Iran's Nuclear Programme

Written evidence from Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme International Institute for Strategic Studies

To start with, it is important to note that Iran almost surely does not possess nuclear weapons, that there is no evidence Iran has made a decision to produce nuclear weapons and that Iran has a religious prohibition against nuclear weapons. Because the fatwa is oral, however, and has been expressed in different ways, it is difficult to pin down exactly what is haram. This may explain why some Iranian activities in the nuclear field have been incompatible with a prohibition on, say, ‘developing’ -- in contrast to possessing -- nuclear weapons. In addition, fatwas can be overturned if circumstances change: for example if the nation were seen to be facing a mortal threat.

It seems clear that Iran aims to possess the capability to quickly produce nuclear weapons should it make the fateful decision to do so. The capability has grown slowly. Some 27 years have passed since Iran embarked on an enrichment programme after it suffered chemical weapon attacks from Iraq. One should contrast this with the 11 years it took Pakistan from the time A.Q. Khan stole enrichment technology from the Netherlands to the first cold test of a nuclear device. Yet Iran’s capability is reaching the point where a nuclear weapon may be within a few months’ reach. Producing a weapon that could be delivered by a ballistic missile would take at least two years. It is possible, however, to deliver a crude nuclear weapons in other ways, e.g. via truck, ship or donkey cart, particularly if acquired by terrorists.

It would make no sense for Iran purposely to transfer nuclear weapons to a terrorist group, but the possibility cannot be overlooked, just as Khan for personal profit sold Pakistan’s nuclear weapons technology and designs. This is among the reasons why the UK and its allies want to deny Iran a nuclear weapons capability. Other reasons include concern over a potential nuclear proliferation cascade, the possibility that nuclear weapons might be used by accident or miscalculation, and apprehension that possession would exacerbate regime misbehaviour at home and abroad.

Status of the nuclear programme

According to the latest quarterly report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran in November 2012 had a stockpile of about 6,000kg of up to 5% low enriched uranium (LEU), which may be sufficient for five weapons if further enriched to 90%. Iran also produced 230kg of 20% enriched product, which is very close to the 240kg that may be sufficient for a weapon if further enriched. Last summer, Iran converted about 100kg of the 20% enriched uranium hexafluoride (UF6) to an oxide form for use in fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). This conversion gave Israel a justification for extending its deadline for military action because the enriched uranium in oxide form cannot immediately be further enriched. It would take two or more months to reconvert it back to gasified form. Further oxide conversion of 20% enriched product is one way Iran could seek to lower the immediacy of the threat felt by Iran’s adversaries. Iran did not continue the oxide conversion in the fall, apparently because of a bottleneck in the production process. It will be interesting to see if the next IAEA report in mid-February says that oxide conversion has continued.

Oxide conversion buttresses Iran’s claim that 20% enrichment is necessary for fuel rod production. The TRR, which produces radioisotopes for cancer treatment, was last fuelled in 1993 with 20% enriched uranium from Argentina. Three years ago the reactor was said to be running low on fuel. Iran’s current stockpile of 20% enriched uranium is sufficient for ten years’ worth of fuel, although there is some doubt whether the indigenously produced fuel meets safely standards. Iran thus has ample justification for stopping the 20% production. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly said this production could stop if Iran is provided TRR replacement fuel. He is not in charge of the nuclear file, however, and probably makes such statements only to imply that he is not responsible for the economic trouble that hard-line nuclear policies have invited. Ahmadinejad must know that a security hedge is the real purpose of the 20% production.

Nuclear activity of a possible military dimension

A nuclear capability should be seen as a continuum rather than a binary point. Iran already has a nuclear capability, in that it has fissile material sufficient for several weapons if further enriched and the facilities and material to carry out higher enrichment. Iran also has apparently studied all of the technologies necessary to weaponise fissile material. The IAEA’s November 2011 report detailed in 48 paragraphs the information it had obtained, from ten member states plus the agency’s own investigations, about weapons development work. This included, for example, development of exploding bridgewire detonators and experiments with multi-point initiation systems to detonate a hemispherical shell of high explosives, work that was assisted by a former Soviet weapons scientist. Most of that work apparently was suspended in late 2003, but four paragraphs of the November 2011 report refer to activities that allegedly continued afterwards.

The IAEA has been trying for several years to get to the bottom of what it calls these ‘strong indicators of possible weapon development’. In addition to asking Iran for explanations, it has sought to interview scientists such as Mohsen Fakhrizadeh who allegedly have been involved in the suspect nuclear activities. The Agency also has asked to visit certain buildings at the Parchin military complex, where high-explosives tests of a nuclear nature reportedly took place before 2004. Indications that Iran has been sanitising the site to remove any uranium residue add to the urgency of the IAEA’s request. Over the past year Iran has several times indicated that it was ready to take steps to address the IAEA’s questions, but Iran repeatedly put off agreement pending developments in a separate diplomatic forum. Iran wants to use the IAEA request for transparency about past activities as leverage in talks with the E3+3 (France, Germany and UK plus China, Russia and US) about on-going nuclear development.

