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IRAN: Curtailing the Nuclear Program

Author: Esther Pan
May 13, 2004
This publication is now archived.

What's being done to curtail Iran's nuclear program?

The International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) has broadened its inspections program in Iran after growing evidence suggested the country was seeking the capacity to build nuclear weapons in violation of its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In particular, inspectors have recently found traces of weapons-grade fissile materials at Iranian nuclear sites, fanning fears that Iran may soon possess the key ingredients needed to build nuclear weapons. Iran claims its nuclear program is intended for peaceful energy uses only, as allowed under the NPT.

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What are some of the warning signs that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons?

Among them:

  • In February, the IAEA announced that inspectors had found traces of highly enriched weapons-grade uranium that either was bought overseas or developed in Iran, and an isotope of polonium-210, an initiator--or trigger--for nuclear weapons.
  • Inspectors in February also discovered enriched uranium traceable to Russia or one of the former Soviet republics.
  • Last fall, Iranian officials admitted that Iran has been secretly developing a uranium centrifuge enrichment program for the last 18 years and a laser enrichment program for 12 years, both violations of the NPT.
  • Iran failed to reveal to the IAEA that it imported 1.8 metric tons of natural uranium from China in 1991 and stored it at an undisclosed laboratory at the Tehran Nuclear Research Center.
  • Iranian officials want to mine and enrich their own uranium, which many experts say is costly and unnecessary for the civilian nuclear program that Iran is pursuing. On October 21, 2003, Iran agreed to suspend, but not dismantle, this aspect of its program. Experts point out that Iran did not commit to a permanent suspension.
  • Iran was a client of Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan, who admitted last year to selling nuclear secrets abroad.
  • Iran acknowledged in February 2003 that it was constructing a previously undeclared gas centrifuge uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz. Subsequent IAEA inspections found traces of weapons-grade uranium there.
  • Traces of enriched uranium were also found at a centrifuge workshop near Tehran called the Kalaye Electric Company.
  • Iran also acknowledged in February 2003 that it was constructing a secret heavy water production facility in Arak, just north of Natanz. Heavy water can be used in nuclear reactors to produce weapons-grade plutonium, another fuel for nuclear weapons.
Why would Iran want nuclear weapons?

For several reasons. Until the defeat of Saddam Hussein, Iran was clearly concerned about Iraq's potential to develop such weapons. Iraq had already used chemical weapons against Iran in the 1980-88 war. Tehran is also worried about countering Israel, which is widely acknowledged to have nuclear weapons. Experts also say that some in Iran argue that possessing even a primitive nuclear weapons arsenal could deter a pre-emptive attack by U.S. forces stationed next door in Iraq.

Why are so many nations trying to stymie Iran's nuclear ambitions?

Because "the world wants to prevent the further nuclearization of the Middle East," says Robert Nelson, MacArthur science and technology fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Experts fear that if Iran goes nuclear, other countries in the volatile region--including Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia--would want to follow. The NPT is intended to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and halt the arms race.

Is Iran's behavior governed by the NPT?

It's supposed to be. Iran signed the NPT as a non-nuclear state in 1968 and ratified it in 1970, when Iran was ruled by the Shah Reza Pahlavi, a close ally of the United States. After it was caught in what looked like violations of its NPT commitments last fall, Iran agreed to a much stricter Additional Protocol imposed by the IAEA, which called on it to suspend all uranium-enrichment and reprocessing activities, stop production of material for enrichment processes, and halt imports of enrichment-related items. Under the Additional Protocol, Iran must declare any plans to build centrifuges and must allow international inspectors expanded access to its facilities.

Why did Iran sign the NPT?

In 1968, when the treaty was negotiated, there was widespread fear that the number of states that had already tested nuclear weapons would soon grow from five to 20 or more. Experts say there was intense international pressure to limit the number of nuclear states, create an effective verification system to check nuclear proliferation, and ensure that countries could still use atomic energy for peaceful purposes. Iran, which in the mid-1970s had begun negotiations to buy nuclear power plants from the United States, had to sign the treaty to be eligible for such purchases. Iran was one of the original 43 signatories to the NPT. "It's more and more clear that Iran, and probably many other non-nuclear signatory countries, maintained nuclear weapons programs under the guise of developing peaceful nuclear energy. They wanted to look like they were good guys," Nelson says.

