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 International Atomic Energy Agency (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 Mahmoud 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 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).
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).
The U.S. and Israel were able to install their malware onto computer systems at the highly secured uranium-enrichment plant with the help of an Iranian engineer recruited by the Dutch intelligence agency AIVD. The mole provided information that allowed the CIA and Mossad to developfnatanzf a code to sabotage the computers at Natanz and then helped slip Stuxnet onto those systems using a USB flash drive (Yahoo News, September 2, 2019).
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.
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.
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 advancement 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,” which 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 January 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 this 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 continuing 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 or 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).
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).
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).
Despite hopes that the new Iranian regime would change its policy, the IAEA found in its August 2013 report that the nuclear program continues to accelerate. According to the report, Iran’s stockpile of 20% enriched uranium has reached 185.8 kilogram, an increase of only about 4 kilograms since May 2013, because Iran is continuing to convert 20% material into powder. This continues a pattern where Iran increases its enriched uranium supply, but keeps the total below the estimated 240-250 kilograms which, when further enriched to weapons grade, would be enough for one nuclear weapon. This is Israel’s stated “red line.” The IAEA also found that Iran has now installed 1,008 advanced (IR-2M) centrifuges at Natanz but these centrifuges are not yet producing enriched uranium. Iran continues to make progress on the Arak (heavy water) reactor (IR-40), but its anticipated start-up date (early 2014) is no longer achievable due to construction delays.
Meanwhile, Iran continues to stonewall the IAEA and prevent a complete inspection of its nuclear facilities.
In September 2013, President Obama asked Congress to approve military action against Syria following revelations about the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces. Obama’s hesitancy to act quickly after his own red line was crossed raised questions in Israel about his commitment to take action to stop Iran’s nuclear program. The president, however, assured Prime Minister Netanyahu in a telephone conversation on August 31 that he remains determined to keep Iran from going nuclear (Jerusalem Post, September 2, 2013).
On June 11 2014, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran announced that the Arak heavy water reactor was going to be redesigned to decrease plutonium production. Ali Akbar Salehi stated that the reactor was going to be downsizing, and going from producing 9-10 kilograms of plutonium per year to one kilogram or less
As Elana DeLozier noted, when talks began with Europe in 2003, “Iran was enriching uranium to under 5%, but by the time the JCPOA talks rolled around in 2015, that figure had increased to 19.75%—allowing Iranian negotiators to “compromise” by reducing that figure to around the 2003 baseline rather than taking more drastic steps like eliminating its enrichment program altogether” (Washington Institute, September 19, 2019).