(Updated November 2013)
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) traces Iran’s nuclear arms ambitions as far back as 1984, when current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei was president and Iran was in the middle of the War with Iraq. Fearing that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein might be developing a nuclear weapon, Iran felt the need to have its own bomb to deter its enemies. At a top-level meeting at that time, Khamenei endorsed a nuclear weapons program, saying "a nuclear arsenal would serve Iran as a deterrent in the hands of God's soldiers" (AP, September 18, 2009).
- Developing a Nuclear Program
- Brains Behind Nuclear Project
- Iran's Secret Nuclear Plants
- Committment to Join "Nuclear Club"
- Iran Admits Deception
- 2003 National Intelligence Estimate
- Stuxnet Slows Uranium Enrichment
- Iran Approaching a "Red Line"
- Defiance & Advances in 2013
- A New Nuclear Facility?
- Plutonium Bomb Threat grows
- Interim Deal Struck
Developing a Nuclear Bomb
In 1990, China signed a 10-year nuclear cooperation agreement that allowed Iranian nuclear engineers to obtain training in China. In addition, China had already built a nuclear research reactor in Iran that became operational in 1994.
Israel first received reports about an Iranian nuclear program in May 1992 and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin tried to warn the Clinton Administration. The CIA, however, maintained that the Iranian program was civilian rather than military, an assessment the agency did not abandon until 1998 (New Republic, February 5, 2007).
In 2003, a man went to visit Olli Heinomen at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna. Heinomen won't reveal his source, but said that the man told him that Iran was building a replica of its existing uranium-enrichment site near the city of Qom. The informant also said Iran was replicating its heavy-water plant in Arak, which is capable of producing plutonium. The first claim was verified, but the second has not been -- yet. Heinomen also said that as early as 1993-94, the IAEA had learned that China had secretly sent two tons of uranium to Iran and that inspectors found suspicious laboratories, but still said everything was okay. The agency, he said, said nothing for three years (Wall Street Journal, March 2-3, 2013).
By 2003 the CIA had few doubts about Iran’s activities: "The United States remains convinced that Tehran has been pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons program, in contradiction to its obligations as a party to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). During 2003, Iran continued to pursue an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle ostensibly for civilian purposes but with clear weapons potential."
The reference to Iran having a civilian nuclear program refers to the nuclear power plant at Bushehr. Construction of the plant was started in 1975 by German companies, but abandoned following the Islamic revolution in 1979. Iran subsequently signed a contract in 1995 with Russia to complete the plant. Financial wrangling between the Russians and Iranians delayed completion of the project, which was expected to be finished in 2006. Russia informed Tehran in early 2007 that it would withhold nuclear fuel for Bushehr unless Iran suspended its uranium enrichment (New York Times, March 20, 2007), but reversed its position a few months later and delivered the long-delayed first shipment of nuclear fuel. Still, other delays prevented the plant from coming online until 2011.
The Russian decision came after the release of a U.S. intelligence report that concluded Tehran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in late 2003. President George W. Bush said, "If the Iranians accept that uranium for a civilian nuclear power plant, then there’s no need for them to learn how to enrich." But a senior Iranian official said his country would under no circumstances halt its efforts to enrich uranium (Reuters, December 18, 2007 ).
The CIA saw the Bushehr project differently:
Iran continues to use its civilian nuclear energy program to justify its efforts to establish domestically or otherwise acquire the entire nuclear fuel cycle. Iran claims that this fuel cycle would be used to produce fuel for nuclear power reactors, such as the 1,000-megawatt light-water reactor that Russia is continuing to build at the southern port city of Bushehr. However, Iran does not need to produce its own fuel for this reactor because Russia has pledged to provide the fuel throughout the operating lifetime of the reactor and is negotiating with Iran to take back the irradiated spent fuel.
The Bushehr project provided valuable training to Iranian technicians and engineers, and expanded the regime's nuclear infrastructure. To allay U.S. fears that the fuel Russia is providing for the plant could be diverted to a weapons program, the Russians agreed to take back the spent fuel rods from the plant, but Iran would not agree to this.
Brains Behind Nuclear Project
Though China and Russia have provided technology to Iran, the “brain” behind the Iranian nuclear program is believed to be Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, who passed secrets and equipment to Iranian officials.
