An Introduction To Iran’s Nuclear Program

Originally published here.

When President Barack Obama took office, and kept Robert Gates on as Secretary of Defense, he made it clear that the Pentagon’s policy on Iran would be less hawkish than the previous administration. Indeed, a recent Department of Defense press release laid out this “tough diplomacy” in a few terse words:

The Administration policy of Iran has been clear. First, the Iranian nuclear program presents a threat to regional stability. The administration has made an unconditional offer of discussions with the Iranians and “that offer has been on the table for months,” the official said. “The president has been pretty clear that they have until the latter part of September to respond to our overtures and they have until the end of the year to show progress on that.”

Over the years — especially during the long, dark Bush years — there has been a lot of spin in the media and from the US government regarding Iran’s nuclear program. The only way to counter that spin is to know the basics of the subject, which is what I hope to impart today.

The history of Iran’s nuclear program starts back in the 1950s. For the sake of brevity, I’ll be describing Iran’s facilities in the context of developments of the past 10 years or so.

Iran’s nuclear facilities

The interactive map below was made by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), based upon their extensive research over the years (click here for a larger version, and here for further details).

It’s important to note that regardless of the traditional media’s oversimplification of the matter, Iran’s nuclear complex is more extensive than just the light water reactor at Bushehr and an enrichment facility. Any discussion of policy regarding Iran should take into account that there are additional, critical components that should not be forgotten. I’ll list the major locations here, and why you should know about them.

The nuclear fuel cycle

Each of the most noteworthy components of Iran’s nuclear complex should be viewed in context of the nuclear fuel cycle, which I’ve diagrammed below. I will make it clear why people are concerned that Iran’s nuclear program might be dual-use.

The potential dual use nature of the nuclear fuel cycle. Click to enlarge.

The potential dual use nature of the nuclear fuel cycle. Click to enlarge.

Uranium mining and milling

As described here, Iran has indigenous uranium production capability, with mines at Gchine and Sagend. Ore is milled into yellowcake at Ardakan as well as Gchine.
The Esfahan Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF)

The purpose of the complex at Esfahan (Isfahan) as stated to the IAEA in 2000 was to convert yellowcake to uranium oxide (fuel for a planned heavy water reactor), uranium metal, and uranium hexafluoride (for the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz).

In December 2004, all operations at Esfahan were suspended, according to the “Paris Agreement“, an agreement between the EU-3 and Iran. The IAEA placed seals on the facility. However, in 2005, Iran removed the IAEA seals and other tamper-evidence devices, and resumed operations at the facility.

Note that there are other uranium-related activities at the complex:

The UCF consists of several conversion lines, including the line for the conversion of yellowcake to UF6.  The annual production capacity of the UCF is 200 tonnes of uranium in the form of UF6. The UF6 iis slated for the uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz.  The UCF is also able to convert yellowcake, LEU and depleted uranium into UO2 and depleted uranium metal.  Iran has told the IAEA indicates that they plan to build conversion lines for the production of natural and enriched (19.7%) uranium metal for research reactors, and natural UO2 for use in the heavy water reactor. Suspicions remain that the line to produce 19.7% uranium metal was originally intended to produce HEU metal for nuclear weapons.

Uranium enrichment

Iran’s main fuel enrichment plant is at Natanz. This is the location of the centrifuges we hear so much about in the news. From ISIS:

On March 30, 2005, President Khatami toured the Natanz site accompanied by the media.  This tour produced the first publicly available ground images of Natanz.  Iran voluntarily suspended activity in November 2004 at the PFEP, which was originally slated to hold 1,000 centrifuges, when it was conducting both single machine tests and small cascades with uranium hexafluoride at the pilot plant. Iran resumed operation of centrifuges in early 2006.


In December 2002, ISIS released satellite photos of the facility for the first time and identified the site correctly as a gas centrifuge enrichment facility.

As of early summer 2008, some 4000 centrifuges are operating at the FEP while more advanced centrifuges are being tested at the PFEP.

As you can see from the diagram above, what is important to discuss with regards to Iran’s uranium enrichment projects is: what are they doing with the enriched uranium? How much do they have, and how close are they to a nuclear “break-out”, i.e. when could they have a nuclear weapon? I’ll get to that in a minute.

