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Iran's Nuclear Program: Myth and Reality


by Kenneth R. Timmerman

Director, the Middle East Data Project, Inc.; Publisher, The Iran Brief.

Copyright © 1995, Middle East Data Project, Inc.


Paper presented before the Sixth International Castiglioncello Conference

Fifty Years After Hiroshima,


Castiglioncello, Italy, September 30, 1995.

Reprinted from

Fifty Years of Nuclear Weapons, Proceedings of the Sixth Castiglioncello Conference, USPID, Milano (Italy), 1996



The Iraqi experience has been extremely instructive to prospective proliferators. It has also provided unique insight into the motives and methods used by a determined proliferator for those of us on the other side who would like to prevent countries such as Iraq or Iran from acquiring weapons of mass destruction in the future. Further down the road, it may help us to create multilateral security mechanisms that help to alleviate the perceived need for these weapons in the first place, although I am less sanguine on this score. The weapons programs currently in train in the Gulf are likely to come to fruition before security mechanisms which have yet to become serious subjects of discussion, let alone negotiation.

One of the lessons the proliferators have learned, I believe, is that a successful procurement program must have a "legend," a plausible story that will stand up to a certain level of public scrutiny, to enable the proliferator to get around what remains of Western export controls. (Just what has become of Western export control systems, especially in light of the Clinton administration's dramatic, unilateral decontrol of vast amounts of advanced technology, is a subject we should perhaps address during our discussion).

These legends - or myths, as I call them - will vary in plausibility depending on the amount of opposition the proliferator faces from supplier governments. During the early and mid-1980s, for instance, virtually any legend would succeed in countries such as Germany. German companies seeking to sell entire chemical weapons plants to Iraq, Libya and Iran were able to do so legally, because the only provision in the export laws at that time that might hve restricted them forbade the sale of equipment "specially-designed" for the manufacture of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons . The "specially-designed" clause allowed the German government to close its eyes to massive export contracts. The exporting companies would have had to be foolish enough to declare their intention to build chemical weapons plants to the German export control authorities in order for the authorities to intervene.

The laws have changed, in Germany and elsewhere, requiring a more sophisticated cover story in order for companies and procurement fronts to bend the law to their advantage.

Perhaps the most difficult proliferation area for the export control community to combat nowadays is that of biological weapons. Although I won't be addressing the specifics of this in my talk today, suffice it to say that a perfectly legitimate prophylactic program, to manufacture animal and human vaccines, is virtually indistinguishable from a military biological weapons program. The equipment is the same; even the viral strains are the same in some cases. What is different is that most difficult of factors to quantify: intent.

And that brings me to the case at hand, Iran's nuclear program. Is Iran seeking a nuclear weapons capability, as the United States and several European powers believe? Or is Iran, as it declares, merely seeking to improve its scientific and industrial base, by engaging in a massive and increasingly costly nuclear power program?

There is no short answer to this conundrum. And that is why Paolo has given me the next 30 minutes or so to go into the details of why I believe Iran is using its recently envigorated nuclear power program as a "legend" - or myth - to disguise a clandestine nuclear weapons program.

Standards of proof

One word of caution before we go any further: it is my belief that academic standards of proof, such as those Iran demands be applied to it and such as the IAEA appears willing to apply, would not conclude that Iran is seeking a weapons program. That conclusion could only be drawn if Iran actually tested a weapon; or if the IAEA or some other international body were lucky enough to discover some piece of incontrovertible documentary evidence, such as the UN Special Commission has only recently found in Iraq as regards that country's biological weapons program. And that evidence was not discovered through sleuthing or intrusive inspections - a regime I do not believe we will ever see in Iran. That evidence was voluntarily turned over by the Iraqis, in the wake of the defection of the former head of Iraq's WMD programs, Hussein Kamil.

At best, one can make a circumstantial case that Iran is procuring technology and building facilities that serve little other purpose than for nuclear weapons. At worst, the IAEA and and those countries eager to maintain lucrative trading relations with Iran will argue that the evidence is too thin to establish Iran's bad intentions beyond any reasonable doubt. They drew the same conclusion with Iraq in the 1980s, and look where that got us.

In other words, the Iranian 'legend" is not as flawed as some might think. So for those of us who believe it is important to prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear weapons capability, it will be a long, uphill struggle to convince Iran's suppliers of the dangers we believe to exist.

