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To understand Iran’s nuclear program and ambitions, look to the past

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced on Wednesday that Iran is mastering the entire nuclear fuel cycle. That mastery includes mining, processing, enriching and fabricating fuel from uranium for a nuclear power plant such as the one at Bushehr in Iran. We are unlikely to hear about Iran’s other nuclear objective: producing a nuclear weapon that can be a payload on Iran’s Shahab-3 medium range ballistic missile.

 The Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is charged with reporting on Iran’s compliance with its nuclear Safeguards Agreement to the U.N. Security Council. The IAEA’s latest report has information from various sources that suggests clandestine progress in Iran on the technology required for development and delivery of a nuclear weapon. The specific weapons technology includes work on explosives; enrichment; formation of spherical uranium metal; exploding bridge wire detonators; neutron sources; and re-engineering the payload chamber of the Shahab-3 missile.

To understand Iran’s nuclear program and ambitions, we need to return to 1953, which saw both the installation of Shah Reza Pahlavi in Iran and the launching by President Dwight Eisenhower of the Atoms for Peace program. Under Atoms for Peace, the Shah established the Tehran Nuclear Research Center with a U.S.-supplied 5 megawatt nuclear research reactor.

A rush to do nuclear business

Iran has oil revenues, and U.S. and European companies rushed to do nuclear business with the Shah’s Iran. A Siemens-led group contracted to build a $5 billion dollar nuclear power plant at Bushehr. Iran lent $1.1 billion for a 10 percent share of Eurodif, a uranium enrichment plant in France, jointly owned by France, Belgium, Spain and Sweden. Iran financed a nuclear cooperation agreement with South Africa in return for supplies of enriched uranium fuel from South Africa and Namibia.

President Gerald ford signed a directive offering Teheran the chance to buy and operate a U.S.-built reprocessing facility for the complete 'nuclear fuel cycle,' including extracting plutonium from nuclear reactor fuel. The Ford strategy paper said the "introduction of nuclear power will both provide for the growing needs of Iran's economy and free remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals."

The Shah approved plans to construct, with U.S. help, up to 23 nuclear power plants by 2000. The Shah echoed President Ford’s theme saying, "Petroleum is a noble material, much too valuable to burn. We envision producing, as soon as possible, 23,000 megawatts of electricity using nuclear plants."

Overthrow and change

In 1979, the overthrow of the Shah and the occupation of the U.S. embassy ended U.S. and most European cooperation with Iran’s nuclear program. German companies withdrew from the Bushehr project, which was more than half complete, and for which they had received at least $2.5 billion. Eurodif did not supply Iran with any enriched uranium.

Iran’s nuclear program stalled during the Iran/Iraq War, which ended in 1988. Iran then began seeking other partners for its nuclear ambitions. Russia formed a joint effort with Iran, called Persepolis, which provided Iran with nuclear experts and technology. In 1995, Iran contracted with Russia to complete the Bushehr nuclear plant. Most other potential partners were discouraged by aggressive U.S. objections.

Iran was also a beneficiary of Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear weapons sharing network, which included Libya and North Korea. With centrifuge technology from this network Iran was able to build large uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow; neither was disclosed in advance to the IAEA as required by the Safeguards Agreement.

Little engagement with IAEA

The November 2011 report to the U.N. Security Council by the IAEA Director General states that Iran is obligated by Security Council resolution to cooperate with the IAEA on all issues which give rise to concerns about military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program. Since August 2008, the report states, Iran has not engaged with the agency in any substantive way on this matter. The IAEA is therefore unable to provide credible assurance that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.

Israel is about 900 miles from Iran. The Shahab missiles have an effective range of well over 1,000 miles.

Rolf Westgard is a professional member of the Geological Society of America and the American Nuclear Society. He recently taught the class “Nuclear Energy Past, Present, ad Future” for the University of Minnesota's Lifelong Learning program.

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Comments (9)

The Genie is out of the bottle

If the title were "Nuclear Israel, anxious Iran", it would actually describe the real world

Iran is not isolated, it controls its own backyard, in Iraq and Afghanistan thanks to America. Having nuclear weapons does not mean they will use them, Iran knows Israel has the capability to destroy every one of her major cities.

I would be more concerned about Pakistan, whoever let them have nukes...

Just for the record, Israel

Just for the record, Israel is estimated to have up to 400 nuclear warheads capable of being delivered by ICBM or airplane for first-strike capability and via submarine-based cruse missiles for first- or second-strike options.

As for Pakistan, their nuclear program was begun with the same Atoms for Peace program. Recall that Pakistan, too, was regarded as a valuable ally against the Communist influence in India and the region. It is not a far stretch to see that, given the Cold War strategies of the time, the nuclear weapon development program in Pakistan was not too vigorously resisted by the US policy makers.

