Iran's Nuclear Program
David Albright and Andrea Stricker
- Since the 1970s, even before the revolution, Iran has sought access to the technology that would give it the option to build a nuclear bomb, should it believe its security situation requires it.
- Iran intensified its drive toward nuclear weapons in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, following reports of an Iraqi clandestine nuclear program.
- Iranian leaders advanced Iran’s nuclear weapons program in the 1990s and early 2000s along with its civil nuclear program, using the latter as a symbol of national pride. They denied that Iran’s nuclear program ever had a military purpose despite substantial evidence possessed by the International Atomic Energy Agency and national intelligence agencies that it conducted nuclear weapons related work up until 2003 and perhaps continued certain activities afterwards.
- As a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran claims its nuclear program has always been purely for peaceful, energy and medical purposes.
- In November 2013, Iran signed an interim agreement limiting its nuclear programs - the Joint Plan of Action - with six world powers, the P5+1 (Britain, China, France Germany, Russia and the United States).
- On July 14, 2015, Iran and the P5+1 concluded a comprehensive deal with key provisions to limit Iran’s nuclear programs for 10 to 15 years and improve international transparency over its activities, in exchange for a removal of U.N., regional, and national sanctions. The agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) should go into effect sometime in mid-2016. Most analysts judge that substantial effort will need to be devoted to enforcing and maintaining the agreement and ensuring that Iran’s nuclear programs remain peaceful afterward.
- A starter kit for a gas centrifuge plant
- A set of technical drawings for a P-1 (Pakistani) centrifuge
- Samples of centrifuge components
- And instructions for enriching uranium to weapon-grade levels. (Weapon-grade uranium is the most desirable highly enriched uranium for fission nuclear weapons and is over 90 percent enriched.)
- Natanz: The Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant has had 9,156 IR-1 centrifuges enriching, and 15,420 IR-1 centrifuges installed since November 2013 when the interim agreement (JPOA) was agreed. Under the final deal (JCPOA), Iran will only be allowed to operate 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz and enrich uranium up to 3.67 percent for 15 years.
- Fordo: The Fordo plant in Qom had 696 centrifuges that were enriching uranium to 19.75 percent up until the JPOA went into force in January 2014. Since then, the Fordo plant’s centrifuges have enriched uranium only up to five percent. The plant was capable of housing 2,976 centrifuges until its expansion was frozen by the JPOA. Under the JCPOA, the Fordo facility will be converted into a nuclear, physics, and technology research center and will operate 1,044 IR-1 centrifuges in six cascades, which will not enrich uranium for a period of fifteen years. To many critics, one of the failings of the deal is that this plant was not shut down. After year 15 of the deal, it can resume enriching uranium in advanced centrifuges, up to 15 times more powerful than the current ones.
- 3.5 Percent LEU Inventory: Based on data in the August 2015 IAEA Iran safeguards report, Iran has a total inventory of 7,845.4 kg of 3.5 percent LEU hexafluoride and the equivalent of another 4,304 kg of 3.5 percent LEU hexafluoride in various chemical forms at its Enriched UO2 Powder Plant (EUPP). In total, Iran thus has the equivalent of 12,149 kg of 3.5 percent LEU hexafluoride. Under the JCPOA, Iran has agreed to remove or blend down all but 300 kg of this 3.5 percent LEU hexafluoride equivalent.
- Decreasing 20 Percent LEU stockpile: Iran has not been allowed to produce 19.75 percent LEU since the interim JPOA took effect and is required to downblend half this stock to 3.5 percent LEU and convert the other half to oxide form, a process it was still completing as of September 2015. While the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant produced 20 percent LEU, in total, Iran produced 202 kg of 19.75 percent enriched uranium since the beginning of operations in February 2010. In total, while it was producing 20 percent LEU, the Fordo facility produced 245.9 kg of near 20 percent LEU hexafluoride from 1,806 kg of 3.5 percent LEU hexafluoride. Almost all of this near 20 percent LEU is supposed to leave Iran under the long-term deal.
- Breakout: The capping of Iran’s enrichment capabilities under the JCPOA will lengthen breakout timelines substantially, to roughly seven to 12 months. (The range reflects differences over whether it can redeploy its IR-2m centrifuges slated for dismantlement). After year 10, Iran will be allowed to deploy advanced centrifuges, reducing breakout timelines to about six months by year 13. After year 15 of the agreement, breakout timelines can reach as little as a few days with enrichment in advanced centrifuges and the removal of the cap on the 3.67 percent LEU and resumed production of near 20 percent LEU.
- Plutonium: The JCPOA prevents Iran from separating or reprocessing plutonium or acquiring heavy water reactors for 15 years. This provision intends to block Iran’s plutonium pathway to nuclear weapons using its Arak reactor.
- Possible military dimensions: Iran will address PMD as mandated by the JCPOA under a separate arrangement with the IAEA called a Roadmap. The IAEA will issue a final report on the matter by December 2015. It will then seek a broader conclusion under the Additional Protocol procedures about the peacefulness of Iran’s fissile material related nuclear activities.
- Procurement: The JCPOA establishes a procurement channel for Iran to legally acquire goods for its nuclear programs.
- Site access: The JCPOA creates a binding mechanism of 24 days to authorize access to a site in Iran sought by the IAEA due to reported suspicious activities.
- More transparency: Iran will provisionally implement the Additional Protocol and seek ratification at year 8 or Transition Day.
- Sanctions: Iran will receive relief from all United Nations nuclear related sanctions at Implementation Day of the JCPOA if it undertakes its nuclear measures. The European Union and United States will terminate or suspend their nuclear, financial, oil, and related sanctions against Iran at Implementation Day.
- The size of Iran’s sensitive nuclear programs will decrease substantially under the JCPOA.
- The JCPOA’s fundamental goal is to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful even after its major nuclear limitations end. For 10 years, this agreement creates conditions that will make any serious effort by Iran to build nuclear weapons highly time consuming and vulnerable to detection. Whether the deal meets the goal of preventing Iran from building nuclear weapons in the long term is more doubtful. This uncertainty poses one of the more fundamental challenges to the agreement.
- There remain significant concerns that Iran will not address the IAEA’s PMD concerns before Implementation Day and such a failure will impact negatively the success of the agreement. The investigation may not delve deeply into resolving the issues, and the PMD provisions may be left to interpretation by the IAEA and the P5+1 that is not clear to publics and many governments.
- A set of intrusive verification measures, such as the Additional Protocol, will remain in place after year 15 of the deal, but they may not be sufficient to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Armed with a large centrifuge program, an Iranian attempt to break out to nuclear weapons would be detected— but probably not in time to take action to prevent it. Iran’s breakout time could reach just days after year 15 of the agreement, based on its stated plans to grow its enrichment program to industrial levels.
- The JCPOA has many strengths that could temporarily resolve the Iranian nuclear issue due to the limits on Iran’s nuclear growth, assuming it abides by the provisions. Implementation, however, may be difficult throughout its duration given past Iranian covert nuclear work, failures to abide by agreements, violations of trade controls and sanctions, and pushing against restrictions. Moreover, whether or not it succeeds after most limitations end will depend on Iran’s actions that are difficult to predict. Therefore planning for and preventing shortened breakout timelines and a potentially renewed nuclear crisis after the deal ends is critical.
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