By Mohammad Sahimi
This article is the last of a three-part series on Iran's nuclear program.
In this Part, the dispute - many consider it a crisis - between Iran and the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is described.
Recall that after the February announcement of President Mohammad Khatami
regarding the construction of the facilities in Natanz for uranium enrichment,
and other associated plants needed for this purpose, Dr. Mohammad
El Baradei, the head of IAEA, accompanied by a team of inspectors, visited
Iran. Since then, the IAEA's inspectors and experts have visited Iran several
more times. A preliminary report was published in July, with a follow-up one
on August 26.
Before the revelations about the Natanz facility, there had been reports for
years that Iran had sought, albeit unsuccessfully, the uranium enrichment
technology, both in the international market and from the Russian Ministry of
Atomic Energy. Although not definitively established yet, it now appears that
the Natanz facility is similar to what Pakistan had built for its nuclear
program in the 1980s. Various reports indicate, however, that the Natanz
facility is in fact far more sophisticated than both Pakistan's and what was
discovered in Iraq after its defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
The process of converting uranium ore to enriched uranium is actually long
and very complex. It has been known for many years that Iran has natural
uranium reserves, in the form of uranium ore. In 1985, the Atomic Energy
Organization of Iran (AEOI) located over 5,000 metric tons of uranium ore
in the desert in eastern part of Yazd province. This represents one of the
largest deposits of uranium ore in the Middle East. The ore must first
undergo a semiprocess to be converted to a powder, usually called the
yellowcake. Iran is building a facility in Ardakan for this purpose. The
yellowcake is then further processed to produce uranium hexafluoride (UF_6)
which is in gaseous state. The facility for doing this is being built in
Esfahan (Isfahan). Uranium has two important isotopes (that is, two slightly
different versions of it with slightly different atomic masses) which are
uranium-235 and uranium-238 (the numbers represent the atomic masses). It is
uranium-238 that may be used in making nuclear weapons, but also in nuclear
reactors. The Esfahan facility will also produce uranium oxide and uranium
metal, both of which have civilian as well as military applications.
The Natanz facility is equipped with the instruments for what is currently
considered to be the standard uranium-enrichment technique, namely, a large
number of centrifuges that spin uranium hexafluoride gas at very high speeds.
Under such conditions, centrifugal forces help separate the lighter uranium-235
hexafluoride from the heavier uranium-238 hexafluoride. The facility has a
pilot gas centrifuge plant that, by the end of 2003, is supposed to house 1000
centrifuges (at the time of the IAEA visit in February, there were 160
centrifuges in the facility), and a large-scale production plant which will
house up to 50,000 centrifuges, the installation of which (which is supposed to
begin in 2005) will take up to 10 years. Such a facility would then have the
capability for producing enough uranium for annual consumption of a nuclear
reactor of the Bushehr-type. Note that only 10 countries have access to the
Development of a uranium-enrichment facility is an important step (but not the
only one) towards making nuclear weapons. For example, the Natanz facility,
when complete and in full operation, could produce 500 kgr/year of
weapon-grade uranium. As it typically takes about 20 kgr of enriched uranium
to make a single nuclear bomb, the produced uranium would be enough to make
about 25 bombs every year. We must, however, keep in mind that a
uranium-enrichment facility is also utilized for peaceful purposes it can
produce low-grade enriched uranium for use in nuclear reactors.
Since, typically, one first tests whether a single centrifuge with a small
quantity of uranium hexafluoride works before installing hundreds (or even
thousands) of them, one might suspect that Iran does have at least a small
amount of enriched uranium, not declared to the IAEA, which, if true, would
imply that Iran is in serious violation of the NPT that it signed in 1968.
However, such tests can also be carried out by computer simulations and
modelling. Recall that even nuclear explosions are simulated completely
realistically, and therefore, in principle, one does not need a physical test
to check whether the centrifuges work. Whether this is the case in the
present situation is not clear.
