Nuclear Cheating: A Well-Worn Path

Is Iran Following in Iraq's Footsteps?
July 22, 2005

Publication Type: 

  • Articles and Reports

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear

Related Country: 

  • Iraq


Valerie Lincy and Kelly Motz

In a news conference following his victory in June, Iranian president-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised to continue Iran's nuclear program, saying that the country needs "peaceful nuclear technology for energy, medical and agricultural purposes." This statement echoes comments by his reformist predecessor Mohammad Khatami, who often claimed that Iran was using its nuclear technology only for peaceful purposes.

However, Iran's actual nuclear conduct suggests that it wants to generate more than just kilowatts. The best evidence of this is the similarity between what Iran did secretly for nearly twenty years and what Iraq did before the 1991 Gulf War. Both countries conducted secret nuclear experiments, and both relied on clandestine imports and on cover-ups.

Iraq's pre-1991 efforts to build a bomb under the nose of nuclear inspectors are well known. The striking parallel between these efforts and Iran's secret nuclear work should leave little doubt as to the weapon intentions of the Iranian regime. In the table that follows, we compare what Iran and Iraq have done in common, and the nuclear weapon implications of their actions.

Consider first that both Iran and Iraq secretly produced small amounts of plutonium and enriched uranium, the two materials that fuel atomic bombs. To make plutonium, Iranian and Iraqi scientists used small reactors that their countries had imported under the guise of peaceful nuclear research. They each exposed natural uranium to the reactor's neutrons, which created plutonium, and then used a shielded laboratory to extract the plutonium in weapon-useable form. To make enriched uranium, both countries ran high-speed gas centrifuges and also experimented with lasers.

Consider too how both Iran and Iraq obtained their nuclear wherewithal. They relied on clandestine imports of material and equipment, which allowed them to hone their nuclear expertise in secret experiments beyond the gaze of international inspectors. In 1991, Iran imported uranium compounds from China, including over a ton of uranium hexafluoride gas. The gas was then secretly enriched in centrifuges--the designs and parts for which were also imported surreptitiously. Just before the first Gulf War, Iraq too succeeded in testing its own centrifuges--based on designs and components illicitly procured from Germany--using material secretly imported from Niger and Brazil.

Finally, consider the lengths to which both Iran and Iraq were willing to go in order to conceal their activities, once the scope of their programs came to light. In May 2003, Iran dismantled and moved laser enrichment equipment from its secret pilot plant at Lashkar Ab'ad to an undeclared storage facility. Iran also made considerable modifications to the Kalaye Electric Company workshop, its previously unknown centrifuge enrichment facility in Tehran, sometime between March and August 2003, before allowing inspectors to take environmental samples. And it razed a site known as Lavisan-Shian in northeastern Tehran that was allegedly involved in undeclared nuclear activities--before international inspectors could visit the site and take environmental samples. Iraq's post-Gulf War deception and concealment techniques were similar. They included demolishing whole buildings and digging up floors at the Tuwaitha nuclear complex, where secret uranium enrichment had taken place, and hiding equipment.

After considering the pattern established by Iraq and followed--almost to the letter--by Iran, it is hard to miss where Iran's program is headed. Europe is trying to prevent Iran from getting there by offering economic and security incentives in exchange for Tehran's promise to abandon uranium enrichment. The chance that Iran will agree, given statements by Ahmadinejad and others, seems slim. An understanding of the parallel between Iraq's actions and Iran's should help determine how the world reacts if Iran rejects Europe's proposal and resumes enriching uranium.