It's all about MAD

Richard, you are right about Iran not likely to use a nuclear weapon. It's for the reason that no one has since Nagasaki. It's called Mutually Assured Destruction(MAD). Iran is aware that one US nuclear sub with Trident missiles could return Iran to the Stone Age. Not to mention response from Israel or others. On the other hand, there are some leaders so irrational that ......

Israel has at least 3 subs

Israel has at least 3 subs that carry nuclear cruise missiles. They have at least one underwater at all times to maintain a plausible second-strike option. They hardly need the US, except for cover, to take out Iran in a first or a second-strike attack.

Look at the IAEA report again please

The IAEA's latest report said merely that Iran's work on the develop of nuclear energy for peaceful uses (electricity, medical) could conceivably lead to military use. As a signer to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, it is legally and morally entitled to do the work it is doing.

In January 2007, the author of an article in the journal of the Association for the Advancement of Science noted that Iran had neither drilled new wells to replace some nearing exhaustion nor maintained its refining capacity. It has been exporting its oil and importing expensive refined gasoline, which it sells to its population at a loss. It wants nuclear energy to take up the slack.

In 2003, IAEA discovered that Iran was doing some militarily-focused research. Iran stopped and there is no evidence that it has restarted that research.

Israel is afraid of Iran partly because it believes the propaganda about Iran hating it and about its "bomb," as do McCain, Lieberman and other members of our Congress who would like nothing better than for us to attack Iran.

Israel's Mossad has recently been training anti-government Irani Mujahadeen members in the use of bombs that can be attached to cars as one rides by on a bicycle or motorcycle. In view of the number of scientists Iran has lost (five?) it has much more reason to be afraid than Israel.

Who's afraid?

Bernice; no question, any foe of Israel has good reason to be afraid. But as the world's most hated nation, Israel continues to watch its back and keep those Dolphin class subs in range of Iran.
Nuclear energy and oil don't relate much. Nuclear is for power generation; oil is for transportation and product feed stock. It's Iran's natural gas that can supply electric power, exports, and ethylene. Having nuclear makes more of its gas available for those purposes.
Iran has every right to nuclear generated electric power. It is surrounded by hostile Sunni neighbors, plus Israel. Its desire for a nuclear weapons capability is also understandable.

Looking again at the IAEA report

Bernice some excerpts from that report:

38. Previous reports by the Director General have identified outstanding issues related to possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme and actions required of Iran to resolve these. Since 2002, the Agency has become increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile, about which the Agency has regularly received new information.

39. The Board of Governors has called on Iran on a number of occasions to engage with the Agency on the resolution of all outstanding issues in order to exclude the existence of possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme. In resolution 1929 (2010), the Security Council reaffirmed Iran’s obligations to take the steps required by the Board of Governors in its resolutions GOV/2006/14 and GOV/2009/82, and to cooperate fully with the Agency on all outstanding issues, particularly those which give rise to concerns about the possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme, including by providing access without delay to all sites, equipment, persons and documents requested by the Agency. Since August 2008, Iran has not engaged with the Agency in any substantive way on this matter

43. The information indicates that Iran has carried out the following activities that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device:
• Efforts, some successful, to procure nuclear related and dual use equipment and materials by military related individuals and entities (Annex, Sections C.1 and C.2);
• Efforts to develop undeclared pathways for the production of nuclear material (Annex,
Section C.3);
• The acquisition of nuclear weapons development information and documentation from a clandestine nuclear supply network (Annex, Section C.4); and
• Work on the development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon including the testing of components (Annex, Sections C.5–C.12).

53. The Agency has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme. After assessing carefully and critically the extensive information available to it, the Agency finds the information to be, overall, credible. The information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.

This is a little more than "Iran's work on the develop of nuclear energy for peaceful uses (electricity, medical) could conceivably lead to military use."

"The world's most hated nation?"

Israel is resented by the neighboring countries it has invaded (Gaza, Lebanon), by farmers whose land it keeps taking for illegal settlements on the West Bank, and for imprisoning the people of Gaza behind an illegal embargo and onerous checkpoints. I don't believe the Israeli PEOPLE -- including the Arab citizens whose civil rights are now being whittled away -- are hated. Other countries know it's not their fault what their government chooses to do.

Whether or not Iran is actually working toward the production of nuclear weapons or it just wants to have a deterrent against possible Israeli incursions is their business. I do not believe they are, but some people do even though there is no evidence.

What bothers me is the blatant hatred of Iran emanating from members of our Congress, with people like McCain calling Iran the most dangerous country in the world. I see Iran being told to prove a negative or Face the Consequences, just as Saddam Hussein was told to prove he had no WMD. I see the neoconservatives who gave us Iraq dearly wishing to pull off the same trick with Iran, the second member of the Bush/Cheney Axis of Evil, and our sanctions against Iran as a possible deterrent to an invasion by us OR Israel.

hated nation issue

UN General Assembly votes condemning Israel's government for its behavior in Palestine generally run about 163 to 7 against Israel.