The Military Nature and Threat of Iran’s Nuclear Program

The Military Nature and Threat of Iran's Nuclear Program

The Islamic Republic of Iran has gone to great lengths to assert the "peaceful" nature of its nuclear program. Official rhetoric from the Iranian government casts Western powers as "nuclear monopolists" who unfairly prevent Iran from building peaceful research reactors and medical isotopes. However, the facts unequivocally demonstrate that the Iranian nuclear program is military in nature. The Iranian regime has kept its nuclear program clandestine, barred IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors and enriched uranium to levels far surpassing the requirements for a peaceful nuclear program. Above all, Iran’s official support for terrorist organizations, brutal human rights abuses at home and bellicose posture against the West render it unable to be trusted with the serious responsibility of independently developing nuclear energy. Iran currently has stockpiled enough low enriched uranium (LEU) to construct at least two nuclear weapons.

Iran’s nuclear program has long been clandestine in nature. As early as May 1979, sources report that a Khomeini official told an Iranian energy specialist that it was his "duty to build the atomic bomb for the Islamic Republic Party." Iran continued clandestine development throughout the 1980s, launching a centrifuge enrichment program between 1985 and 1987 that was undeclared until August 2003. Between 1988 and 1993, Iran carried out plutonium separation experiments; around the same time Iran was also suspected of cooperation with North Korea in uranium exploration and mining. In 1992, the CIA stopped an Iranian attempt to purchase four nuclear warheads from Kazakhstan. Throughout the 1990s, Iran received "significant assistance" (including designs for "advanced and efficient" weapons components) from Pakistani black-market proliferator A.Q. Khan. In November 1999, an Iranian-born Swedish university student was convicted of smuggling technology to Iran that could be used to trigger nuclear weapons.

2003 was a watershed year for Iran’s clandestine weapons program. On May 27, an Iranian opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), revealed the existence of several clandestine nuclear facilities in Iran, including an enrichment facility at Natanz, a heavy-water production plant under construction at Arak, and "the names of individuals and front companies involved in Iran’s clandestine nuclear program." An IAEA report released in 2004 asserted that between February and October 2003 "Iran took a number of steps intended to conceal the origin, source and extent of [its] enrichment programme." In 2009, Iran admitted to the existence of yet another secret facility located outside the city of Qom, which is capable of housing 3,000 centrifuges—not enough to power a reactor, yet sufficient to produce high-enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. Despite four rounds of UN sanctions calling on Iran to halt its uranium enrichment activities since 2006, the Iranian regime continues to defy the international community.

Iran has refused to fully cooperate with the UN & IAEA. Iran failed to alert the IAEA of the existence of the Natanz and Arak facilities. The existence of the secret facility at Qom is a further violation of Iran’s IAEA obligations as it is required to inform the IAEA of all its facilities and nuclear activity. In less than one decade, the international community learned that Iran had been hiding three major facilities.

The international community—through the IAEA and the UN Security Council—has demanded that Iran halt its enrichment activities. This idea has been at the center of every UN Security Council Resolution since UNSCR 1696 in 2006. Iran has staunchly refused to comply with the UNSC’s five additional resolutions. Iran’s failure to comply with collective international demand is as crucial a notion as Iran failing its IAEA/NPT obligations.

In June 2010, Iran objected to and barred the IAEA’s designation of two safeguards inspectors, in direct violation of its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Safeguards Agreement. Iran claims that the inspection of its heavy water facility under construction at Arak, which will be capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons, is "not within the bilateral agreement between Iran and the IAEA." Furthermore, Iran has refused to implement the Additional Protocol, the IAEA program designed to strengthen safeguards by allowing inspectors greater access and by forcing signatory states to report more information on nuclear-related activities.

In its February 2011 report, the IAEA continues to assert that "Iran is not cooperating with the Agency regarding the outstanding issues which give rise to concern about possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme." Based on an analysis of "additional information which has come to its attention since August 2008, including new information recently received, there are further concerns which the agency ... needs to clarify with Iran."

Iran has developed its nuclear program beyond what is required for peaceful energy purposes and experimented with weaponization. Iran claims its heavy water facility at Arak will produce isotopes only for agricultural and health purposes. However, heavy water reactors, which require natural uranium as fuel (thereby allowing users to bypass low-level enrichment), produce an excess of plutonium, which could then be used to construct a nuclear weapon. Arak is expected to be able to produce approximately 9 kilograms (kg) of plutonium a year, enough for two nuclear bombs annually.

