Iranian nuclear program

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See also: Iranian Security Forces

Iran has a nuclear program that is highly controversial, with arguments that it is intended to result in nuclear weapons. Its government insists that its uranium enrichment work is permissible under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), of which it is a signatory as a nation without nuclear weapons.

It is not a given that Iran has made the internal decision to commit to nuclear weapons production, but many Western groups want to stop any capability to do so. If they wanted a peaceful program, one possibility to lower tensions would be for them to buy power reactor fuel from outside countries, perhaps shipping low-enriched uranium outside the country.

President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has argued that it is unfair to impose nuclear restrictions on countries when there is a generally acknowledged Israeli nuclear weapons program. A counterargument, however, is that Israel is not a signatory to the NPT while Iran agreed to it. Ahmadinejad also makes the domestic argument that it is a sovereignty issue for Iran, within a much larger context of dissent about the Iranian government.

Recent status

General David Petraeus, head of United States Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee, in March 2010, that the weapons program specifically had "...thankfully, slid to the right a bit and it is not this calendar year, I don’t think."[1]

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been brokering talks on alternatives, with a draft agreement in October 2009 "on how to provide Iran with fuel for a civilian nuclear research facility." [2] France, Russia and the United States approved the draft, but Iran asked for more time, saying it was considering it favorably but would probably answer in the following week.[3]

Iran approved the agreement but with reservations. Their most important request for change is that they want to ship low-enriched uranium out of the country in stages, while the other countries wanted them to ship 70% at once, leaving them without enough for any plausible weapons construction.[4]

By late November, however, the IAEA board voted to censure Iran about its lack of cooperation. Significantly, China and Russia joined the censure vote; only Cuba, Venezuela and Malaysia voted against. A key factor in the changed attitudes was the announcement of a previously secret enrichment facility outside Qom, the characteristics of which are more suggestive of a military than a civilian application. [5]

Intelligence issues

One of the factors that had gone into Western thinking was a National Intelligence Council estimate that concluded that Iran had ceased active weapons research in 2003. According to the unclassified summary,

We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program1; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons. We judge with high confidence that the halt, and Tehran’s announcement of its decision to suspend its declared uranium enrichment program and sign an Additional Protocol to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement, was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously

undeclared nuclear work.[6]

On 21 September 20088, Iran sent a letter to IAEA “that a new pilot fuel-enrichment plant is under construction,” Located in an underground facility in a mountain 100 mi/160 km southwest of Tehran, near the city of Qom, it has been described as inside a highly guarded Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) base. [7]


On 25 September 2009 US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy accused Iran of building a secret nuclear facility - a charge Iran denied. President Obama, made the announcement at the G20 economic summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The leaders accused Iran's government of building a covert, underground plant to produce nuclear fuels. They insisted the International Atomic Energy Agency have access right away to ensure it is not being built to produce nuclear weapons. President Obama said Western countries presented evidence of the facility to the IAEA, and "the size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program."

The recent disclosures of a hidden uranium enrichment facility at Qom has drawn questions on the intelligence work. This facility was built underground, inside a base of the IRGC. Its 3000 separation centrifuges are considered too few to produce enough refined uranium for a civilian nuclear power project, but enough for three bombs.

In 2010, the New York Times reported on a broad Iranian program of tunnel-building. [8] Placing facilities underground both complicates locating targets, and also destroying them. According to the Times, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, told the Knesset that the Qum plant was “located in bunkers that cannot be destroyed through a conventional attack.” To clarify "conventional", while there are non-nuclear bombs that can penetrate deeply into rock, the deeper the target is buried, in general, the heavier the bomb must be and the higher the altitude from which it must be dropped. F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft have the heaviest payload in Israel's air force, and generally are assumed to be limited to a 2000 pound bomb. Against a strong air defense, the non-stealthy F-15 would be more vulnerable at high altitude. While there are possible workarounds, the U.S., if it attacked such a target with conventional penetrating bombs, would almost certainly use B-2 stealth bombers that can operate from a much higher altitude, and also carry a bomb in the 3000 to 5000 pound range; a larger bomb called the Massive Ordnance Penetrator is under development. Not being able to use stealth or heavy bombs, and also lacking some sensors for target location, tends to suggest that Israel would need to use nuclear weapons to ensure target destruction, or would try to get the U.S. to attack should it decide to attack the Iranian program.