Khan became involved in helping Iran in the mid-1990s. Pakistani investigators told the IAEA that centrifuges built by Iran closely resemble the design of Pakistani centrifuges. Khan also helped the Iranians to set up a secret procurement network involving companies and middlemen around the world. In March 2005, former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani admitted Iran developed its nuclear program in secret, going to the black market for material.
Iran's Secret Plants
In 2002, two previously unknown nuclear facilities were discovered in Iran by a delegation of the IAEA lead by Mohamed El-Baradei. One in Arak produces heavy water, which could be used to produce weapons. The other plant is in Natanz.
Also in 2002, Iran revealed that it had purchased special gas from China that could be used to enrich uranium for the production of nuclear weapons. The gas purchase was supposed to be reported to the IAEA, but it was concealed instead. Chinese experts have also been involved in the supervision of the installation of centrifuge equipment that can be used to enrich uranium.
In February 2003, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami announced the discovery of uranium reserves near the central city of Yazd and said Iran was setting up production facilities “to make use of advanced nuclear technology for peaceful purposes” (AP, February 11, 2003). This was an alarming development because it suggested Iran was attempting to obtain the means to produce and process fuel itself, despite the Russia’s offer to provide all the uranium Iran required for civilian purposes.
The Iranian government, confronted in February 2004 with new evidence obtained from the secret network of nuclear suppliers surrounding Khan, acknowledged it had a design for a far more advanced high-speed centrifuge to enrich uranium than it previously revealed to the IAEA. This type of centrifuge would allow Iran to produce nuclear fuel far more quickly than the equipment that it reluctantly revealed to the agency in 2003. This revelation proved that Iran lied when it claimed to have turned over all the documents relating to their enrichment program.
A Commitment to Join the Nuclear Club
After pledging to suspend its nuclear program, the IAEA reported in June 2004 that Iran was continuing to make parts and materials that could be used in the manufacture of nuclear arms. The report also cited continuing evidence that Iran misled inspectors with many of its early claims, especially on questions about where it obtained critical components. For example, Iranian officials admitted that some of those parts were purchased abroad, after initially insisting that Iran had made them itself (New York Times, June 3, 2004).
Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi rejected further outside influence on Tehran's nuclear ambitions. “We won't accept any new obligations," Kharrazi said. “Iran has a high technical capability and has to be recognized by the international community as a member of the nuclear club. This is an irreversible path” (AP, June 12, 2004).
On July 27, 2004, The Telegraph reported Iran had broken the seals on nuclear equipment monitored by UN inspectors and was again building and testing machines that could make fissile material for nuclear weapons. Teheran's move violated an agreement with European countries under which Iran suspended “all uranium enrichment activity.” Defying a key demand set by 35 nations, Iran announced on September 21, 2004, that it had started converting raw uranium into the gas needed for enrichment, a process that can be used to make nuclear weapons. A couple of weeks later, Iran announced it had processed several tons of raw ''yellowcake'' uranium to prepare it for enrichment - a key step in developing atomic weapons - in defiance of the IAEA (AP, October 6, 2004).
South African Defense Minister Mosiuoa Lekota and his Iranian counterpart Rear-Admiral Ali Shamkhani signed a memorandum of understanding August 17, 2004, on bilateral cooperation. The agreement included an arrangement for South Africa to sell uranium to Iran, according to Israel's Channel 1 TV. Lekota reportedly said that making peaceful use of nuclear energy is the legitimate right of the Islamic Republic. The South African Ministry of Defense subsequently denied the report.
In another sign of Iran's determination to move forward with a nuclear weapons program, the government approved the establishment of a secret nuclear research center to train its scientists in all aspects of atomic technology (Telegraph, March 20, 2005). Then, in contradiction to earlier claims, Iran admitted in June 2005 that it conducted experiments to create plutonium, which is used only in weapons and not for energy production, for five years beyond the date when it previously insisted it had ended all such work.
According to an intelligence assessment from July 2005, Iran was aggressively trying to obtain the expertise, training, and equipment for developing nuclear weapons, a ballistic missile capable of reaching Europe, and biological and chemical weapons arsenals. The leak of the report came shortly after Iran notified the IAEA that it intended to resume nuclear fuel research (Guardian, January 4, 2006).