It was reported on July 18 that the IAEA inspectors had detected the trace of
enriched uranium in the samples taken at Natanz, but Iran said that the source
of the trace is the equipments brought to Natanz from elsewhere and bought on
the international market. Subsequently, it was announced on September 25 that
a trace amount of enriched uranium has also been detected at Kaalaa-ye (Kalaye
is usually used in the english press) Electric Company in the northwest suburb
of Tehran, a non-nuclear site (the Company produces watches, as well as certain
components for the centrifuges) that the IAEA suspects Iran is using for her
nuclear enrichment activities. Since Iran had declared to the IAEA that the
instruments at Natanz had been stored at the Kaalaa-ye Electric site before
being transported to Natanz, and given that no trace of enriched uranium has
been detected anywhere else in Iran, the Kaalaa-ye Electric discovery may
actually confirm Iran's contention regarding the origin of the enriched
uranium. But, once again, the situation is not clear, unless Iran provides
the IAEA a list of suppliers that provided her with the instruments and
How are nuclear facilities monitored and violations of the NPT discovered?
Inspections of nuclear facilities include the use of a powerful technique,
called the isotopic detection, which, in essence, is a method for monitoring
the environment and anything that might contaminate it. This technique is based
on the facts that, (1) extremely small quantities of a material always escape
a process or an industrial plant, and (2) that an equipped laboratory can
readily identify the isotopic ratio of a sample that contains extremely small,
albeit measureable, amounts of a material, even if it is as small as a
billionth of a gram.
Nuclear physics predicts that the ratio of uranium-235 to uranium-238 is
essentially the same everywhere. Therefore, when the isotopic detection
technique is applied to samples containing uranium, those with ratios lower
than the theoretically-predicted value would most probably indicate illegal
(from the NPT stand) uranium-enrichment activity. The same technique can be
used for detecting any amount of plutonium that is in excess of what is
(theoretically) expected, which would then suggest the existence of a
reprocessing program for nuclear wastes generated by nuclear reactors, from
which plutonium is extracted. This technique is used, under the NPT, in the
declared nuclear facilities of the NPT signatories.
As a reaction to the discovery of Iraq's program for developing nuclear
weapons, that was discovered by the United Nations inspectors in 1991 after
Iraq's defeat in the second Gulf war, the IAEA decided to develop and implement
additional procedures for enhancing nuclear safeguards. At the time, the IAEA
hoped to have these additional procedures or protocols in place two years
later, hence the name "93+2" that is sometimes used to refer to this matter.
The Additional Protocol was developed in 1996, and has since been signed by 78
countries (out of the 183 countries that have signed the NPT). Thirty three of
these countries, mostly small nations, have also ratified the signing of the
additional protocol by their national parliaments, and hence implementing it,
although these countries cannot really afford to develop nuclear bomb! Most
importantly, the Additional Protocol has not been adopted by the US, its most
forceful advocate when it comes to OTHER countries!
The Additional Protocol also gives the IAEA the authority to inspect any
facility of any nation that has signed the Protocol, even those that,
seemingly, have nothing to do with a nuclear program, any time that the IAEA
wishes. This is a problematic aspect of the Additional Protocol, as inspection
of non-nuclear facilities may be interpreted as an infringement on the national
sovereignty of a country under inspection. However, since Iran's facilities
have been under inspections for years, this should be a minor issue.
On Friday September 12, 2003, the 35-member governing board of the IAEA
gave Iran an ultimatum until October 31 to prove that her nuclear program is
strictly for peaceful purposes, by providing all the deatils of her nuclear
program. Iran's reaction was mixed: On one hand, she reacted with indignation,
calling the ultimatum "premature" and "unfair," while stating, on the other
hand, that she will continue working with the IAEA.
It should be pointed out that even Ms. Melissa Fleming, the spokeswoman for the
IAEA, conceded that the ultimatum was "highly unusual" in that it was adopted
WITHOUT A VOTE. At the same time, the IAEA itself had conceded that Iran had
expanded her cooperation with the Agency, even allowing many sites that are
not covered by the NPT, such as the Kaalaa-ye Electric Company, to be
inspected. Therefore, the ultimatum has much to do with Iran's poor
international standing and isolation, which are, of course, justified.