The P Word: Iran and potential sources of weapons-grade plutonium

Let’s just cut to the chase, and go to a June 23, 2008 CRS report, prepared for Congress by arms control expert Paul Kerr. Here’s the lowdown on Iran and plutonium, briefly stated:

Iran says that its heavy-water reactor, which is being constructed at Arak, is intended for the production of medical isotopes. According to a May 5, 2008, presentation by Ambassador Soltanieh, it is to substitute for an “outdated” HEU-fueled research reactor in Tehran that has been in operation since 1967. However, the reactor is a proliferation concern because its spent fuel will contain plutonium better suited for nuclear weapons than the plutonium produced by light water moderated reactors, such as the Bushehr reactor. In addition, Iran will be able to operate the reactor with natural uranium, which means that it will not be dependent on supplies of enriched uranium.

Iran also has a plant for producing heavy water. According to ElBaradei’s February report, “satellite imagery appears to indicate” that the plant is operating. Moreover, Tehran is continuing work on a fuel manufacturing plant which, when complete, will first produce fuel for the Arak reactor.

The report also brings up the fact that Iran had once dabbled in plutonium separation, but abandoned the project; they also claim that they will not pursue reprocessing of spent fuel for plutonium separation. Indeed, there is no evidence that they are doing so.

The reactor at Arak has been troubling to any number of analysts. If there is anything in Iran’s nuclear program that could be “dual use” (i.e. potentially used for military as well as civilian purposes), it’s the reactor at Arak. It is important to note that Iran’s work on the Arak reactor is in violation of a UN security council resolution.

The big question: what are Iran’s intentions?

Iran’s recent nuclear history, with its violations of UN (IAEA) decisions has been anything but simple; viewing the situation as straightforward would be politically naive, at best.

It would be equally politically naive — and rather foolhardy — to take the view that they have a hidden weapons program, and we should attack them. That’s the neocon way of thinking, and it is exceedingly dangerous.

However, it is also foolhardy to assume that Iran’s intentions are completely benign. David Albright and Jacqueline Shire of ISIS has provided stellar analysis of Iran’s nuclear program, over the years. First of all, it’s essential to point out that Albright and Shire have never argued for military intervention against Iran, and in fact has argued that attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities would probably make things much worse (pdf):

Iran would almost certainly expel or severely limit IAEA inspectors and, freed of any international restraints, might well accelerate any weaponization efforts, launching a Manhattan Project‐style undertaking in defense of the homeland. In such a case, the United States would likely be forced to launch and sustain a long, costly war against Iran.

In that light, Albright and Shire’s “Misconceptions About Iran’s Nuclear Program” is essential reading. Things are not rosy, regardless of the conclusions of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which said that Iran abandoned its pursuit of a nuclear program in 2003. The problems lie in the areas I’ve pointed out above, in addition to their following emphases:

  • Iran’s IAEA safeguard violations were not minor, nor are they “fully in the past”. They are ongoing.
  • Not all of Iran’s nuclear facilities are being monitored:

    In fact, many key nuclear activities and facilities are not under any type of IAEA monitoring.  This lack of Iranian transparency poses one of the most difficult challenges to determining whether Iran has undeclared nuclear activities and materials and is conducting nuclear weapons work.

  • Iran is capable of producing nuclear weapons. No, there is no proof that they have produced weapons, but they are capable of doing so:

    Iran’s gas centrifuge program is currently large enough to provide Iran several ways to produce weapon-grade uranium.  The time needed to produce enough weapon-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon is measured in months or a few years at most.

There’s much more – definitely read the whole thing.

Albright, Shire and other respectable arms control experts strongly recommend diplomacy as a goal for the Obama administration. I’ll let Travis Sharp of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation have the last word today:

With time running out before Iran acquires a breakout enrichment capability, the most difficult part of developing a nuclear weapon, Obama and Ahmadinejad have until the end of 2010 to achieve progress on key differences. After a year and a half, both countries may be forced back into more antagonistic postures by long-standing domestic and international political influences that are beyond their control. Despite seemingly intractable differences, this paper will argue that there are reasons to be guardedly optimistic about the future of U.S.-Iranian bilateral relations. Though burdened with political constraints on its freedom of action, the Obama administration already has made overtures to Iran that may appear merely symbolic but have historically proven successful at breaking the ice in preparation for larger diplomatic initiatives.

Indeed. We live in interesting times.

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