, one first tests whether a single centrifuge with a small quantity of uranium hexafluoride works before installing hundreds (or even thousands) of them, one might suspect that Iran does have at least a small amount of enriched uranium, not declared to the IAEA, which, if true, would imply that Iran is in serious violation of the NPT that it signed in 1968. However, such tests can also be carried out by computer simulations and modeling. Recall that even nuclear explosions are simulated completely realistically, and therefore, in principle, one does not need a physical test to check whether the centrifuges work. Whether this is the case in the present situation is not clear.

It was reported on July 18 that the IAEA inspectors had detected the trace of enriched uranium in the samples taken at Natanz, but Iran said that the source of the trace is the equipments brought to Natanz from elsewhere and bought on the international market. Subsequently, it was announced on September 25 that a trace amount of enriched uranium has also been detected at Kaalaa-ye (Kalaye is usually used in the english press) Electric Company in the northwest suburb of Tehran, a non-nuclear site (the Company produces watches, as well as certain components for the centrifuges) that the IAEA suspects Iran is using for her nuclear enrichment activities. Since Iran had declared to the IAEA that the instruments at Natanz had been stored at the Kaalaa-ye Electric site before being transported to Natanz, and given that no trace of enriched uranium has been detected anywhere else in Iran, the Kaalaa-ye Electric discovery may actually confirm Iran's contention regarding the origin of the enriched uranium. But, once again, the situation is not clear, unless Iran provides the IAEA a list of suppliers that provided her with the instruments and equipments.

How are nuclear facilities monitored and violations of the NPT discovered? Inspections of nuclear facilities include the use of a powerful technique, called the isotopic detection, which, in essence, is a method for monitoring the environment and anything that might contaminate it. This technique is based on the facts that, (1) extremely small quantities of a material always escape a process or an industrial plant, and (2) that an equipped laboratory can readily identify the isotopic ratio of a sample that contains extremely small, albeit measurable, amounts of a material, even if it is as small as a billionth of a gram.

Nuclear physics predicts that the ratio of uranium-235 to uranium-238 is essentially the same everywhere. Therefore, when the isotopic detection technique is applied to samples containing uranium, those with ratios lower than the theoretically-predicted value would most probably indicate illegal (from the NPT stand) uranium-enrichment activity. The same technique can be used for detecting any amount of plutonium that is in excess of what is (theoretically) expected, which would then suggest the existence of a reprocessing program for nuclear wastes generated by nuclear reactors, from which plutonium is extracted. This technique is used, under the NPT, in the declared nuclear facilities of the NPT signatories.

As a reaction to the discovery of Iraq's program for developing nuclear weapons, that was discovered by the United Nations inspectors in 1991 after Iraq's defeat in the second Gulf war, the IAEA decided to develop and implement additional procedures for enhancing nuclear safeguards. At the time, the IAEA hoped to have these additional procedures or protocols in place two years later, hence the name "93+2" that is sometimes used to refer to this matter. The Additional Protocol was developed in 1996, and has since been signed by 78 countries (out of the 183 countries that have signed the NPT). Thirty three of these countries, mostly small nations, have also ratified the signing of the additional protocol by their national parliaments, and hence implementing it, although these countries cannot really afford to develop nuclear bomb! Most importantly, the Additional Protocol has not been adopted by the US, its most forceful advocate when it comes to OTHER countries!

The Additional Protocol also gives the IAEA the authority to inspect any facility of any nation that has signed the Protocol, even those that, seemingly, have nothing to do with a nuclear program, any time that the IAEA wishes. This is a problematic aspect of the Additional Protocol, as inspection of non-nuclear facilities may be interpreted as an infringement on the national sovereignty of a country under inspection. However, since Iran's facilities have been under inspections for years, this should be a minor issue.

On Friday September 12, 2003, the 35-member governing board of the IAEA gave Iran an ultimatum until October 31 to prove that her nuclear program is strictly for peaceful purposes, by providing all the details of her nuclear program. Iran's reaction was mixed: On one hand, she reacted with indignation, calling the ultimatum "premature" and "unfair," while stating, on the other hand, that she will continue working with the IAEA.

