Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Mark Fitzpatrick, Senior Fellow for Non-Proliferation International Institute for Strategic Studies



  For the last few years, the US and UK intelligence agencies have consistently assessed that the beginning to the end of the next decade is the earliest Iran could have a nuclear weapons capability. The new US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released 3 December judged that late 2009 is the earliest Iran would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon but that this is very unlikely and that the more likely timeframe remains 2010-15 or later. Most significantly, the new NIE assessed that Iran in 2003 halted those aspects of its nuclear programme devoted to weapons development, but for some agencies intelligence gaps reduce the confidence that Iran's entire nuclear weapons program has been halted.

  The new report will be widely read as supporting Iran's claim that whatever violations it committed in the past, that was then and now is now. Iran's newfound cooperation with the IAEA to address questions about its past nuclear activities reinforces Tehran's contention that it has since turned a new leaf. Iran's cooperation with the inspectors is still very unsatisfactory, however. It is reactive rather than proactive and with decreasing transparency about current activities, as reported in November by IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei. The new US report makes clear that at a minimum, Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons. The uranium enrichment programme gives it this future option. Producing fissile material—either highly enriched uranium or weapons-usable plutonium—is the hardest part of developing a nuclear bomb. The weapons design and weaponization work that the NIE report judges Iran halted in 2003 can be saved for a rainy day, to be picked up again at some future date if Iran again changes its decision. Meanwhile, if its uranium enrichment programme continues unabated, Iran will be in a better position to produce a bomb quickly if it so decides.

  The new assessment thankfully deflates what has been an unstinting escalation of tension over the nuclear programme. However, it does not exonerate Iran. Tehran's sullied record of NPT violations is too recent and its ongoing opacity too blatant for the world to rest easy about its intentions. It will take a sustained period of full cooperation with the IAEA and behaviour above suspicion befitting Ceasar's wife before Iran will be able to overcome the confidence deficient it created the past two decades.

  There is thus good reason for Iran to halt the dual-use uranium enrichment work, just as it apparently halted the single-use weaponization work in 2003. Suspending enrichment activity remains the best way for Iran to rebuild international confidence. The prestige value of mastering high tech processes is the only real purpose to the enrichment program besides as a future weapons option. Iran does not need to produce its own enriched uranium for the Bushehr reactor. It can buy the fuel from Russia or elsewhere, and rely on international arrangements now in the works to guarantee fuel supply to any country that meets its non-proliferation commitments.

  The NIE report judges that Iran's decision makers are rational and respond to international pressure, as they did in 2003 when they apparently stopped the nuclear weapons programme. That year, Iran came under its first serious threat of having its nuclear case dragged to the Security Council. The EU3-led engagement policy, much maligned by American hardliners, can take credit for skilfully employing the threat of Security Council sanctions as diplomatic leverage.

  But the strongest international pressure Iran faced in 2003 was the threat of war. Seeing the ease with which US-led coalition forces invaded Iraq and rolled up Saddam's forces, Iran's leaders were concerned that they might be next. The threat of military action thus has a role in providing the muscle that can make diplomacy work. Barring the discovery of inflammatory new information that would discredit the new findings, the new intelligence report ensures that President Bush would have no empirical basis and no political support for ordering military action against Iran's nuclear program.


  Ignoring the repeated demands of the IAEA Board of Governors and the UN Security Council to suspend all enrichment and reprocessing-related activity, Iran worked throughout 2007 to put in place its immediate goal of installing 3,000 centrifuge machines at the underground enrichment facility at Natanz. By November, 18 cascades of 164 machines each, or 2,952 centrifuges in total, were operating with uranium hexafluoride (UF6). A year earlier, Iran had only two cascades (328 machines) in place.

  One of the critical unknowns is the extent to which Iran faces technological difficulties and manufacturing bottlenecks. If 3,000 centrifuges were operating smoothly for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Iran theoretically could produce one bomb's worth (20-25 kg) of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in nine to 11 months. As far as is known, the cascades have not been working smoothly or continuously. The key variable in gauging the timeline is how soon Iran could get the cascades functioning smoothly to produce enriched uranium around-the-clock. In the most plausible break-out scenario, Iran would produce a stockpile of low-enriched uranium under IAEA verification, and only when it had a sufficient quantity, in one or two years, expel the inspectors and enrich this stockpile to weapons grade in five to eight weeks.