On September 2, 2005, the IAEA reported that Iran had produced about seven tons of the gas it needs for uranium enrichment since it restarted the process the previous month. A former UN nuclear inspector said that would be enough for an atomic weapon. In unusually strong language, an IAEA report also said questions remained about key aspects of Iran's 18 years of clandestine nuclear activity and that it still was unable “to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran” (Chicago Tribune, September 3, 2005).
On September 20, 2005, Iran threatened to resume uranium enrichment and bar open inspections of its nuclear facilities if the IAEA referred it to the Security Council for sanctions. Newly elected Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defended his country's right to produce nuclear fuel in a fiery speech to the UN General Assembly and later raised worldwide concern about nuclear proliferation when he said, “Iran is ready to transfer nuclear know-how to the Islamic countries due to their need” (AP, September 15, 2005). Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, repeated the proliferation threat the following April, telling the president of Sudan, "Iran's nuclear capability is one example of various scientific capabilities in the country ... The Islamic Republic of Iran is prepared to transfer the experience, knowledge and technology of its scientists" (New York Times, April 26, 2006).
Meanwhile, the head of IAEA disclosed that in 1987 Iran obtained through the Khan network the blueprint for casting uranium required in making the core of a nuclear warhead, but this alone was not enough for the manufacture of a weapon (The Guardian, November 19, 2005). A few days later, a former spokesman for the National Council of the Resistance of Iran, an Iranian opposition group, said that, beginning in 1989, North Korea helped Iran build dozens of underground tunnels and facilities for the construction of nuclear-capable missiles (ABC News, November 21, 2005).
Iran Admits Deception
Negotiations with Iran aimed at convincing the Iranians to halt their nuclear program began in 2003. Hassan Rouhani, the man who headed talks with Britain, France and Germany until 2005, told a meeting of Islamic clerics and academics that Iran played for time and tried to dupe the West after its secret nuclear program was uncovered by the Iranian opposition in 2002. He revealed that while talks were taking place in Teheran, Iran completed the installation of equipment for conversion of yellowcake at its Isfahan plant. Rouhani also said that on at least two occasions the IAEA obtained information on secret nuclear-related experiments from academic papers published by scientists involved in the work (Telegraph, March 5, 2006).
At this time, Iran also stepped up the pace of its weapons program by secretly enlarging the uranium enrichment plant at the Natanz site. A U.S. intelligence report also indicated that Iran’s facilities appeared to replicate those used to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons in Pakistan (Telegraph, January 22, 2006). Furthermore, Iran reportedly reached an agreement with North Korea to share with Teheran's nuclear scientists all the data the Koreans received from their nuclear test in October 2006.
The Security Council urged Iran on March 29, 2006, to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities and asked the director of the IAEA to report back on Iran's compliance within 30 days. The Council took its action in a presidential statement, a nonbinding declaration that needs unanimous support, which was possible only after the European authors of the final draft eliminated language suggesting that any Iranian drive to produce nuclear weapons would be a “threat to international peace and security” (New York Times, March 30, 2006).
In February 2007, an internal European Union document said there was no way to prevent Iran from enriching enough weapons-grade uranium to produce a bomb and that the Iranian program had been slowed by technical limitations rather than diplomatic pressure. The Financial Times quoted the document as saying: “At some stage we must expect that Iran will acquire the capacity to enrich uranium on the scale required for a weapons program” and that “the problems with Iran will not be resolved through economic sanctions alone” (Jerusalem Post, February 13, 2007).
In April 2007, Iranian President Ahmadinejad announced the Natanz facility had begun “industrial-scale” production of nuclear fuel using a new array of 3,000 centrifuges (AP, April 12, 2007). A week later, however, the head of Iran's atomic energy agency, Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, admitted that some of the centrifuges blew up during the enrichment process. Without giving a precise number, he said that the damages ranged from ten to twenty per cent. Aghazadeh said Iran ultimately hoped to install 50,000 uranium enriching centrifuges at the plant in Natanz. Aghazadeh added it would take four years for Iran to complete its own nuclear fuel cycle (Agence France-Presse, Haaretz, April 17, 2007). A month later, however, IAEA inspectors concluded that Iran appeared to have solved most of its technological problems and was starting to enrich uranium on a far larger scale than before (New York Times, May 15, 2007).
