New Study on Iran’s Nuclear Capabilities and Intentions

September 17, 2019

coverFor more than a decade, one of Iran’s top national security priorities has been to maintain its ability to enrich uranium. Although Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, according to U.S. intelligence, Tehran wanted to maintain the core capabilities necessary for weaponization should it ever want to resume its efforts. The 2015 nuclear deal brokered with six major world powers was compatible with Iran’s requirements because it allowed to retain this “nuclear hedge.” Robert Litwak, in a new book published by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, describes this as “Iran’s strategic sweet spot—maintaining the potential of a nuclear option, while avoiding the regional and international costs of actual weaponization.” In Nuclear Crises with North Korea and Iran: From Transformational to Transactional Diplomacy, Litwak analyzes the development of the controversial North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs and examines different approaches for negotiating with the regimes. The following is an excerpt on Iran. 






Origins and Development

Iran’s nuclear motivations are not specific to the Islamic Republic. Suspicions of Iran’s nuclear intentions date to the Shah’s era. The initial components of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure (a fivemegawatt light-water research reactor and related laboratories at the Tehran Nuclear Research Center) were acquired through nuclear cooperation with the United States under the “Atoms for Peace” program. After acceding to the NPT in 1970, the Shah launched an ambitious plan to develop civil nuclear energy, which envisioned not only reactor construction but also the acquisition of nuclear fuel-cycle technology (including uranium enrichment and reprocessing) to reduce the country’s reliance on outside assistance. The Ford administration viewed nuclear cooperation with Iran as a tangible symbol of the U.S. bilateral relationship with a key regional ally, as well as a potentially lucrative commercial opportunity for U.S. firms. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger later acknowledged that proliferation concerns did not figure in the Ford administration’s decision to permit the transfer of fuel-cycle technology. Although “no evidence has emerged confirming that Iran actually began a dedicated nuclear weapons program under the Shah,” concluded an International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) report, “…Iranian officials appreciated that the acquisition of enrichment and reprocessing facilities for Iran’s civilian nuclear power program would inherently create a nuclear weapons option…”

After the 1979 Revolution, Khomeini ordered a halt to construction of German-made nuclear reactors at Bushehr. This gave rise to a belief that the Supreme Leader was anti-nuclear. Yet the memoir of former nuclear negotiator and current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recounts that, during his exile in Paris, Khomeini rebuffed the recommendation of a visiting Iranian scientific delegation to scrap the nuclear program on economic grounds. Khomeini reportedly recognized the strategic value of keeping the option open. In the mid-1980s, as the clerical regime faced a national security imperative at the height of the attritional Iran-Iraq War, it indeed revived the nuclear infrastructure inherited from the Shah. Upon Khomeini’s death, in 1989, Iran looked to China and Russia as potential sources of nuclear technology. Russia took over the Bushehr reactor project, and Beijing provided components for a key uranium conversion facility in Esfahan.

Details of Iran’s extensive covert program to acquire sensitive nuclear technology surfaced after the IAEA’s June 2003 report that charged Iran with possessing undeclared nuclear facilities and pursuing activities outside the NPT safeguards system. Of particular importance were essential design plans and components that Pakistani black marketer A.Q. Khan provided for a pilot uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz. In its 2011 report, the IAEA reported that by the late 1980s, just as the Iran-Iraq War was ending, Iran established a unit to organize covert procurement activities for an undeclared nuclear program. By the late 1990s or early 2000s, the clandestine nuclear program was consolidated under the “AMAD Plan,” whose scope of activities included three key projects: converting uranium ore into the gaseous feedstock for centrifuges to enrich uranium at the then covert Natanz site, high-explosive experiments potentially linked to developing the trigger for nuclear weapons, and the redesign of the Shahab-3 missile reentry vehicle capable of carrying a nuclear payload. By the late 1990s, at the height of Khatami’s reformist presidency, Iran crossed the important technological threshold of self-sufficiency in centrifuge manufacturing.

Infrastructure and NPT Compliance

Centrifuges are essential equipment for uranium enrichment, the multistage industrial process in which natural uranium is converted into special material capable of sustaining a nuclear chain reaction. Natural uranium occurs in two forms—U-238, making up 99 percent of the element, and the lighter U-235, accounting for less than 1 percent. But the latter is a fissionable isotope that emits energy when split. Uranium ore is crushed into a powder, refined, and then reconstituted into a solid form, known as “yellowcake.” The yellowcake is then superheated and transformed into a gas, uranium hexafluoride (UF6). That gas is passed through a centrifuge and spun at high speed, with the U-238 drawn to the periphery and extracted, while the lighter U-235 clusters in the center and is collected. The collected U-235 material is passed through a series of centrifuges, known as a cascade, with each successive pass-through increasing the percentage of U-235. Uranium for a nuclear reactor should be enriched to contain approximately 3 percent uranium-235, whereas weapons-grade uranium should ideally contain at least 90 percent.