  Producing fissile material is not all that is necessary to produce a nuclear weapon. All the timeline estimates assume that if Iran could master the enrichment technology they could also in the same time acquire the technology to make a deliverable weapon out of the HEU. There are few hard facts to suggest that Iran has worked on weaponization. The most damning evidence came from a computer hard drive turned over by an Iranian defector in 2004 showing various stages of missile design plans for a nose cone—or re-entry vehicle—that could accommodate a spherical object with the characteristics of a nuclear implosion weapon. The documents on the laptop also contained drawings of spherical shapes and scientific notes describing what appeared to be triggers for compressing HEU spheres into a critical mass for an atomic explosion 600m above a target. Western intelligence agencies have not found any evidence that these plans continued after 2003. The other condemning evidence is the 15-page document in Iran's possession which describes how to cast uranium metal into hemispherical forms. Iran says this document was provided unsolicited from the A.Q. Khan black-market network.

  The cascades at Natanz have been operating simultaneously, in parallel, in accordance with the normal configuration for producing power- reactor fuel. IAEA inspectors believe the centrifuges are spinning at the supersonic speed necessary for enrichment. The inspectors cannot say this with certainty, however, because they do not have visual access to the individual machines or to the control room. The IAEA can only monitor the input of UF6 and take swipe environmental samples in the cascade hall. The IAEA also will be able to measure the output of enriched uranium when Iran withdraws the product by emptying the cold traps at the end of each cascade. A physical inventory scheduled from 16-19 December will tell the IAEA more about how well the cascades are operating.

Technical difficulties?

  Each time the IAEA inspectors visited Natanz in the latter part of 2007 on the unannounced inspections that they are allowed, the cascades were being fed UF6. The overall amount of UF6 utilized in the cascades since February 2007, however, was well below the expected usage rate for a set of cascades of this size. The low rate of UF6 use leads analysts to conclude that Iran was experiencing technical difficulties in running the cascades. Running the machines continuously with maximum UF6 input for weeks on end is a key technical hurdle that Iran apparently has not yet overcome. An alternative explanation is that Iran deliberately chose to slow the pace of work at Natanz, perhaps in order to dampen international alarm about Iran reaching what has been called (erroneously) the "point of no return".

  For political reasons, Iran chose to install the 18 cascades in the underground facility before even one cascade in the above-ground pilot plant was operating smoothly. In normal start-up procedures, Iran should have operated smaller cascades continuously and pushed them to their breaking point to assess stress levels before operating larger cascades. Initially, Iran appeared to be planning to do this. When enrichment operations resumed in 2006, however, normal start-up procedures were over-ruled and Iran moved directly to installing and operating the full 3,000-machine module in the underground facility. Iran wanted to put the centrifuge cascades in place as quickly as possible in order to establish a better bargaining position and to be able to portray technological progress to its population. An alternative hypothesis cannot be totally ruled out: that Iran might have learned more about centrifuge operations at an unreported facility somewhere else, and hence had the technical confidence to go ahead with the 3,000 machine module. It must be noted, however, that no evidence has surfaced pointing to a parallel, covert enrichment facility, and the latest intelligence report concluded that covert enrichment work was halted in 2003.

  Some analysts have claimed that Iran's centrifuges are subject to high failure rates, based on reports that in 2006, 40% of the centrifuges at the pilot plant were crashing. IAEA inspectors believe the current failure rate is far below that, but they do not know for certain because they do not have access to monitor individual machines.

  Technical difficulties have also been alleged in the production of UF6 at the uranium-conversion facility at Esfahan, where 266 tonnes had been produced as of 5 November. The UF6 is contaminated to some extent with other heavy metals present in the uranium ore. According to knowledgeable officials, however, this does not present a problem for the time being. The contamination, while not as significant as had been reported earlier, will degrade centrifuge operations over time, reducing their lifespan to a third of the normal 10 years. If commercial production is not Iran's intention, however this would not matter.

  Iran appears content to stop for now at the 18-cascade module, and to consolidate its gains. Additional bays in the large underground facility have not been prepared for the installation of any more cascades. This is consistent with Iran's public statements, which for the past year and more have focused on having the 3,000 centrifuges in place. This interim goal was set originally for December 2006, but achievement was repeatedly delayed. Although Iran still adheres to the goal of a 54,000-centrifuge plant, little is said about when further progress would be made toward that such industrial-scale production.