The Iranian program under the Shah

The former Shah of Iran embarked on a very ambitious nuclear program in the 1960s. He purchased a small research reactor from the United States, and sent several hundred students to the West to study nuclear physics and engineering. Starting in the mid-1970, he began signing contract with KWU of Germany and Alsthom in France to build four nuclear power reactors. As part of that power program, he advanced $1 billion to France's Framatome consortium to build the Tricastin gas diffusion uranium enrichment plant. The contract stipulated that Iran would get up to 10% of the production from that plant once it went on line.

Only one year after concluding these agreements, the Shah signed a follow-on MoU with France in 1975, to build a nuclear research center in Isfahan, complete with two research reactors. And by the end of the decade, he had devised a plan to build as many as twenty nuclear power stations across the country.

A contemporaneous analysis prepared by the Defense Intelligence Agency, made available to me by David Schwartzbach, who has recently returned to Princeton from the Natural Resources Defense Council, concluded that attempts to acquire "nuclear weapons would be consonant with Iran's strong nationalism and pretensions as an emerging third world power." The 1977 DIA report also stated that Iran hoped to have at least one reactor and a small French-built fuel reprocessing facility operatonal in Isfahan by 1980.

According to the DIA, therefore, the Shah had concluded that nuclear power and nuclear science would serve as an appropriate "legend" for a clandestine nuclear weapons program. Did the Shah also intend to build nuclear power reactors? Yes, indeed. Was the weapons program his sole ambition? We don't know, but it is unlikely. I would contend that Iran's massive purchase of conventional armaments in the 1960s and 1970s rendered nuclear weapons superfluous to Iran's basic security needs. Would the Shah have liked to develop nuclear weapons, in case the regional situation changed in his disfavor? Probably. Did he have a crash program to do so? Certainly not. The "legend" of nuclear power under the Shah made further sense when coupled to contemporary estimates of Iran's oil and gas reserves, which forecast significant depletion within 15-20 years.

The Islamic Revolutionaries who seized power in 1979 initially abandoned the Shah's nuclear program, both civilian and (presumed) military. They cancelled massive arms purchases from the United States, and industrial projects with France, Germany, and Japan. Ayatollah Khomeini publicly disdained Western science and technology, arguing that Iran should turn to "traditonal" Islamic values.

The bombing of Iraq's French-built Osirak reactor by Israeli F-16s in June 1981 must have come as a shock to the new government in Tehran. Locked in a war with Iraq, unable to obtain spare parts for its U.S.-built warplanes or its British-built tanks, Iran had a pressing need for conventional military supplies. It invested massive resources to procure spare parts and ammunition from alterate suppliers, and paid the exhorbitant mark-ups of the black and grey arms market. However, there is no evidence I am aware of suggesting at this time that the mullahs saw in the former Shah's nuclear program a military option that could have won the war with Iraq. Among other factors impeding a renewed nuclear effort at this time was the flight into exile of most of Iran's Western-trained nuclear scientists.

The first rumors that the Islamic Republic had begun to consider reinvigorating the nuclear program surfaced in 1984, when Iran approached Argentina to acquire highly-enriched uranium for its 5MW research reactor in Tehran and as a potential supplier for the Busheir nuclear power plant. (There were also rumors that year that "low level" nuclear cooperation had begun with North Korea). In April 1984, West German intelligence sources leaked reports to the press that Iran's clandestine nuclear weapons program was so far advanced that it would be capable of producing a bomb "within two years." Although these reports turned out to be greatly exaggerated, it was the first time a Western intelligence agency had aired suspicions that Iran had revived its nuclear weapons program. Meanwhile, a group of forty West German nuclear engineers visited the Gulf port of Busheir to investigate the possibility of completing at least one of the two unfinished reactors, at the personal insistence of the speaker of the Iranian Parliament, Hashemi Rafsanjani , who from the start has been the key figure pushing Iran's nuclear option To demonstrate its intentions to pursue nuclear technology, Iran opened the nuclear research institute at the University of Isfahan that same year. This site is today believed to have become one of the focal points of the clandestine nuclear weapons program. Iraq took the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapons program disguised behind a nuclear power program so seriously that on Feb. 15, 1985 it launched a bombing raid against the Busheir power plant, killing a German maintenance worker employed by KWU. Over the next two years, many additional raids on Busheir were to follow.

On November 6, 1985, the foreign edition of Tehran's Keyhan newspaper, published in London, ran a government ad inviting Iran's nuclear scientists to return home, all expenses paid, to attend a nuclear science and technology conference scheduled for March 14-19, 1986 at Busheir. A similar conference was held the following year, that was addressed by Hashemi-Rafsanjani.