As of February 2011, Iran was in possession of approximately 8,000 P1 centrifuges at Natanz, which produced approximately 133 kg of 3.5 percent low enriched uranium (LEU) per month. As of February 5, 2010, Natanz had produced 3,606 kg of LEU, enough to produce at least nuclear two weapons. Approximately 1000 kg of such LEU is needed to construct a nuclear device.  The most difficult hurdle in uranium enrichment is the process of enriching from natural (0.7 percent) to low (between 3.5 to 20 percent) levels. Enriching LEU to highly enriched levels (90 percent) requires fewer centrifuge spin cycles.

As of February 2011, Iran was in possession of 43.6 kg of 20 percent-enriched uranium. Iran’s Tehran Research Reactor is fueled by approximately 32 kg of 19.75% uranium per year. However, Iran lacks the technical know-how to convert the 20 percent enriched uranium into the fuel rods necessary for the production of medical isotopes—the  majority of the fuel for this type of reactor is made by France and Argentina. Most agree that this infers Iran’s plan is to enrich its stockpile to weapons-grade levels. 

The recent opening of the Bushehr nuclear power plant has proven that Iran does not require its own enrichment capabilities. Russia will supply the facility with enriched uranium and remove the spent fuel rods (which can be used for plutonium production) in order to ensure that Bushehr is used strictly for peaceful purposes. Additional Iranian enrichment activities are therefore superfluous and suspicious. In October 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said "Our problem is not with their reactor at Bushehr, our problem is with their facilities at places like Natanz and their secret facility at Qom and other places where we believe they are conducting their weapons program."

In December 2009, The Times of London reported that it possessed a document describing a four-year plan by Iran to test a nuclear bomb trigger. Experts claim this is "consistent with a plan to have all the research and development in place in the process of creating a reliable nuclear warhead for a ballistic missile such as the Shahab 3."

Iran has no need for nuclear energy given its vast petroleum reserves. Iran "holds the world’s second-biggest oil and gas reserves and supplies about 4.5 percent of the world’s oil production." Most Western experts believe that "it doesn’t make economic sense for Iran to produce nuclear energy, and that oil and gas reserves are going to last longer than Iranians say." Furthermore, many believe Iran consistently exaggerates its energy needs. Alternative, non-nuclear sources are believed to be "cheaper and easier than investing in a nuclear industry."

Iran would be served better economically by investing in its own petroleum refinement industry, which now suffers as a result of crippling international sanctions and divestment. Continuing enrichment for so-called "energy purposes" is certainly more costly—both fiscally and in terms of Iran’s international pariah status.

The Nature of Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program

Iran maintains an "active interest in developing, acquiring, and deploying a broad range of ballistic missiles." The most logical application for such advanced ballistic technology is a nuclear-delivery system. Ballistic missiles are "inherently linked to the nuclear program and should be treated indivisibly from it."

Iran’s medium-range missile, the Shahab-3, was developed in concert with North Korea and could reach potential targets throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, India, and Eastern and Southern Europe. Its variants have ranges from 800 to 1,200 miles.

Iran’s Sajjil-2 missile, which has a range of 1,400 miles and is capable of reaching parts of Europe, was tested in 2008 and will be operational in 2012. The Sajjil-2 is a solid-fuel missile, "which means it has a short preparation time and can’t be as easily deterred by a pre-emptive strike." A 2010 report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) found that "Iran is the only country to have developed a missile of this reach without first having developed nuclear weapons."

In February 2010, a leaked confidential IAEA report expressed concern that Iran was attempting to build a "nuclear payload for a missile." The 2010 IISS report noted that "Iran’s missile development programme was expanding in tandem with its drive to acquire an atomic capability."

Iran is a belligerent and irresponsible actor on the world stage. Iran is the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism. It has financial, material, and political ties to Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist and insurgent groups. It has attempted to undermine international efforts in Iraq (through its support of Shia militias) and Afghanistan (by arming the Taliban), in addition to attempting to spoil the Middle East peace process. Furthermore, Iran meddles in the internal affairs of other Middle Eastern nations. Iran engages in egregious human rights violations at home, crushing freedom of speech and protests through brutal crackdowns, imprisonments, and murders. It persecutes homosexuals, Baha’is, women and juveniles. Through its irresponsible, belligerent actions against fellow nation states and its own citizens, the Iranian regime has clearly demonstrated that its possession of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic for the United States, the Middle East and the world.

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