How many centrifuges could Iran install?

  Another crucial unknown affecting Western policy decisions is whether Iran could produce more than 3,000 centrifuges, and if so, how many. IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei contends that it would be better to strike a deal to keep Natanz limited to 3,000 centrifuges than to see Iran expand the facility by several times its current size. He argues that it is already too late to stop Iran from acquiring uranium-enrichment technology. In his view, the international community should fall back to a second-best position of trying to keep Iran's programme from growing larger. Underlying this argument is an assessment that Iran could in fact produce and install many more centrifuges if it chose to do so. If he is wrong, and Iran could not realistically make more than about the 3,000 it now has, any deal limiting them to this number would be an empty bargain.

  A good estimate of the number of centrifuges Iran could make is also important in assessing the effectiveness of a military air strike option. If Iran had the capacity to make many more centrifuges than the number now installed, then an air strike that destroyed the Natanz facility would not cripple Iran's enrichment programme for very long.

  In 2005, when the IAEA had access to Iran's declared workshops, it conducted an inventory of centrifuge parts and counted approximately one million components. According to an informed official, Iran then had enough parts for approximately 10,000 machines. Dr. ElBaradei in May 2007 warned that Iran could be on track to have 8,000 centrifuges running by December. He gave no basis for that figure, leading many analysts to assume that it was a simple extrapolation based on the pace of installation at that time. However, the estimate appears to have been based on an understanding of how many centrifuges Iran could assemble with the components it had on hand.

  Whether or not Iran can indigenously manufacture all the necessary parts for the centrifuge cascades is central to an assessment of its centrifuge production limits. When the IAEA conducted its inventory of Iran's centrifuge components, it did not know what proportion were imported or domestically produced. The agency no longer has access to the components or to the centrifuge workshops and thus cannot verify Iran's claims that it is able to manufacture all of the nearly 100 components for each centrifuge. Western intelligence agencies had earlier assessed that Iran faced bottlenecks in not having sufficient quantities of some key raw materials such as maraging steel and not being able to produce certain sophisticated components. IAEA officials now believe that Iran has managed to import enough maraging steel through the black market for its centrifuge purposes. The head of an Iranian company working on advanced P-2 centrifuges told the IAEA he could obtain all necessary parts and materials domestically except for bearings, special oils and magnets. Whether this is still the case and whether the same limits on domestic production apply to the P-1 version is unclear.

  The timeline assessments are based on an assumption that Iran is using only the relatively inefficient P-1 (first generation Pakistan) centrifuges installed at Natanz. If, however, Iran is able to produce more efficient second generation P-2 centrifuges, its ability to produce HEU would more than double (for the same number of machines). Iran received P-2 design plans from the A.Q. Khan network in 1995, and Khan's chief foreign associate, B.S.A. Tahir, told investigators that the network had also delivered three complete P-2s to Iran as samples, although he produced no corroborative evidence. Iran's earlier statements that it did not pursue any work on the P-2 design from 1995-2002 were not credible to the IAEA. The Agency's 15 November report concludes that Iran's statements on the declared P-2 R&D activities are consistent with the Agency's findings.

  President Ahmadinejad's boast in April 2004 about research on advanced centrifuges suggested that Iran has done a good deal of work on the P-2. It would not be surprising to hear that Iran has a pilot P-2 plant somewhere with a small cascade being installed. In fact, the November IAEA report said Iran informed the Agency it had tested a new generation of centrifuge design. Keeping such a plant secret would be consistent with Iran's stated policy of ignoring the routine safeguards obligation to make early declarations of nuclear facilities.

  In accordance with the work plan it agreed to with the IAEA on 21 August, Iran promised to answer questions about its P-2 procurement and development efforts. While addressing some questions about past activities, Iran has revealed little new information about the current status of its programme. The 15 November report concluded that the IAEA's knowledge about Iran's current nuclear program is diminishing. If the IAEA ever is able to close the books on Iran's past activities, and if it is asked to verify any future deal that would set limits on Iran's programme, it would need to obtain a clear baseline picture of Iran's programme that runs up to the present. As the international community attempts to assess the present and future capacity of Iran's nuclear programme, there are still more questions than answers.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 2 March 2008