UK policy towards Iran - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

3  Iran's nuclear programme


47. Iran has two nuclear reactors. A third is under construction, and in February 2013 Iran announced an intention to build another 16 nuclear reactors.[103] The Tehran Research Reactor—supplied by the United States in the 1960s—uses fuel derived from uranium enriched to the 20% level in order to produce isotopes[104] for medical research. Iran has enough stocks of 20%-enriched uranium to fuel the reactor for at least ten years. The second reactor, the pressurised water reactor at Bushehr, is part of the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant and uses uranium enriched to 3.5%, supplied by Russia under a contract which in January had nine years left to run.[105]

48. A third reactor is being built at Arak and is nearing completion. Iran has stated that the purposes of the reactor at Arak are research and development, production of radioisotopes for medical and industrial use, and training;[106] and it claims that the Arak reactor is designed to replace the ageing Tehran Research Reactor.[107] The Arak reactor would use not enriched uranium but heavy water,[108] which is already being manufactured at a nearby plant. The design of the Arak reactor makes it well suited to the production of weapons-grade plutonium:[109] if it was operating optimally, its spent fuel would produce about 9 kilograms of plutonium annually—enough for one[110] or two[111] nuclear weapons. The plutonium would first have to be separated from the irradiated fuel before it could be used in a nuclear weapon, by "reprocessing" it; and Iran is not known to have a reprocessing facility at present.[112]

49. Iran has two sites at which it is known to enrich uranium. The existence of the Natanz site, where it enriches uranium to both 5% and 20%, was disclosed not by the Iranian government but by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an Iranian opposition organisation, in August 2002.[113] In 2009, it emerged that Iran had constructed a second uranium enrichment facility, underground at Fordow, where uranium is enriched to 20%.

Box 1: Iran's uranium enrichment programme
Uranium is a weakly radioactive metallic element, occurring naturally in a number of variants or "isotopes". Uranium is found and mined in Iran, although there are contradictory reports as to how rich its reserves are and how suitable the raw material is for enrichment. U235, a naturally-occurring isotope, is fissile and is capable, when properly manipulated, of undergoing a nuclear chain reaction so as to create enormous energy.


"Enriching" uranium means processing it to increase the concentration of the U235 isotope. Uranium is converted to a gaseous form—uranium hexafluoride—which is fed into centrifuges: cylindrical devices that separate out materials by spinning them at extremely high speed. The more that uranium is enriched, the easier the enrichment becomes. As a general rule, the greatest effort is required to get uranium to 5% enrichment. Less effort is required to get to 20%, and less still to get to 90%. Iran has installed about 19,000 IR-1 centrifuges in facilities at Natanz and Fordow, although only about 9,000 are in operation. A further 1,008 IR-2 centrifuges, capable of an output which is perhaps five times greater than that of IR-1 centrifuges, have been installed but are not in operation.

Uses of enriched uranium

Enriched uranium has a variety of uses, depending on the level of enrichment:

  Uranium enriched to just 3-5% U235 is the typical ingredient for use in fuel rods in nuclear power stations;

  Uranium enriched to around 20% U235 or over may be used in research reactors; reactors used for medical or other scientific research purposes, rather than to generate energy for domestic consumption;

  Uranium enriched to 90% or higher U235 is used to fuel nuclear submarines and ice-breakers, and can be used for nuclear bombs.

Stocks of enriched uranium held by Iran

According to the November 2013 quarterly report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran had stockpiles of 7,154 kg of uranium enriched to 5%, and 196 kg of uranium enriched to just under 20%.

50. It is possible that further, undeclared nuclear facilities already exist in Iran or are being constructed. Mr Fitzpatrick believed that this was "a pretty fair assumption", as it was Iran's policy not to reveal facilities until they were ready to come into operation.[114] The National Council of Resistance of Iran has recently claimed that a new underground nuclear military site exists near Mobarakeh.[115] The UK Government doubts that the site is used for nuclear weapon testing, given its proximity to a major centre of population, but it says that it is "not clear" whether the site is used for other nuclear-related purposes.[116]


51. Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968 and ratified it in 1970. Signatories to the Treaty are required to conclude a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), enabling it to verify reports of declared nuclear material and activities. Iran signed such an agreement in May 1974.[117] Most states which are party to the Treaty and which hold significant quantities of nuclear material have also signed an Additional Protocol, which would enhance the IAEA's authority to inspect, in order to enable it to provide assurances about both declared and possible undeclared activities. Iran agreed to sign such a Protocol in 2003 and agreed to implement it provisionally until it had been ratified by the Majlis;[118] but in the event the Protocol was never ratified, and Iran ceased its provisional implementation in February 2006.