Nuclear Activity What Iran Did Secretly What Iraq Did Secretly (pre-1991) Nuclear Weapon Implications

Making Fissile Material

Generate Plutonium Irradiated locally-made uranium fuel in a U.S.-supplied reactor Irradiated locally-made and imported uranium fuel in a Russian-supplied reactor 13 pounds of plutonium fueled the Nagasaki bomb
Extract Plutonium Extracted small quantities of plutonium from irradiated fuel in laboratory experiments Extracted plutonium and uranium from irradiated fuel in laboratory experiments

Experimented with extracted plutonium in bomb-making techniques

Plutonium must be extracted from spent reactor fuel before being placed in a bomb
Enrich uranium with centrifuges

Built centrifuges and enriched uranium gas to a level of 1.2% at Kalaye Electric Company

Began constructing a 1000-centrifuge pilot plant at Natanz

Manufactured more advanced centrifuges in a contractor's workshop and tested the machines

Built centrifuges and tested them with locally-made uranium gas

Began constructing a centrifuge plant at Al Furat

Enriched uranium fueled the Hiroshima bomb

Iran's pilot plant could enrich enough uranium for approximately one bomb per year

Enrich uranium with lasers Enriched uranium to a level of up to 13% at a laser laboratory in Tehran using undeclared imported uranium metal

Built a laser pilot plant at Lashkar Ab'ad and conducted uranium enrichment experiments using imported uranium metal

Ran an exploratory laser program

Studied two types of laser enrichment and built a successful vacuum chamber

Lasers can produce fuel for nuclear weapons; they are impractical for fueling civilian reactors
Prepare uranium for enrichment Produced uranium compounds including uranium oxide, tetrafluoride, hexafluoride and metal in laboratory experiments Produced uranium compounds including uranium oxide, tetrachloride, tetrafluoride, hexafluoride and metal in laboratory experiments These uranium compounds are precursor materials used to make enriched uranium

Clandestine Imports

Equipment to enrich uranium Received centrifuge drawings and sample components in 1987 and imported about 2000 centrifuge components

Received a second set of centrifuge designs along with parts for 500 machines in two shipments between 1994 and 1996

Received drawings for a more advanced centrifuge in 1995 and magnets for the centrifuge in 2002

Imported laser enrichment equipment, including a comprehensive lab and a large vacuum vessel, from four different foreign suppliers

Imported centrifuge designs, rotors and other components from Germany through 1990

Imported a specialized steel alloy in the 1980's and machined it into centrifuge parts

Secretly imported equipment can allow a state to improve its production of nuclear material without detection
Nuclear materials Imported a ton of uranium hexafluoride and 800 kg of other uranium compounds from China in 1991

*Imported 50 kg of natural uranium metal in 1993 for use in a laser enrichment program

Imported some 140 tons of uranium concentrate from Niger in 1982

Imported more than 24 tons of uranium oxide from Brazil in the early 1980's

Undeclared materials allow secret experiments and processing necessary to make nuclear weapons


Destroy incriminating evidence Dismantled equipment used in uranium conversion experiments and moved it to an undeclared storage site

Dismantled centrifuges at Kalaye Electric, where uranium enrichment took place, and sanitized the site before allowing inspectors to take environmental samples

Dismantled and moved equipment used in laser enrichment experiments at Lashkar Ab'ad and at a Tehran laboratory

Dismantled shielded equipment used in plutonium experiments

Razed a military site at Lavisan-Shian that was allegedly involved in nuclear activities

Removed documents and equipment from nuclear sites before inspectors arrived

Demolished buildings and removed the concrete floor of a building used for uranium processing, after hiding all the equipment it housed

Prevents inspectors from understanding the scope of Iran's and Iraq's nuclear work and delays the discovery of undeclared experiments
Delay or block entry to sites Refused inspectors entry into portions of the centrifuge workshop at Kalaye in March 2003, claiming no keys were available; barred inspectors from taking environmental samples during a visit in May 2003

Delayed inspectors' access to the Parchin military complex for months and then limited the scope of their visit in January 2005; refused all subsequent requests by inspectors to make a follow-up visit

Fired warning shots at inspectors to keep them out of a site while nuclear equipment was being removed

Held inspectors for 96 hours in a parking lot after ejecting them from a suspect site; detained inspectors at another site for five hours and confiscated the documents they collected

Allow states to hide illicit nuclear work from inspectors