Is Iran living up to its responsibilities under international agreements?

Iran claims it is, but international observers are more skeptical. "Iran is going through the steps, but every time there's contamination they claim that it's from somewhere else," says Michael Levi, science and technology fellow at the Brookings Institution. Experts say Iran violated the NPT by introducing nuclear material into its centrifuges before it had declared them to the IAEA, which later found samples of enriched uranium there. Iran tried to shift blame to Pakistan, the alleged source of the centrifuges. The IAEA is unable to prove or disprove this claim, because Pakistan--not a signatory of the NPT--does not allow international inspectors access to its nuclear facilities.

What is the track record of international inspections in Iran?

"The inspection process is working well," says Joseph Cirincione, director for non-proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The Additional Protocol has given inspectors powerful new tools to find things even when the host country is trying to conceal them," he says. Some of those discoveries include the highly enriched uranium mentioned above, as well as components of advanced P-2 centrifuges--which can be used to enrich uranium for weapons use--at an Air Force base outside Tehran, he says. But other experts say that inspections do more to help the host country than assist international watchdogs. "Inspections are Iran's best tool to show that what they're doing is okay," says Levi. "They're not a tool for us."

How does the United States want to deal with the problem?

Experts say the United States is pushing the IAEA to declare Iran in breach of the NPT and bring the issue before the United Nations Security Council. If Iran is found to be in violation, the Security Council could authorize sanctions. The point, Levi says, is to show the world that in Iran, like Iraq last year, "uncertainty [about its nuclear program] is intolerable." Some U.S. officials believe that the threat of sanctions deters proliferation. Officials in other countries, however, are reluctant to apply them to Iran for fear of political fallout.

How does Europe want to deal with the problem?

The European Union, and especially France and Germany, favors discussions with Iran rather than confrontation. Levi says Germany considers strongly worded IAEA resolutions enough to prod Iran into better behavior. The European Union is reluctant to push Iran too far, lest the country withdraw from the NPT altogether; then, it is feared, the international community would lose any leverage over Iran's nuclear ambitions. In addition, experts say, France and Russia have economic interests in Iran they are reluctant to lose to international sanctions.

What is likely to happen at the next IAEA meeting?

Iran is actively lobbying for a statement from the IAEA saying it is not in violation of international agreements. The director-general of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, met with Iranian officials in Tehran April 6 and agreed on a plan that lays out steps Iran will take over the weeks leading up to the next IAEA meeting, scheduled for June in Vienna. "Iran wants the IAEA Board of Governors to resolve this issue in June, to say Iran is clean," Levi says. "[But] I don't see any willingness on the part of Europe or the United States to declare the case closed." Experts say, however, that the European Union and the United States are likely to make a strong effort to consolidate their positions on Iran, to show that the transatlantic alliance has recovered from last year's split over Iraq.

Is it possible that Iran wants nuclear capability for peaceful purposes?

Possible but highly unlikely, experts say. Iran is a major oil producer, which casts doubt on its claims to need nuclear power. In addition, Nelson says, the centrifuges Iran currently possesses are far more sophisticated than what would be needed for peaceful uses. Nuclear experts warn that a more likely scenario is that Iran will develop a legal nuclear power program, then drop out of the NPT (which requires only 90 days' notice) and rapidly switch to an illegal nuclear weapons program. According to the NPT, Iran may build any nuclear facility, including uranium enrichment plants to create nuclear fuel, as long as the facility is devoted to peaceful uses and subject to IAEA safeguards and inspections.

Does Iran currently have civilian nuclear facilities?

Yes. The main one, an $800 million Russian-built nuclear power plant at Bushehr, is scheduled to open in 2005 along the Persian Gulf in southwestern Iran. Russian officials say they will continue to build the reactor despite fears that Iran could divert expertise into a nuclear weapons program. Although the plant will eventually produce spent fuel rods that contain plutonium, experts say the substances that will be produced in the Bushehr rector are not ideal for making nuclear weapons. Furthermore, Bushehr will be subject to IAEA inspections. Russian officials have said they will require all spent fuel rods from Bushehr to be returned to Russia.

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