Stalled diplomacy

Talks with Iran to date cannot be called negotiations. Iran’s current stance, pretending that choice of venue is the key to resuming talks, is pre-negotiation posturing, aimed at securing concessions in advance. But even in the three formal rounds that took place last spring and early summer, in Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow, there was no real negotiation. Each side simply presented its opening position and repeated it. The E3+3 asked for a set of steps that would lengthen the time it would take Iran to make a dash for nuclear weapons. Under what was nicknamed the ‘stop, ship and shut’ package, Iran was asked to stop producing 20% enriched uranium, to ship out the accumulated stockpile and to shut down operations at Fordow, in exchange for minor sanctions relief, although not in the oil and gas sector of most concern to Iran.

The three steps asked of Iran would not resolve the crisis. They are only proposed confidence-building measures, designed to build trust in negotiations and to reduce reasons for Israel or any other country to consider military options. A later stage of negotiation would have to address the remaining issues of the stockpile of up to 5% LEU that has no civilian purpose in the foreseeable future and the research reactor in Arak scheduled to come on line in 2014 that will be able to produce a bomb’s worth of weapons-grade plutonium annually.

By offering only to talk about suspending 20% enrichment, for which it seeks a lifting of all sanctions and acknowledgment of its ‘right’ to enrichment, Iran has persuaded some observers that a solution simply awaits Western political flexibility. Some observers even advocate that such concessions should be floated up front, to signal to Iran that talks will turn out in its favour. It is true, of course, that any plausible solution will have to involve a continuation of some level of enrichment on Iranian soil. Otherwise Iran’s leaders would not be able to sell the deal domestically as a victory, which is a sine qua non for a successful outcome. But any such concession has to be negotiated. Giving in to preconditions simply for talks to begin is rarely conducive to a mutually favourable outcome. After all, the basis for talks between Iran and the E3+3 is supposed to be a step-by-step reciprocal approach.

If Iran shows up for talks in a transactional mode, the E3+3 will have to consider what kind of sanctions relief would be appropriate for what Iran has to offer. To date, however, they have not had to consider seriously what sanctions relief to table. Having applied various forms of sanctions over the past two years, the US and the EU have many bargaining chips at their disposal. Although many of the US sanctions are matters of law that are unlikely to be lifted by the current Congress, other sanctions were imposed by Presidential authority and could be up for negotiation. Similarly, EU measures, such as the ban on Iranian banks using SWIFT financial communications, could be considered for selective lifting, if the 27 EU members agree.

If diplomacy fails, Iran will be blamed for refusing to engage. The last talks between Iran and the E3+3 took place a half year ago, when ‘experts’ met in Istanbul in early August. During the autumn, common wisdom held that talks were pointless until after the US presidential election. It is now clear, however, that, whether before or after the US election, Iran simply has not been ready to talk. A message from the White House to Tehran after the election was not returned. Since mid-December, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has made repeated offers of dates for talks, to no avail. Continued Iranian prevarication will stimulate more consideration in EU capitals and Washington of additional sanctions measures.


In one respect, sanctions to date have been more successful than almost anyone anticipated. They cut Iran’s oil revenues by half, without spiking oil prices. Sanctions also succeeded in slowing some aspects of Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes. It appears, for example, that Iran cannot find reliable ingredients for the solid fuel for its Sajjill-2 missile, the most potent weapon in its ballistic missile arsenal. This is probably why the Sajjill-2 has not been tested for two years. Sanctions also have contributed to Iran’s inability to replace the first generation model gas centrifuges, which are the mainstay of its enrichment programme, with newer models that are 4-5 times more efficient. But neither sanctions nor sabotage have prevented Iran from producing enriched uranium at an increasing pace and quantity.

Most importantly, sanctions have not brought about a change in Iran’s policies. Nor can one any longer assert without caveat that sanctions have brought Iran to the bargaining table. It must be recognized, however, that the oil sanctions that bite the most have been in place for less than a year. More time is surely in order before a rush to judgment of failure. Let us see, for example, how the latest round of US sanctions plays out. Beginning 6 February, Iran will not be able to repatriate money from foreign oil sales. This measure is designed to deny Iran hard currency; instead oil payments to Iran will have to be kept in the foreign country in question and spent on local products, such as Indian grain and Japanese medicines. This provision may actually be advantageous to the Iranian people if, as intended, it diverts trade to consumer goods, and away from weapons technology.

Prospects for military action and for deterrence

One argument for sanctions is that they are an alternative to premature military action, which could be tragically counterproductive. Iran would likely respond to a missile strike by putting all the resources of its economy to quickly producing nuclear weapons -- and without the meddling oversight of international inspectors, who would surely be expelled. This is not an argument, however, against air strikes in any circumstance. If Iran were to be observed to be crossing the line from latent nuclear capability to weapons production, then military action that nipped this in the bud might be necessary and efficacious.

Iranian production of nuclear weapons can be deterred, but only if Iran believes that any decision to cross the line would be detected and would invite military pre-emption. The problem is that Iran may attempt to advance its nuclear programme right up to the line, in the mistaken belief that it is safe as long as it does not, in the colloquial term, ‘tighten the last screw’. If Iran’s nuclear programme advances so far that break-out cannot be detected in time, the line between capability and production will become faint to the point of invisibility. According to some estimates, Iran’s programme is on a trajectory to reach such a point by this coming summer or next winter. Let us hope that wisdom prevails before then.  

30 January 2013

Prepared 12th February 2013