It should be pointed out that even Ms. Melissa Fleming, the spokeswoman for the IAEA, conceded that the ultimatum was "highly unusual" in that it was adopted WITHOUT A VOTE. At the same time, the IAEA itself had conceded that Iran had expanded her cooperation with the Agency, even allowing many sites that are not covered by the NPT, such as the Kaalaa-ye Electric Company, to be inspected. Therefore, the ultimatum has much to do with Iran's poor international standing and isolation, which are, of course, justified.

At the same time, the US is once again using an important international organization to advance her agenda, damaging in the process the credibility and effectiveness of the organization, only a few months after doing the same to the United Nations during the debate over invasion of Iraq (and now going back to it asking for help!). France and Germany, at odds with the US over invasion and occupation of Iraq, but eager to mend their relations with the US, also have joined her in calling on Iran to immediately sign the Additional Protocol, and to reveal all of the details of her nuclear program.

Before analyzing the present situation between Iran and the IAEA, we must keep in mind that,

(1) according to the original IAEA safeguard agreements, Iran was not obligated to declare the start of construction of the Natanz facility. These agreements stipulate that, only 180 days before introducing any nuclear material, does Iran have to declare the existence of the facility. Therefore, construction of the undeclared Natanz facility is NOT by itself a violation of the NPT.

(2) The NPT does allow Iran to legally build any nuclear facility, including one for uranium enrichment, so long as it is declared to, and safeguarded by, the IAEA, and is intended for peaceful purposes.

Keeping these important points in mind, the problematic aspects of Iran's nuclear program, so far as the IAEA is concerned, are as follows.

(a) The origin of the trace amounts of highly-enriched uranium at Natanz and Kaalaa-ye Electric Company near Tehran is not yet clear. This was already described and discussed above.

(b) Iran declared to the IAEA that since approximately seven weeks ago, she has begun some uranium enrichment activities at Natanz using a single centrifuge. Since this was declared to the IAEA, and because the Natanz facility is now monitored by the IAEA, this activity does not represent a violation of the NPT (although, given the current international conditions, some may regard the timing of this as unfortunate). The important point of contention is: How can Iran be so sure that the centrifuges at Natanz work with high levels of reliability, if no prior (undeclared) tests have been carried out? Iran has countered that she has used modeling and simulation, mentioned above, which is plausible, but does not, of course, exclude the possibility of actual physical tests.

(c) The IAEA has demanded that Iran provide it with all the details of the work at Kaalaa-ye Electric Company. Iran has provided some (but presumably not all) of the details, and has allowed the facility to be visited by the IAEA inspectors, even though this inspection is not covered by the NPT, although, at first, Iran refused to grant the IAEA the permission to visit this site. If Iran does sign the Additional Protocol, then she would have to completely open the facility to the IAEA inspectors.

(d) As mentioned in Part I, in 1991, Iran received from China 1,000 kg of natural uranium hexafluoride, 400 kg of uranium tetrafluoride (UF4), and 400 kg of uranium dioxide (UO2), without reporting them to the IAEA. The question then is: What happened to these uranium compounds? Iran has declared that some of the compounds have been converted to other uranium compounds, some of which have medical applications, while others may be of dual use. Given that Iranian medical scientists who work in Iran have published the results of their research involving such uranium compounds, Iran's explanation is plausible, but does not provide an explanation for the fate of all the undeclared uranium compounds.

In this author's opinion, none of these problems is intractable, and so far as their scientific and technological aspects are concerned, can be addressed to the satisfaction of the IAEA. The main problem, in this author's opinion, is that much of the dispute with the IAEA is political, rather than scientific or technological. To see this, consider the following indisputable facts:

(1) As recognized by the NPT, peaceful use of nuclear technology, and in particular nuclear energy, is Iran's fundamental right, so long as her nuclear program is completely transparent to the IAEA.

(2) Article 22 of the agreement between Iran and the IAEA allows for an "arbitral tribunal," if there is still any dispute after Iran provides sufficient details of her nuclear program to the IAEA. Therefore, October 31, 2003 is not necessarily a rigid deadline.