At the same time, the US is once again using an important international
organization to advance her agenda, damaging in the process the credibility and
effectiveness of the organization, only a few months after doing the same to
the United Nations during the debate over invasion of Iraq (and now going back
to it asking for help!). France and Germany, at odds with the US over invasion
and occupation of Iraq, but eager to mend their relations with the US, also
have joined her in calling on Iran to immediately sign the Additional Protocol,
and to reveal all of the details of her nuclear program.
Before analyzing the present situation between Iran and the IAEA, we must keep
in mind that,
(1) according to the original IAEA safeguard agreements, Iran was not obligated
to declare the start of construction of the Natanz facility. These agreements
stipulate that, only 180 days before introducing any nuclear material, does
Iran have to declare the existence of the facility. Therefore, construction of
the undeclared Natanz facility is NOT by itself a vilation of the NPT.
(2) The NPT does allow Iran to legally build any nuclear facility, including
one for uranium enrichment, so long as it is declared to, and safeguarded by,
the IAEA, and is intended for peaceful purposes.
Keeping these important points in mind, the problematic aspects of
Iran's nuclear program, so far as the IAEA is concerned, are as follows.
(a) The origin of the trace amounts of highly-enriched uranium at Natanz and
Kaalaa-ye Electric Company near Tehran is not yet clear. This was already
described and discussed above.
(b) Iran declared to the IAEA that since approximately seven weeks ago, she
has begun some uranium enrichment activities at Natanz using a single
centrifuge. Since this was declared to the IAEA, and because the Natanz
facility is now monitored by the IAEA, this activity does not represent a
violation of the NPT (although, given the current international conditions,
some may regard the timing of this as unfortunate). The important point of
contention is: How can Iran be so sure that the centrifuges at Natanz
work with high levels of reliability, if no prior (undeclared) tests have been
carried out? Iran has countered that she has used modelling and simulation,
mentioned above, which is plausible, but does not, of course, exclude the
possibility of actual physical tests.
(c) The IAEA has demanded that Iran provide it with all the details of the work
at Kaalaa-ye Electric Company. Iran has provided some (but presumably not all)
of the details, and has allowed the facility to be visited by the IAEA
inspectors, even though this inspection is not covered by the NPT, although,
at first, Iran refused to grant the IAEA the permission to visit this site. If
Iran does sign the Additional Protocol, then she would have to completely open
the facility to the IAEA inspectors.
(d) As mentioned in Part I, in 1991, Iran received from China 1,000 kgr of
natural uranium hexafluoride, 400 kgr of uranium tetrafluoride (UF_4), and 400
kgr of uranium dioxide (UO_2), without reporting them to the IAEA. The question
then is: What happened to these uranium compounds? Iran has declared that some
of the compounds have been converted to other uranium compounds, some of which
have medical applications, while others may be of dual use. Given that Iranian
medical scientists who work in Iran have published the results of their
research involving such uranium compounds, Iran's explanation is plausible, but
does not provide an explanation for the fate of all the undecalred uranium
In this author's opinion, none of these problems is intractable, and so far as
their scientific and technological aspects are concerned, can be addressed to
the satisfaction of the IAEA. The main problem, in this author's opinion,
is that much of the dispute with the IAEA is political, rather than scientific
or technological. To see this, consider the following indisputable facts:
(1) As recognized by the NPT, peaceful use of nuclear technology, and in
particular nuclear energy, is Iran's fundamental right, so long as her nuclear
program is completely transparent to the IAEA.
(2) Article 22 of the agreement between Iran and the IAEA allows for an
"arbitral tribunal," if there is still any dispute after Iran provides
sufficients details of her nuclear program to the IAEA. Therefore, October
31, 2003 is not necessarily a rigid deadline.
(3) The United States has a selective non-proliferation policy. She allows
Pakistan, a country that created the Taliban and her population has provided
sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and his terrorisat group; a country whose military
is still controlled to a large extent by extremist elements, to develop nuclear
weapons. The US has assisted Israel to develop an impressive arsenal of nuclear
weapons; has exported nuclear technology to China, and has offered a deal
to North Korea regarding her nuclear reactors. The US does not pressure
Pakistan, India and Israel to sign the NPT and its Additional Protocol.