Iran, however, routinely puts facilities underground simply to make use of mountainous terrain, although underground facilities obviously do offer military advantages. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, indeed, is professionally a transportation engineer and founded the Iranian Tunneling Association;[9] he was involved in building Tehran's subway system. Nevertheless, Iran started building protected underground military facilities during the Iran-Iraq War, and is quite experienced. The Tunneling Association has a working group on deep tunnels, for which the requirements include security.[10]

Alleged weapons-specific components

The Times (UK) reported on a document that described a development program for what would be a weapons-specific component, a uranium deuteride initiator. [11] Philip Giraldi analyzed the document and concluded it is a forgery. [12]

Weapons program status

On 16 March 2010, General David Petraeus, head of United States Central Command, said Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear weapon appear to have been delayed “a bit” and told a Senate committee they would not have a bomb this year. “It has, thankfully, slid to the right a bit and it is not this calendar year, I don’t think." He said that the President had “explicitly stated that he has not taken the military option off the table,” the administration’s focus was on using different types of sanctions to get Tehran to change its behavior. Petraeus said there was contingency planning for U.S. military action, but declined to discuss them in an open session.[13]

Special nuclear materials manufacturing

Describing the steps in building nuclear weapons is beyond the scope of this article, but a key step is obtaining weapons-grade uranium or plutonium. Highly enriched uranium (HEU) can be used directly in bombs, and less enriched uranium can be a feedstock for plutonium. Low-enriched uranium is a dual-use material applicable to electrical power generation and research. In general, it is easier to make a uranium bomb, but harder to miniaturize it to a point that it will fit into a missile warhead.

The National Intelligence Estimate stated "We assess centrifuge enrichment is how Iran probably could first produce enough fissile material for a weapon, if it decides to do so. Iran resumed its declared centrifuge enrichment activities in January 2006, despite the continued halt in the nuclear weapons program. Iran made significant progress in 2007 installing centrifuges at Natanz, but we judge with moderate confidence it still faces significant technical problems operating them.

  • We judge with moderate confidence that the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon is late 2009, but that this is very unlikely.
  • We judge with moderate confidence Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame. INR judges Iran is unlikely to achieve this capability before 2013 because of foreseeable technical and programmatic problems.) All agencies recognize the possibility that this capability may not be attained until after 2015."[14]

Facilities within the system include:[15]

"Front End"

  • uranium mining
  • Milling and uranium conversion
    • Industrial-scale: Esfahan Nuclear Technology Center (ENTC)
    • laboratory-scale: at the Tehran Nuclear Research Center (TNRC)
  • uranium enrichment
    • Gas centrifuge technology
      • Natanz
      • Qom; the Qom facility was kept secret until recently, although IAEA inspection is planned [16]
    • Laser-based uranium enrichment
      • TNRC
      • Lashkar Ab’ad
  • Fuel fabrication: ENTC
  • Light water reactor, civilian use: Bushehr

"Back End"

  • Heavy water production: Arak
  • Heavy water reactors, plutonium producing: Arak, scheduled to be operational in 2014

Other weapons components

Vulnerability analysis

In 2006, before the existence of the Qom enrichment site was reported in the open literature, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology considered the feasibility of an air attack on the critical links in the Iranian system, modeled after the 1981 Raid on Osirak. This did not assume that Iranian defenses include the Russian S-300 series advanced surface-to-air missile, or the less capable but still potent Chinese derivative of the S-300.

This analysis said the Israeli Defense Forces do not have the capability, unless they used ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads, to wipe out the entire system. "To have a reasonable chance of success, both in the mission and in the ultimate goal of rendering Iran’s nuclear program impotent, the target set must be narrowed to concentrate on the critical nodes in Iran’s nuclear infrastructure... Iran’s nuclear complex has three critical nodes: Esfahan, with its conversion facility, the Natanz enrichment facility, and the heavy water plant and future plutonium production reactors at Arak."[17]

If there were no consequences from it, the only reasonably certain way Israel would have to destroy all the Iranian sites, including the deeply buried ones, would be to use its Jericho missiles with nuclear warheads. It is hard to imagine a preemptive situation where Israel would seriously consider this.

A more recent study from the Council on Foreign Relations estimates that Israel, given a number of assumptions, is capable of attacking the three key sites at Isfahan, Natanz and Arak. Adding other sites, such as the Qom or other facilities, would probably stretch capabilities too far. Such attacks could certainly slow a program by several years, but not utterly stop it.[18]

The newer study does assume that Israel's F-15E's can now deliver 5,000 pound penetrating bombs. Of the three principal targets, only Natanz has significant parts underground, which would have to be attacked with a "burrowing" technique in which successive bombs go into increasingly deepening craters. Normally, the BLU-109 and BLU-119 bombs are GPS guided; Israel has developed a more accurate laser-guided version that would require special reconnaissance personnel guiding it from the ground.