In February 1986, Pakistan's top nuclear scientist, Dr. Abdel Qader Khan, secretly visited Busheir, adding fuel to suspicions of nuclear cooperation between Iran and Pakistan. He returned again to the site in January 1987 as a consultant to the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, to perform a study on the feasibility of using the Busheir reactors for plutonium production. Later in 1987, Pakistan signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Iran that involved the training of Iranian nuclear physicists at the Institute for Nuclear Sciences and Technology in Islamabad, and at the Nuclear Studies Institute in Nowlore.

According to an exiled Iranian nuclear physicist I interviewed during a 1987 investigation into Iran's nuclear weapons program, a top secret meeting was held in Tehran's Amir Kabir nuclear research center in January 1987, at which it was decided to allocate fresh funds toward developing an atomic device. The overall project was split up into different sections to handle raw materials, uranium enrichment, plutonium reprocessing, technology procurement, and weapons design for these alterate and parallel tracks to the bomb. The nuclear effort was presided over by Hashemi-Rafsanjani who, as Majlis speaker, was in a position to allocate discretionary funds for the project. Other key figures were Revolutionary Guards leader Mohsen Rafic-doust, Reza Amrollahi, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, and Mohsen Nourkhbash, a close advisor to Rafsanjani who became Finance Minister in 1989 and subsequently Governor of the Central Bank. Nourkhbash seems to be in charge of the overseas financial networks.

In a February 1987 address to Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, then President Ali Khamene'i stated: "Regarding atomic energy, we need it now... Our nation has always been threatened from outside. The least we can do to face this danger is to let our enemies know that we can defend ourselves. Therefore, every step you take here is in defense of your country and your evolution. With this in mind, you should work hard and at great speed."

It is significant to note that at this point, Iran was not insisting on the legend of nuclear power to cover its nuclear ambitions. I do not believe Khamene'i misspoke when he equated nuclear power with nuclear "defense". In fact, similar statements were made over the ensuing years by a number of other senior Iranian officials, which have never been denied by the government of Iran.

For instance, in an address to Pasdaran officers rebroadcast on Tehran radio on Oct. 6, 1988, Majlis speaker Hashemi-Rafsanjani said that the Iran-Iraq war had convinced Iran's leaders that "We should fully equip ourselves both in the offensive and defensive use of chemical, bacteriological, and radiological weapons."

The decision to go ahead came in 1988

If one might call the 1984-1988 period that of feasability studies, the Iranian leadership only appears to have made a firm decision to pursue nuclear options once the Iran-Iraq war was over. This was critical because the end of the war freed up scarce financial resources, but also because Iran was hoping it would lead to an end of the Western high-technology embargo against it. Equally important, it meant Iraq would no longer be able to bomb its nuclear facilities with impunity.

From here on out, the chronology of Iran's nuclear program becomes more dense, and I will only detail a few watershed events. What we will see, I believe, is that the closer Iran came to achieving its secret nuclear weapons ambitions, the more intense were its efforts to weave a convincing "legend" of nuclear power to disguise its true intentions. Because the weapons program was so broad-based, the power program had to be similarly ambitious. This doubling of the program, so the speak, has become an extremely costly proposition, and may turn out to be its fatal flaw.

Rogues stick together

Iran understood early on that its best sources of technology for a clandestine nuclear program were either countries with complacent export control authorities - such as Germany - or suppliers beyond the pale. This is why Iran turned early on to China, with whom Rafsanjani concluded a nuclear cooperation protocol as a sidebar to a major arms deal signed in June 1985.

The first equipment received from China was a subcritical "training reactor" installed later that year - without any pretention of a nuclear power program. In 1987, the Chinese supplied a small calutron used for the experimental separation of uranium isotopes. While this calutron was in itself too small to serve as a viable means of enriching uranium for weapons, it could have helped Iranian scientists to master to complex processes involved.