In June 2007, Iran’s interior minister said Iran had produced 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of enriched uranium. Experts say that about 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of enriched uranium would be needed for one bomb (AP, June 22, 2007). Iran’s spiritual leader’s representative to the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, said Tehran was committed to uranium enrichment and termed “nuclear fuel a strategic product for Iran.” He stated his country’s next strategic plan was to produce nuclear fuel locally (Reuters, December 20, 2007).
The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate
The highly publicized release of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of the United States on November 2007 was portrayed in the media as an indication that the Bush Administration was falsely and hysterically whipping up opposition against a non-existent Iranian nuclear weapons program to impose draconian sanctions on Iran and possibly justify military intervention. The finding that received the most publicity was that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and America’s spy agencies believed the program was frozen. The report also said Iran was not expected to have the capability to build a weapon until the middle of the next decade.
Other nations immediately expressed skepticism of the NIE. The leaders of Great Britain, France and Germany, as well as the Gulf Arab States, have continued to voice their concerns based on their own independent evaluations of Iranian capabilities and intentions. French Foreign Minister Herve Morin, for example, stated on January 31, 2008, “Coordinated information from a number of intelligence services leads us to believe that Iran has not given up its wish to pursue its (nuclear) program,” and is “continuing to develop [it]” (Agence France-Presse, February 1, 2008). Israel also remained convinced Iran was still developing a weapon.
On April 8, 2008, Ahmadinejad announced that Iran has started to install 6,000 new centrifuges at its uranium enrichment facility at the underground Natanz facility (Reuters, April 8, 2008). Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, added that Iran would not retreat in the face of demands by world powers for Tehran to halt sensitive nuclear work (Agence France-Presse, July 31, 2008).
On September 25, 2009, it was disclosed that Iran had a second fuel enrichment plant. The United States was apparently aware of the facility, but it was hidden from weapons inspectors (Jerusalem Post, September 25, 2009).
By January 2010, President Obama’s top advisers concluded that the 2007 NIE's conclusion that Iranian scientists ended all work on designing a nuclear warhead in late 2003 was inaccurate (New York Times, January 2, 2010). CIA director Leo Panetta said the United States suspected Iran had enough low-enriched uranium for two weapons (Washington Times, June 27, 2010). The CIA subsequently issued a public report indicating that Iran had installed centrifuges at the underground Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant near Qom and initiated production of near 20-percent enriched uranium there.
The Iranian’s continued defiance of the international community prompted the Obama Administration to announce new sanctions against Iran. The following day Tehran announced it had begun enriching uranium to a higher level of purity, 20 percent, one step closer to producing weapons-grade uranium (Washington Post, February 11, 2010).
Stuxnet Slows Iranian Enrichment
In 2010, Iran announced that uranium enrichment at Natanz had stopped several times because of a series of technical problems. News reports suggested that as many as 1,000 centrifuges used to enrich uranium were damaged. It was subsequently reported that the destruction was likely caused by sabotage. In June, anti-virus experts discovered a sophisticated computer worm dubbed “Stuxnet,” which spreads via Microsoft Windows and targets Siemens industrial software and equipment used by Iran to control centrifuges used to enrich uranium at its Natanz plant. The New York Times subsequently reported that Stuxnet is part of a U.S. and Israeli intelligence operation called "Operation Olympic Games," initiated by President George W. Bush and expanded under President Barack Obama (New York Times, June 1, 2012).
At the time the worm was reportedly infecting the Iranian machines, IAEA cameras installed in Natanz recorded the sudden dismantling and removal of approximately 900–1000 centrifuges. These were quickly replaced, however, and Iran resumed uranium enrichment (Washington Post, February 16, 2011).
Although Stuxnet was discovered, it is believed that the United States, Israel and others continue to use cyberwarfare in an effort to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran Approaches a "Red Line"
In March 2011, Robert Eihorn, the U.S. State Department's senior adviser for nonproliferation and arms control, said that Iran was moving closer to the threshold of being able to build a nuclear weapon but that it was not close to a “breakout” of being able to construct one quickly. While Israeli officials were mostly convinced Iran was committed to building a bomb, Eihorn expressed the view still held by American intelligence that Tehran's leaders had not yet decided whether to build nuclear weapons (AP, March 9, 2011).