A little-known fact is that, in early 1995, the German government proposed a
plan whereby Kraftwerk Union (a subsidiary of Siemens) would complete
construction of the Bushehr reactors (see Part I of this series), subject to
Iran's agreeing to extra non-proliferation verification procedures similar to
those that the United States negotiated with North Korea, and Iran agreed
with the plan. But, once again, immense pressure by the United States scuttled
the plan, after which Iran turned to Russia for completion of the Bushehr
A few other important points must be mentioned here:
(a) In this author's opinion, if acquiring nuclear reactors is in Iran's
national interests (see Part II), so is signing the Additional Protocol.
However, it is completely reasonable to expect that, in return for signing
the Protocol and openning the nation to the IAEA inspections, Iran should
obtain access to advanced nuclear technology, which should, however, be
monitored and safeguarded by the IAEA. The fact remains that Russian nuclear
reactors are inferior to those made in the West. Britain, France, and Germany
have already promised to help Iran.
(b) However, in this author's opinion, signing the Additional Protocol, while
necessary, may not be sufficient by itself to protect Iran's nuclear assets
since this author believes that, unless the US invades and occupies Iran and
installs a completely puppet regime in Tehran, she will continue pressuring
Iran, using her nuclear program as a pretext, regardless of the future
political developments in Iran. Thus, Iran's aim, in this author's opinion,
must be addressing the demands of the IAEA with which the European Union also
agrees, and to open up all of her facilities to inspections.
(c) The present Iranian leadership, both elected and unelected, must recognize
that it has been given no mandate to deprive Iran's furure generations of the
most advanced technology, namely, nuclear technology, by acting against Iran's
national interests, including resisting stubbornly the legitimate demands by
the IAEA. While giving Iran, a sovereign nation, an ultimatum is repugnant,
there are many legitimate issues that must be addressed.
(d) It is highly important how Iran responds to the IAEA reasonable demands.
She can react by dragging her feet, without having any active, efficient,
and logical diplomacy, which will eventually result in agreeing to all the
IAEA demands but under highly unfavorable circumstances, hence bringing about
severe set backs to Iran's nuclear program, if nothing else (which could
include economic sanctions and military threat). Alternatively, Iran can come
forward with all the details of her nuclear program, while being firm in
demanding assistance for acquiring advanced nuclear technology, in which case
the EU, Russia, Japan and the non-aligned countries may help Iran.
(e) Unless Iran addresses the issues that the IAEA has raised, and signs the
Additional Protocol on nuclear inspections, she will not only fail in her goal
of building a network of nuclear reactors, but will also be under severe
international pressure. Iran has already felt this pressure: Japan has slowed
down negotiations for development of the Azaadegaan oil field (the largest
field in the Middle East with estimated reserves of 26-30 billion barrels of
oil), and the Shell Oil Company has withdrawn from negotiations for developing
the same field. Under severe international pressure, the task of building a
network of nuclear reactors will be set back for many years, if not decades.
With Israel's help, the apartheid regime of South Africa developed
extensive nuclear facilities, and even made 16 nuclear bombs. The sixteen
nuclear bombs could not, however, prevent the demise of the South African
racist regime. While after establishment of a democratic system, the South
Arfican government of President Nelson Mandela gave up volunteerly its nuclear
bombs, the nuclear technology and know-how, developed during the apartheid
regime, now belong to a democratic country and all South Africans.
Nothing protects Iran's national security and interests better than
acceptance of her political system and government by Iranian people, which
would happen only if a truly democratic system is established in Iran.
At the same time, Iran's nuclear infrastructure is part of her national asset,
belonging to all Iranians, regardless of their political inclinations. It is
ultimately up to Iranian people, like their South African counterparts,
to decide the fate of their country's nuclear technology, once such a
democratic system is established.
Iran's Nuclear Program. Part I: Its History
Iran's Nuclear Program. Part II: Are Nuclear Reactors Necessary?
About the author:
Mohammad Sahimi is Professor & Chairman of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering
at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Since 1986, he has
been a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization devoted to
preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and a member of the
Union's Partners for Earth Program. In addition to his scientific research that
has resulted in over 200 papers, published in scientific journals, and six
books, his political articles have also appeared as book chapters, on various
web sites, and in the Los Angeles Times.
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