(3) The United States has a selective non-proliferation policy. She allows Pakistan, a country that created the Taliban and her population has provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and his terrorist group; a country whose military is still controlled to a large extent by extremist elements, to develop nuclear weapons. The US has assisted Israel to develop an impressive arsenal of nuclear weapons; has exported nuclear technology to China, and has offered a deal to North Korea regarding her nuclear reactors. The US does not pressure Pakistan, India and Israel to sign the NPT and its Additional Protocol. A little-known fact is that, in early 1995, the German government proposed a plan whereby Kraftwerk Union (a subsidiary of Siemens) would complete construction of the Bushehr reactors (see Part I of this series), subject to Iran's agreeing to extra non-proliferation verification procedures similar to those that the United States negotiated with North Korea, and Iran agreed with the plan. But, once again, immense pressure by the United States scuttled the plan, after which Iran turned to Russia for completion of the Bushehr reactors.

A few other important points must be mentioned here:

(a) In this author's opinion, if acquiring nuclear reactors is in Iran's national interests (see Part II), so is signing the Additional Protocol. However, it is completely reasonable to expect that, in return for signing the Protocol and opening the nation to the IAEA inspections, Iran should obtain access to advanced nuclear technology, which should, however, be monitored and safeguarded by the IAEA. The fact remains that Russian nuclear reactors are inferior to those made in the West. Britain, France, and Germany have already promised to help Iran.

(b) However, in this author's opinion, signing the Additional Protocol, while necessary, may not be sufficient by itself to protect Iran's nuclear assets since this author believes that, unless the US invades and occupies Iran and installs a completely puppet regime in Tehran, she will continue pressuring Iran, using her nuclear program as a pretext, regardless of the future political developments in Iran. Thus, Iran's aim, in this author's opinion, must be addressing the demands of the IAEA with which the European Union also agrees, and to open up all of her facilities to inspections.

(c) The present Iranian leadership, both elected and unelected, must recognize that it has been given no mandate to deprive Iran's future generations of the most advanced technology, namely, nuclear technology, by acting against Iran's national interests, including resisting stubbornly the legitimate demands by the IAEA. While giving Iran, a sovereign nation, an ultimatum is repugnant, there are many legitimate issues that must be addressed.

(d) It is highly important how Iran responds to the IAEA reasonable demands. She can react by dragging her feet, without having any active, efficient, and logical diplomacy, which will eventually result in agreeing to all the IAEA demands but under highly unfavorable circumstances, hence bringing about severe set backs to Iran's nuclear program, if nothing else (which could include economic sanctions and military threat). Alternatively, Iran can come forward with all the details of her nuclear program, while being firm in demanding assistance for acquiring advanced nuclear technology, in which case the EU, Russia, Japan and the non-aligned countries may help Iran.

(e) Unless Iran addresses the issues that the IAEA has raised, and signs the Additional Protocol on nuclear inspections, she will not only fail in her goal of building a network of nuclear reactors, but will also be under severe international pressure. Iran has already felt this pressure: Japan has slowed down negotiations for development of the Azaadegaan oil field (the largest field in the Middle East with estimated reserves of 26-30 billion barrels of oil), and the Shell Oil Company has withdrawn from negotiations for developing the same field. Under severe international pressure, the task of building a network of nuclear reactors will be set back for many years, if not decades.

With Israel's help, the apartheid regime of South Africa developed extensive nuclear facilities, and even made 16 nuclear bombs. The sixteen nuclear bombs could not, however, prevent the demise of the South African racist regime. While after establishment of a democratic system, the South African government of President Nelson Mandela gave up voluntarily its nuclear bombs, the nuclear technology and know-how, developed during the apartheid regime, now belong to a democratic country and all South Africans.

Nothing protects Iran's national security and interests better than acceptance of her political system and government by Iranian people, which would happen only if a truly democratic system is established in Iran. At the same time, Iran's nuclear infrastructure is part of her national asset, belonging to all Iranians, regardless of their political inclinations. It is ultimately up to Iranian people, like their South African counterparts, to decide the fate of their country's nuclear technology, once such a democratic system is established.

Iran's Nuclear Program. Part I: Its History

Iran's Nuclear Program. Part II: Are Nuclear Reactors Necessary?