Iran’s stockpile of higher-grade uranium rose nearly 50% between August and November 2012 levels, according to an IAEA assessment, and was approaching the 250 kg needed to make one atomic bomb (Reuters, November 27, 2012). By combining its stockpiles of low-enriched and higher-enriched uranium, Iran could make weapons-grade fuel of around 90% purity (Wall Street Journal, October 9, 2012). According to the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), Iran could make enough highly enriched uranium for one atomic bomb in as little as two to four months at its largest uranium-enrichment facility near Natanz (Wall Street Journal, October 9, 2012).
New concerns about Iran’s progress toward developing a weapon emerged in 2012 when satellite imagery detected evidence the Iranians were trying to clean up the area around Parchin, a military complex roughly 20 miles outside of Tehran. IAEA inspectors were given "partial access" to the base as a confidence-building measure in 2005, but have been denied permission since then to conduct further inspections. Analysts suspect Iran may be trying to erase radioactive traces that may have been associated with testing of a nuclear trigger (AP, March, 7, 2012). Following the report of the clean-up efforts, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China called on Iran to allow UN inspectors to visit the Parchin military site. Iran denied the request and the accusations.
A second revelation providing new evidence of Iran’s intent to build a bomb was a diagram obtained by the IAEA and leaked to the press that indicated Iranian scientists had run computer simulations for a nuclear weapon. The IAEA reportedly has additional secret documents that also support the conclusion that Iran is working on a weapon (AP, December 1, 2012).
Another serious concern is that of Iran may be pursuing multiple routes (enriched uranium and plutonium) to build weapons. Iran has already been developing a plutonium-breeding heavy-water reactor in the city of Arak. Once again, the Iranians insist this reactor is for peaceful research purposes, but they have denied inspectors access to the plant since August 2011. In addition, U.S. intelligence is increasingly worried that the “peaceful” nuclear power plant at Bushehr could be used to reprocess the plant’s fuel rods, which contain enough weapons-grade plutonium to build a number of Nagasaki-type bombs. The plant has received heightened scrutiny since the discovery that Iran removed fuel rods that were supposed to be returned to Russia for storage. Iran says it returned the rods to the reactor’s core, but this claim hasn’t been verified (Wall Street Journal, December 6, 2012).
Israel has said that Iran could reach the point where it has enough fissile material to build a bomb as early as spring 2013. Prime Minister Netanyahu told the UN in September 2012 this would cross a “red line” for Israel. Many people believe that if no other nation acts, Israel will then feel compelled to use force to eliminate the Iranian threat (Reuters, November 27, 2012).
Interestingly, in December 2012, intelligence reports suggested Syria might be preparing to use chemical weapons against its people. President Obama announced that this would cross a red line and result in severe consequences for the Syrian regime. Imagine if Syria had nuclear weapons? If Syrian preparation of chemical weapons is serious enough to provoke a warning of U.S. action, shouldn’t Iranian construction of a nuclear weapon warrant similar concern?
The Obama Administration has insisted that the United States will know well in advance if Iran is preparing to build a bomb and can take appropriate action at that time. Israel and others have raised doubts about this and suggested at that point it may already be too late.
Iranian Defiance & Nuclear Advances in 2013
Once again defying the international community, Iran announced plans to use more sophisticated centrifuges that will allow it to enrich more uranium. The declaration came just before negotiations were to restart. Iran is now capable of quadrupling the enrichment of 20 percent uranium at its Fordo facility (Bloomberg, January 25, 2013). One analyst called the Iranian advancemnt a "game-changer." Mark Fitzpatrick, a non-proliferation expert and former senior official at the U.S. State Department, said "If thousands of the more efficient machines are introduced, the timeline for being able to produce a weapon’s worth of fissile material will significantly shorten ... This won’t change the several months it would take to make actual weapons out of the fissile material or the two years or more that it would take to be able to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile, so there is no need to start beating the war drums." "But," he added, "it will certainly escalate concerns." (AP, January 31, 2013).
