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Iran Nuclear History: Program Development

August 2015

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 International Atomic Energy Agency (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).