Iran developed indigenous facilities to support each phase of the uranium enrichment process: two uranium ore mines, whose reserves could produce 250-300 nuclear weapons, according to U.S. intelligence;159 a yellowcake production facility; a facility for converting yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride gas in Esfahan; and two enrichment sites, Natantz and Fordow, with 19,000 centrifuges, of which some 10,000 were operational. They were predominantly the first-generation IR-1 model, although Iran had begun installing the more sophisticated IR-2 model, which is more reliable and estimated to have six times the output of IR-1s. The industrial-scale Natanz site, located 200 miles south of Tehran, could potentially house 50,000 centrifuges. The Fordow enrichment site near Qom is too small to be economically rational as part of a civil nuclear program and is invulnerable to a military strike because it is deeply buried. Those attributes, as well as its location on a Revolutionary Guard base, aroused concern that its intended purpose was to receive low-enriched uranium produced at Natanz for further enrichment to weapons-grade material. 

The publication of the unclassified summary of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran in November 2007 recast the debate about the country’s nuclear capabilities and intentions. According to the NIE, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded with “high confidence” that Iran “halted its nuclear weapons program” in 2003 “in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure.” Further, the agencies “do not know whether [Iran] currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.” While concluding that Iran had suspended work on that part of its covert military program relating to weapon design, the 2007 NIE also cited significant progress in Iran’s declared “civil work” relating to uranium enrichment that “could be applied to producing [fissile material for] a nuclear weapon if a decision is made to do so:” “Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.”

Though the IAEA and U.S. intelligence concluded that Iran’s weaponization efforts had been suspended in 2003, the IAEA has sought to clarify the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program. Of particular interest is Parchin, a military complex southeast of Tehran, where Iran reportedly conducted important weapons-related experiments, including high-explosive tests for nuclear triggers. In mid-2013, satellite imagery revealed that Iran had essentially razed and paved over the site to prevent IAEA inspectors from obtaining environmental samples to confirm the nature of the activities at that clandestine location.

JCPOA Constraints

The JCPOA creates meaningful constraints on Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities. It cuts off the plutonium pathway to the bomb, and blocks Iran’s access to highly enriched uranium until 2030 (after which Iran would remain subject to IAEA safeguards).

Iran’s nuclear intentions—The JCPOA’s preamble contains a bald declaration of non-nuclear intent (reinforcing Iran’s NPT Article II commitment and Khamenei’s 2003 fatwa) to which the Tehran regime will be held accountable: “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop, or acquire any nuclear weapons.”

Uranium enrichment—For 10 years, Iran will retain a sole uranium enrichment facility at Natanz with 5,060 IR-1 (first generation) centrifuges. Iran’s excess centrifuges currently installed, approximately 14,000 IR-1s and the more advanced IR-2s will be taken off the production line and stored under IAEA continuous monitoring. For 15 years, the level of uranium enrichment at Natanz can only go up to 3.67 percent—below weapons-grade—and Iran’s total stock of low-enriched uranium will not exceed 300 kg. Iran’s second site at Fordow will be converted into a research center no longer producing enriched uranium; its currently installed centrifuges will either spin without uranium or remain idle. For eight years, the agreement imposes limitations on Iran’s centrifuge research and development, followed by a “gradual evolution, at a reasonable pace…for exclusively peaceful purposes.”

Plutonium production—The JCPOA limits Iran’s plutonium production by requiring the conversion of the heavy-water reactor at Arak into a modernized reactor using low-enriched uranium instead of natural uranium. For 15 years, Iran will neither construct additional heavy-water reactors nor a reprocessing facility for the separation of plutonium from spent fuel rods. Thereafter, the formal restrictions are lifted, but Iran has declared that it “does not intend” to construct a facility capable of spent fuel reprocessing.

Transparency and monitoring—As an NPT signatory, Iran is already obligated to declare all nuclear facilities, nuclear-related activities, and stocks of fissile material. Under the JCPOA, Iran will observe the Additional Protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement. The Additional Protocol provides the IAEA not only with the authority to gain short-notice access at declared sites, but also, critically, a right of access to undeclared facilities if the IAEA has suspicion of activities proscribed by the JCPOA. Verification of the agreement is to be accomplished through “a long-term IAEA presence in Iran” (including the monitoring of Iranian uranium production for 25 years, inventories of centrifuge components for 20 years, and the mothballed centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow for 15 years). The JCPOA also requires Iran to account for its past covert work on weaponization—so-called PMD (possible military dimensions—e.g., Parchin). This thorny issue—the satisfactory resolution of which is linked to sanctions relief—is to be settled through implementation of the “Roadmap for Clarification of Past and Present Outstanding Issues” regarding Iran’s nuclear program, which the IAEA concluded separately with the Tehran regime.