Israel's Institute for National Security Studies released a study that suggested that Iran is trying to go to the edge, but not beyond Israel's "red line," whch would trigger a military strike. "They have all the ingredients necessary to make a nuclear bomb," said Major General (ret.) Amos Yadlin, the Institute's director, but he added, "It would take four or six months for Iran to enrich enough military-grade uranium" to build a weapon (The Telegraph, February 4, 2013).
John Kerry, America's new Secretary of State, restated U.S. policy during his confirmation hearing on Janurary 24, 2013, "Our policy is not containment," Kerry said. "It is prevention, and the clock is ticking on our efforts to secure responsible compliance." (Bloomberg, January 25, 2013).
Iran has more than 12,000 centrifuges enriching uranium at its main Natanz facility. Iran's nuclear chief, Fereidoun Abbasi, said that 3,000 new centrifuges have been built to replace older versions at Natanz. The newer centrifuges can produce more enriched uranium in a shorter period of time (AP, March 3, 2013).
In March, Obama Administration officials expressed concern about a scientific-cooperation pact between North Korea and Iran that officials said could advance the nuclear and missile programs of both countries. The agreement, reached in September 2012, is similar to one North Korea signed with Syria in 2002, just as Pyongyang began secretly constructing a plutonium-producing nuclear reactor in Syria. The U.S. became more concerned with the agreement after North Korean nuclear and missile tests. According to the Wall Street Journal, "North Korea could provide Iran with a range of supplies for its nuclear program, including uranium ore, centrifuge machines and enriched uranium, according to these officials. Pyongyang also is seen as being ahead of Iran in developing the technologies needed to place an atomic warhead on a missile" (Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2013).
The United States is becoming increasingly concerned about the plutonium reactor in Arak. Tehran hopes to have a plutonium-producing reactor up and running in 2014. Both plutonium and enriched uranium can be used to produce a nuclear weapon. International concern has focused primarily on Iran’s uranium enrichment path because it is now only a step away from reaching weapons-grade. The plutonium reactor, however, is “of increasing concern,” U.S. envoy Joseph Macmanus told a recent meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (AP, March 2013).
Following the latest failed negotiations to halt Iran's drive for a nuclear weapon, Tehran announced an expansion of its nuclear program. On April 8, 2013, Iran opened the Saghand 1 and 2 uranium mines in the central city of Yazd, and the Shahid Rezaeinejad yellow cake plant at Ardakan. The Iranian News Agency claimed the Ardakan plant is capable of producing 60 tons of raw uranium annually. "They (world powers) tried their utmost to prevent Iran from going nuclear, but Iran has gone nuclear," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a speech at Iran's Atomic Energy Organization. "This nuclear technology and power and science has been institutionalized ... All the stages are in our control and every day that we go forward a new horizon opens up before the Iranian nation" (Reuters, April 9, 2013).
Iran shows no signs of being prepared to make concessions following the latest round of talks in April. In fact, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, reiterated that Iran was determined to pursue “all legal areas of nuclear technology, including full (nuclear) fuel cycle and enrichment technology, for peaceful purposes” under IAEA supervision (Jamejamoline, April 23, 2013).
In May 2013, the IAEA released its quarterly report on the Iranian nuclear program which showed the Islamic Republic accelerating the installment of advanced uranium enrichment equipment at Natanz. Iran has installed almost 700 advanced IR2m centrifuges at the plant, compared with 180 in February, prompting the agency to restate its ongoing concern about the "possible military dimensions" of Iran's nuclear project. The report also says the heavy water reactor in Arak will be completed and online by the end of 2014. One positive finding was that Iran has not started to operate new equipment at the Fordo facility, which, unlike Natanz, can enrich uranium to the sensitive 20% level. The report said Iran did not produce a significant amount of of ths enriched uranium so as, to approach but not cross the red line that might trigger a military response. A more disturbing development, however, it the revelation that Tehran has started to produce plutonium. Iran is also continuingt to conceal the military base at Parchin, covering it with asphalt and restricting the work of nuclear inspectors who believe it was used to test nuclear triggers. In the last three months, the IAEA disclosed that Iran increased its total stock of low-enriched uranium by almost 8 percent, to nearly 10 tons (BBC, AFP, Haaretz, New York Times, May 22, 2013).