52. Iran has a long history of failing to meet its obligations under the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement. Allegations were made to the IAEA in 2003 about the transfer of uranium compounds to Iran from another state—something which should have been declared under the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement but had not been.[119] In 2005, the IAEA Board of Governors declared that Iran was not compliant with the terms of its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement and referred the matter to the UN Security Council; and sanctions resulted. Notably, Iran failed to submit to the IAEA designs for the uranium enrichment facility at Fordow in advance of construction, as required under the Safeguards Agreement. The FCO told us that Iran had continued to violate the six UN Security Council resolutions requiring Iran to suspend "all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities" and to suspend "work on all heavy water-related projects".[120]


53. Iran maintains that its nuclear programme is entirely for civilian purposes; but, given that Russia already supplies the enriched uranium required at Bushehr, and given that stocks of 20%-enriched uranium held by Iran for use at the Tehran Research Reactor are already plentiful, there is little dispute that the quantities of highly-enriched uranium which Iran has produced and which it would be able to continue to produce exceed those which might be needed for civil use.[121]

54. The widely-held suspicion is that Iran's nuclear programme has had both civil and military purposes, to enable production of enough weapons-grade uranium or plutonium for development of nuclear weapons.[122] In November 2011, the IAEA reported that it had concerns about credible information available to it which indicated that Iran had carried out activities "relevant to the development of a nuclear device".[123] The FCO said in its memorandum that

    Iran says that it does not want a nuclear weapon. But the body of evidence pointing to possible military dimensions of the nuclear programme, the disparity between Iran's nuclear infrastructure and its civilian need, and Iran's history of non-compliance with its safeguards agreement and UN Security Council Resolutions, gives great cause for concern.[124]

55. Although there is little doubt that there has been some military purpose to Iran's nuclear programme, it is not clear whether actual manufacture of a weapon is or was the defined goal. Professor Alan Johnson, Senior Research Fellow at BICOM, made a neat distinction, suggesting that a strategic decision to develop a nuclear weapon had probably been taken years ago, but not an operational decision to "push ahead".[125]

56. Peter Jenkins, the UK Permanent Representative to the IAEA from 2001 to 2006, was perhaps more sceptical: he told us that he believed that there was no conclusive evidence, at least not in the public domain, that Iran had decided to acquire nuclear weapons or had embarked on producing either highly-enriched uranium or plutonium.[126] We note the National Intelligence Estimate published by the US in November 2007, which included an assessment "with high confidence" that Iran had halted its work on nuclear weapon design and weaponisation work in 2003, and a further assessment "with moderate confidence" that Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons programme as at mid-2007.[127] In testimony to the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in January 2012, James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence in the US, confirmed that there was no evidence that Iran had decided to push ahead with building a nuclear weapon, although it was keeping open the option of developing nuclear weapons. The then Director of the CIA, David Petraeus, expressed a similar view. [128]

57. Some have suggested to us that the overall purpose of the nuclear programme is political rather than military. Sir Robert Cooper, who was Counsellor for the European External Action Service from 2010 to 2012 and who was closely involved in negotiations with Iran at the time, suggested that the Iranian objective was not a military conquest of the Middle East but "some kind of political power in the region".[129] The National Iranian American Council similarly described the nuclear issue as "more means than goal" for Iran, the true aim being "recognition and reintegration in the international system as an equal player".[130]


58. Regardless of Iran's ultimate purpose, the speed with which Iran has accelerated its production and installation of centrifuges in recent years suggests that it intends to at least give itself the option of acquiring nuclear weapons. The Henry Jackson Society told us that Iran's behaviour over the last decade left little doubt that it is was either seeking nuclear weapons, or at the very least, was seeking to reach the threshold of nuclear-weapons capacity from which it could "break out" undetected.[131]