Iran’s Nuclear Hedge Strategy

The Tehran regime’s questionable defense of its unfettered “right” to nuclear technology (including uranium enrichment) under the NPT’s Article IV resonates with the 120 developing countries that constitute the so-called Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). At the NAM summit in August 2012, the organization, voicing concern that the major powers were seeking to monopolize the production of reactor fuel, endorsed Iran’s position in the nuclear dispute with the P5+1. To bolster the Tehran regime’s claim of benign nuclear intentions, Iranian officials point to the fatwa, a religious decree, made by Khamenei in October 2003, “forbidding the production, stockpiling and use of weapons of mass destruction, and specifically nuclear arms.” This language was incorporated into the text of the JCPOA, though scholars of Islam note that fatwas are not immutable; Shi’ite clergy make pragmatic shifts in response to changed circumstances.

An important feature distinguishing Iran from other countries of proliferation concern—North Korea under the Kim family regime or Iraq under the former Saddam Hussein regime—is its quasidemocratic character. Iran has an engaged and somewhat cynical public, which has an uneasy relationship with a regime whose political legitimacy was damaged by its brutal crackdown on the Green Movement in 2009. Rouhani’s election, a reflection of that disaffection, produced a rare consensus across Iran’s political elite for revitalized nuclear diplomacy. But the old divisions persist and could be reactivated in the wake of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and apply “maximum pressure.”

According to Nima Gerami, elite views on the nuclear program fall within three camps. The first group is hardline “nuclear supporters,” who are critical of negotiated constraints on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, oppose the full transparency and accountability of the nuclear program as required by the NPT and now the JCPOA, and resist outside efforts to dictate the Islamic Republic’s security policies. Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, the spiritual leader of the conservative “Steadfast Front,” stated in 2005: “The most advanced weapons must be produced inside our country even if our enemies don’t like it. There is no reason that [our enemies] have the right to produce a special type of weapon, while other countries are deprived of it.” The second camp, “nuclear centrists,” led by Rouhani and former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, view negotiated limitations on Iran’s nuclear capabilities as an acceptable political price to pay for ending the country’s international isolation and reaping the economic dividends. A third, relatively marginal, camp incorporates former government officials and academics affiliated with the banned reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front. These “nuclear detractors” question the economics of the purported energy rationale for the nuclear program and argue that the Tehran regime’s nuclear aspirations have actually weakened the country by triggering the imposition of stringent international sanctions.

The nuclear centrists reflect the preponderance of Iranian public opinion, which supports neither a full rollback of the nuclear program nor a near-term breakout to acquire nuclear weapons. Rouhani’s unexpected election created political space for nuclear diplomacy with the P5+1, which yielded a comprehensive agreement in July 2015. Under the deal, Iran retains a bounded uranium enrichment program capacity that leaves Iran, as it has been for the last fifteen years, a nuclear threshold state. Iran’s mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle creates an inherent “breakout” option for weaponization. (That is the crux of the dispute over the nuclear diplomacy between the United States and Israel, which wants a rollback of Iran’s enrichment capability to deny the Tehran regime that hedge option.) A major focus of the negotiations was extending that potential breakout period to at least a year (through agreed limits on the number and sophistication of centrifuges, as well as on the permissible level of enrichment and uranium stockpile).

For Iran, the JCPOA is compatible with Iran’s core national security requirements, as the country faces no existential threat from a foreign power necessitating the urgent acquisition of nuclear weapons. Indeed, to the extent that the Iranian leadership perceives a threat to regime survival, the sources are internal rather than external. From a national security perspective, the nuclear hedge (which the Tehran regime retains under the agreement) is Iran’s strategic sweet spot—maintaining the potential of a nuclear option, while avoiding the regional and international costs of actual weaponization. As former President Hashemi Rafsanjani candidly admitted in 2005: “As long as we can enrich uranium and master the [nuclear] fuel cycle, we don’t need anything else. Our neighbors will be able to draw the proper conclusions.”

The JCPOA left Iran with the capabilities to retain its hedge option. But the negotiated constraints on Iran’s uranium enrichment program ensured that this latent capability would remain latent—and that the international community would have adequate warning of any potential breakout. 

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