Iranian Nuclear Programs
█ K. LEE LERNER
In his 2002 State of the Union speech, United States President George W. Bush labeled Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as rogue nations that constituted an "axis of evil" seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction (i.e., nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons).
Late in 2002, reports began to circulate in the press that Iran had taken steps to accelerate an already active nuclear program that could develop nuclear weapons. As a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has a right to pursue nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, subject to oversight by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). A development of nuclear weapons by Iran, however, would violate nuclear non-proliferation treaties.
Initial reports of Iranian nuclear program development by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a private group that paid for their own intelligence estimates—including satellite imagery—gained influence because of the group's track record about supplying verifiable and reliable information regarding Iran's nuclear program. Western intelligence agencies soon confirmed the validity of the physical evidence of activity at Iranian nuclear facilities.
In December, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher argued that satellite imagery depicting the covering of buildings at the Natanz site indicated that Iran was building "a secret underground site where it could produce fissile material."
Iran quickly denied any attempt to develop nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Iranian officials asserted that the building programs underway at the suspected facilities were designed to expand Iran's ability to produce electrical energy. In particular, Iranian officials denied that its first nuclear plant—a reactor facility under construction at Bushehr, an Iranian town near the Persian Gulf Coast—would be equipped to produce weapons grade uranium. Iran's development of the facility at Bushehr (allegedly a 1,000-megawatt reactor) was supported by equipment and technical assistance from Russia.
In January, 2003, Iran announced its intention to develop a nuclear fuel program. Iran announced the mining of uranium and the adaptation of facilities, including the Natanz nuclear facility under construction, so that they could process ore into fissionable fuel for nuclear power plants. Iranian opposition groups and Western intelligence services argue that the nuclear fuel program could easily be extended to produce weapons grade fuel. The Iranian decision to produce its own fuels was chilling to Western intelligence services because it would eliminate the protections afforded by Russian demands to return spent fuel initially supplied for Iranian reactors.
Although Russian sales and support of nuclear materials and reactor equipment to Iran was well known, evidence of additional international interests in the Iranian program surfaced when the National Council of Resistance of Iran provided evidence that Chinese nuclear scientists and engineers were sighted at a uranium mine near Saghand. Chinese and North Korean scientists and engineers were reportedly involved in the development of uranium enrichment capability at a site near Isfahan. There were also allegations of centrifuge facility construction near Tehran.
The events in Iran signaled a change in the pace of Iranian nuclear program development that might allow Iran to construct an operational nuclear weapon by 2004 or 2005.
Concerned that Iran was attempting to accelerate its nuclear programs in such a way as to facilitate nuclear weapon development—especially while world attention was focused on events in Iraq and North Korea—IAEA inspectors requested additional access to inspect Iranian facilities. IAEA requests were initially denied. Iranian officials also initially declined to elaborate the intended uses of a facility in Kashan.
In February, 2003, IAEA inspectors, including IAEA chief inspector Mohamed El Baradei, were permitted to visit several new Iranian nuclear sites suspected of being able to enrich uranium for potential weapons use. Inspectors were also to make inquiries regarding the status of processing equipment located at Natanz and Arak (a heavy-water production facility) and to ask Iranian officials to accept regular monitoring of Iranian nuclear programs.
Satellite imagery indicated buried facilities near Natanz, and ground-based reports indicated the assembly of more than 150 centrifuges near the Natanz facility nearing operational capability to process uranium gas into nuclear fuel capable of undergoing fission. Parts for additional facilities were also reportedly near the Natanz site. Iran admitted to IAEA officials the construction of a plant to convert uranium into UF6 (uranium hexafluoride)—a gaseous form of uranium used in centrifuges.
Western intelligence scientists and analysts predicted that if Iran built its projected 5000 centrifuges, it could produce enough fuel each year for several nuclear weapons. United States officials briefed on IAEA reports from Iran expressed surprise at the advanced state of Iranian nuclear development. Several officials described Iran as being years ahead of prior projections and much closer to having nuclear weapons capability than previously estimated.
The United States has imposed sanctions against Russian companies and attempted to exert diplomatic pressure on Russia, Ukraine, and China, in an effort to prevent Iranian acquisition of sensitive nuclear technologies and equipment. Despite these efforts, intelligence sources predict that Iran's current nuclear program infrastructure will soon support the development of uranium-based weapons.
█ FURTHER READING:
Dareini, Ali A. "U.N. Nuclear Chief Arrives in Iran to Visit Nuclear Facilities." The Washington Post. February 21,2003.
Kessler, Glenn. "Group Alleges New Nuclear Site in Iran." Washington Post. February 20, 2003.
Warrick, J., and G. Kessler. "Iran's Nuclear Program Speeds Ahead 'Startling' Progress at Complex Poses Challenge to Bush Administration at Delicate Time." Washington Post. March 10, 2003.