Analysts had suggested that Iran was temporarily slowing its nuclear program in advance of Iranian elections. Meanwhile, several candidates for the presidency who were seen as possible reformers or moderates that might be willing to curb the nuclear program and work to end Iran's isolation were disqualified from running. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hand-picked successor was one of those also disqualified. The June 2013 election was won by Hassan Rouhani who was depicted in the media as a “moderate,” but is a strong supporter of the Islamic Revolution and a close political ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. In his first press conference as president, Rouhani said there would be no further suspensions of the nuclear program and the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization reiterated that the “enrichment linked to fuel production will also not change” (Rouhani.Ir, June 18, 2013; Haaretz, July 3, 2013).
One group of experts predicts that if Iran continues on its current course, it will have the ability by mid-2014 “to dash to fissile material in one ore two weeks unless its production of 20 percent-enriched uranium is curtailed.” Iran could reach “breakout capacity” if “the number or efficiency of Iran's centrifuges unexpectedly increases, or if Tehran has a secret operational enrichment site” (Wall Street Journal, March 27, 2013).
A New Nuclear Facility?
The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a group that opposes the Iranian theocracy, has frequently been the source of information on previously unknown Iranian nuclear sites. On July 11, 2013, the group disclosed the discovery of a new site located in tunnels under mountains approximately six miles east of the town of Damavand and roughly 30 miles northeast of Tehran.
According to NCRI, the site has been under construction since 2006, and was completed recently. It consists of four tunnels constructed by companies with ties to the Ministry of Defense and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Reuters reported that satellite images released by the NCRI did not prove this was a nuclear facility (Times of Israel, July 11, 2013).
Plutonium Bomb Threat Grows
Most of the attention of negotiators and the press has focused on Iran's enrichment activities and the progress toward building a bomb with enriched uranium; however, analysts believe a more imminent threat may come from a bomb made using plutonium. The Iranians have been building a heavy water reactor in Arak that can be used to produce 40 megawatts of power, but the spent fuel from the nuclear reactor contains plutonium, which can be used to produce a bomb. India, Pakistan and North Korea have all built plutonium-based bombs and U.S. and UN officials now believe that the Arak facility will be able to produce two plutonium bombs a year beginning as early as 2014. After learning of the construction of the facility in Arak, the UN Security Council passed a resolution in 2006 calling for Iran to cease construction. That demand was ignored (Washington Post, August 5, 2013).
Interim Deal Struck
On November 23, 2013, the P5+1 and Iran reached a set of initial understandings that halts the progress of Iran's nuclear program and rolls it back in key respects. The agreement is hailed as only an interim deal, set for six months, that will give world powers extended time to work with the Islamic Republic on a permanent solution to the nuclear crisis.
The details of the deal stipulate that Iran committs to halt enrichment above 5%, neutralize its stockpile of near-20% uranium, halt progress on its enrichment capacity, halt progress on activities at the Arak reactor and provide daily access by IAEA inspectors at the Natanz and Fordow sites. In return for these steps, the international community will not impose new nuclear-related sanctions on Iran for at least six months and will suspend certain sanctionson gold and precious metals, Iran's auto sector, and Iran's petrochemical exports. (White House, November 23, 2013)
U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration led the international effort for a deal with Iran, called the agreement "an important first step toward a comprehensive solution" of the Iranian nuclear dilemma and credited his administration's push for diplomacy and its adoption of stern economic sanctions for "a new path toward a world that is more secure."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pitched the deal to Congress saying: "We make sure that these sanctions don't get lifted in a way that reduces the pressure on Iran. The Iranian nuclear program is actually set backward and is actually locked into place in critical places." (Wall Street Journal, November 24, 2013)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, criticized the overtures to Iran and warned of crisis ahead for dealing with the mullahs. "What was achieved in Geneva is not an historic agreement; it is an historic mistake," said a statement released by Netanyahu. "This is a bad agreement. It gives Iran exactly what it wants: both substantial easing of sanctions and preservation of the most substantial parts of its nuclear program." (Prime Minister's Office, November 23, 2013)