59. Given the extent of Iran's stocks of enriched uranium, the question is not so much whether or not Iran has a nuclear weapons capability: it now has the wherewithal to produce the necessary quantities of weapons-grade uranium, and so in some senses it already has that capability, as Mark Fitzpatrick, Director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, explained to us.[132] The real issue is whether Iran has reached what is known as "breakout capacity"—a point where it could produce sufficient weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear warhead quickly enough to avoid detection or interruption by outside intervention, and how far advanced Iran is in developing the capacity to manufacture a warhead from enriched uranium. Further work would then be required to mount a warhead onto a launchable missile, although it was suggested to us that Iran could dispense with this stage and use suicide bombers to detonate a bomb loaded onto a lorry or even a donkey.[133]

60. The expansion of Iran's enrichment capacity has shortened the time that it would take Iran to develop weapons-grade uranium, should it decide to do so.[134] Peter Jenkins, the UK Permanent Representative to the IAEA from 2001 to 2006, set out a sliding scale of the times required to produce the necessary quantity for one weapon:

·  Six months, using 10,000 first generation IR-1 centrifuges and un-enriched uranium hexafluoride as feed material

·  Six weeks, using uranium hexafluoride enriched to 3.5%

·  Possibly under two weeks, if 10,000 second generation IR-2 centrifuges are also used.[135]

The two-week figure has been cited by Mr Olli Heinonen, a former Deputy Director at the IAEA, who believes that Iran would then need just "one month or two" to use the highly enriched uranium to assemble a nuclear weapon.[136]

61. There is no convincing explanation for why Iran might need for civil purposes the stocks of enriched uranium which it held in January 2014. We believe that the primary reason for Iran's decision to build such a capacity to enrich uranium and to amass stocks to current levels was to give itself the option to develop a nuclear military capability. That has almost been achieved. While the Foreign and Commonwealth Office refers to the body of evidence pointing towards possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear programme, we are not aware of any unequivocal evidence that Iran has taken a decision to push ahead and develop a nuclear weapon.

103   Financial Times 24 February 2013 Back

104   Variants of a chemical element, differing according to the number of neutrons in the atoms Back

105   Memorandum from the FCO, page 4 Back

106   Memorandum from the FCO to the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into Global Security: Iran, Fifth Report of Session 2007-08, HC 142, Ev 42; see also Back

107 Back

108   Water composed of deuterium and oxygen, used as a moderator of neutrons in nuclear power plants Back

109   Memorandum from the FCO, page 4  Back

110   See memorandum from Henry Jackson Society, para 14 Back

111 Back

112; also Back

113   Under the Subsidiary Arrangements to the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement which were in force at the time, disclosure of an enrichment facility was required 180 days before nuclear material was introduced into it, not at the time of construction. Iran agreed in 2003 that design information on new facilities should be provided to the IAEA as soon as a decision to construct, authorise or modify a facility had been taken. See written evidence from the FCO to the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into Global Security: Iran, published with the Fifth Report of Session 2007-08, HC 142, paragraph 106 Back

114   Q 129 Back

115 Back

116   HC Deb 2 December 2013 col 568W Back

117   See Global Security: Iran, Fifth Report of Session 2007-08, HC 142, FCO memorandum, paragraph 101 Back

118   See Back

119   See Global Security: Iran, Fifth Report of Session 2007-08, HC 142, FCO memorandum, paragraph 108 Back

120  Memorandum from the FCO, section 2. See also BBC interview with the Foreign Secretary, Back

121   See for example Lord Lamont, Q 110; memorandum from the FCO, section 2 Back

122   BICOM (The Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre) told us that there was "near consensus" in Israel that the programme was intended to provide the capacity to produce nuclear weapons: see memorandum from BICOM, paragraph 11. Back

123 See also letter from the Foreign Secretary to the Committee Chairman on14 May 2013,  Back

124   Memorandum from the FCO, section 2 Back

125   Q 158 Back

126   Memorandum from Peter Jenkins, paragraph 5 Back

127 Back

128   See New York Times 24 Feb 2012  Back

129   Q 40 Back

130   Memorandum from the National Iranian American Council, paragraph 10 Back

131   Memorandum from the Henry Jackson Society, summary Back

132   Q 123  Back

133   Mr Kessler Q 159 Back

134   Memorandum from the FCO, section 2 Back

135   Memorandum from Peter Jenkins, paragraph 15 Back

136   See Times of Israel, 28 October 2013  Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2014
Prepared 14 July 2014