These targets:

  • Would need to be approached by overflying third countries:
    • Northern approach would likely follow the Syrian-Turkish border and risk violation of Turkey’s airspace
    • Central flight path would cross Jordan and Iraq
    • southern route would transit the lower end of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and possibly Kuwait.
  • Would require air refueling. "Diplomatic and military factors would confine Israeli refueling operations to international airspace where tankers could orbit safely for long periods. These

locations, while usable, are suboptimal. They would yield the attackers little leeway to loiter in their target areas, or engage in the fuel-intensive maneuvering typical of dogfights and evasion of surface-to- air missiles. The limited number of tankers would limit the number of sorties."

Overflight would jeopardize Israeli diplomatic relations with two countries not actively hostile to Israel, Jordan and Turkey. Overflying Syria or Saudi Arabia would present a significant risk that the overflown country's air defenses would engage the Israeli force even before it reached the Iranian border. While Israel could suppress those air defenses, it would likely take losses and it would be uncertain if the remaining forces would be sufficient for an attack on a now-warned Iran.

Any route involving "Iraq, whose airspace is under de facto U.S. control, would also be diplomatically awkward for Israel and would risk a deadly clash with American air defenses since the intruding aircraft would not have the appropriate Identification, Friend, or Foe (IFF) codes. Israel would have to carefully weigh the operational risk and most of all the cost of a strike to its most vital bilateral relationship, especially if President Barack Obama had explicitly asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to order an attack.[18]

Should Iran acquire S-300 or equivalent air defense missiles, the difficulty of an Israeli attack would rise enormously. Russia said, on 11 June 2010, they will not be sold to Iran.[19]

Delivery systems

To assess the nuclear threat, one must consider the means of delivery, which, considering the potential target, would most likely be a ballistic missile although sea-based cruise missiles or even suicide submarines are possible. The Iranian Air Force has quite limited capabilities and would be unlikely to be able to penetrate a strong air defense carrying a gravity bomb.

Ballistic missiles are limited both in weight and size of the payloads they can carry. The open literature does not have clear indications of the state of, or even existence, of Iranian nuclear warhead designs. If, however A.Q. Khan's P-1 or P-2 designs are assumed, which derive from a Chinese weapon of 500 kg weight and 1 m diameter, that can be carried by Iran’s Shahab-3 (missile).[20]


  1. Iran’s Nuclear Bomb Effort Has Slowed: U.S. General, Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, 16 March 2009
  2. UN atomic watchdog announces draft deal on Iran’s nuclear fuel, United Nations, 21 October 2009
  3. Iran needs more time to consider nuclear fuel agreement, says UN atomic watchdog, United Nations, 23 October 2009
  4. Nasser Karimi and Brian Murphy (27 October 2009), "Iran backs uranium plan outline, but seeks changes", Associated Press
  5. Joby Warrick and Thomas Erdbrink (27 November 2009), "IAEA votes to censure Iran over nuclear program", Washington Post
  6. Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities, National Intelligence Council, November 2007, p. 6
  7. Qom (Ghom), Globalsecurity
  8. William J. Broad (6 January 2010), "Iran Shielding Its Nuclear Efforts in Maze of Tunnels", New York Times
  9. Introduction, Iran Tunneling Association
  10. W.G.4 Long Tunnels at Great Depth, Iran Tunneling Association
  11. Catherine Philp (14 December 2009), "Discovery of UD3 raises fears over Iran’s nuclear intentions", The Times (UK)
  12. Gareth Porter (29 December 2009), Giraldi: US Intel Found Iran Nuke Document Was Forged,
  13. Iran’s Nuclear Bomb Effort Has Slowed: U.S. General, Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, 16 March 2010
  14. National Intelligence Council, November 2007, pp. 6-7
  15. Whitney Raas and Austin Long (April 2006), Osirak Redux? Assessing Israeli Capabilities to Destroy Iranian Nuclear Facilities, Security Studies Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pp. 5-7
  16. Joby Warrick (24 October 2009), "Iranian site prompts U.S. to rethink assessment; Tehran set to open Qom nuclear facility to inspectors amid concerns over its role", Washington Post
  17. Osirak Redux, p. 8
  18. 18.0 18.1 Steven Simon (November 2009), An Israeli Strike on Iran, Center for Preventive Action, Council on Foreign Relations, Contingency Planning Memorandum No. 5
  19. Glenn Kessler and Keith B. Richburg (12 June 2010), "Russia halts sale of air defense missiles to Iran", Washington Post
  20. Anthony Cordesman, Khalid Al-Rodhan (17 April 2006), Iranian Nuclear Weapons? Iran’s Missiles and Possible Delivery Systems, Center for Strategic and International Studies