On Jan. 21, 1990, China and Iran signed a second nuclear cooperation agreement that is believed to have called for the construction of a 27 MW plutonium production reactor in Isfahan. U.S. satellite photographs documented the early stages of the reactor construction in September 1991, and triggered public concern in Washington over Chinese-Iranian nuclear cooperation. While there has been some confusion over whether this was a new 27 MW reactor, or a mistaken reference to a 27 KW miniature neutron source known to have been installed in Isfahan by China, the persistent intelligence community leaks to the press in late 1991 strongly suggest that we are talking about a new, and very troublesome reactor. It should be emphasized that Iran never declared any of the Chinese-built facilities at Isfahan to the IAEA prior to Feb. 1992, when the IAEA made its first so-called "challenge" inspection of suspect Iranian sites. I will be happy to elaborate further on the IAEA's role in sustaining Iran's nuclear "legend" during our discussion period. Suffice it to say, the IAEA has never found a smoking nuclear gun in Iran, and I seriously doubt it ever will. It has, however, maintained a robust program of nuclear cooperation with Iran, and has funded the transfer of laboratory uranium enrichment technology to Iran, just as it did to Iraq. (These IAEA-funded projects formed the basis of Iraq's calutron program, which we now know was Iraq's chosen method of building a nuclear arsenal).

Since 1988, Iran has publicly inaugurated more than fifteen new nuclear facilities. Here are just a few of them:

• 10 uranium mines in Yazd, Khorassan, Sistan va Baluchestan, and Hormozgan Provinces, and in Bandar e Abbas and Badar-e Lengeh along the Gulf. The Director of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, Reza Amrollahi, announced in 1989 that initial prospection had resulted in expected reserves in excess of 5,000 tons.

• the Karaj nuclear center, pegged as an agricultural and medical research center, inaugurated in 1991 by Vice President Hassan Habibi. . This center contains a small cyclotron purchased from Ion Beam Applications in Belgium in 1991 that was installed in 1993, and an additional Chinese-supplied calutron. These purchases have led French intelligence analysts to suspect the beginnings of uranium enrichment research at this facility..

• The Ibn Haytham Laboratory, inaugurated in 1992. This apparently belongs to a larger Laser Research Center, which produces Red helium neon lasers. Located in Tehran, this laboratory may include laser enrichment technology initially purchased from the U.S. in the late 1970s.

• The Bonab Atomic Energy Research Center, inaugurated in July 1995,. This facility was officially dedicated to "agricultural research" and "nuclear medecine." One Iranian press report refers to it as a "cyclotron center," which would imply an enrichment capability.

These facilities anda host of others, some confirmed, some not, show a dramatic increase of activity in recent years. Probably the most important of the known facilities is the Isfahan nuclear center, which is believed to have extensive underground components that have never been visited by the IAEA.

The Uranium cycle

Of paramount concern from a nonproliferation standpoint is mounting evidence that Iran has mastered the entire uranium cycle. Iran's delegate to the IAEA has repeatedly declared Iran's intention to pursue the uranium cycle, although few at the Agency have ever taken him seriously.

Iran began mining uranium, with help from Argentina, starting in 1989. Just prior to this, Iran had been secretly receiving "large quantities" of uranium concentrate from South Africa, according to Nucleonics Week. . In October, 1989, Iran announced plans to build a uranium milling plant near the Saghand uranium mine in Yazd province. Amrollahi subsequently told listeners to Tehran radio that the IAEO planned to open three "high bleaching projects." or milling plants.

In 1989, the Argentine National Institute for Applied Research, INVAP, signed an $18 million contract with Iran, to build a series of unsafeguarded facilities for processing uranium ore. According to U.S. officials familiar with the deal, INVAP intended to build a milling plant and a separate facility for fabricating nuclear fuel that could be used in a 27 MW research reactor purchased from China that same year. Spent fuel from the Chinese reactor could be reprocessed to obtain plutonium.

The Argentine government announced in Jan. 1992 that under U.S. pressure it was withdrawing from the agreement, although no mention was made of how much equipment had actually been shipped to build the plants. An Argentinean newspaper reported in 1994 that the Buenos Aires government intervened on Dec. 13 1991 to prevent a shipment of equipment bound for Iran's Atomic Energy Organization that was on board the Fathulkhair, an Iranian cargo vessel docking at an Argentine port. The equipment had been manufactured at Invap's plant in Bariloche, in Rio Negro Province, the paper said.

It is unclear whether all shipments of nuclear equipment to Iran from Argentina stopped in 1992.

The hex plant

Mining uranium and processing it into yellowcake are only the first steps toward a clandestine bomb. After that, the yellowcake must be transformed into uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6) and enriched to 93% purity, using gas ultracentrifuges.

U.S. officials now believe that China built Iran's "hex" plant as part of a secret nuclear cooperation agreement signed in 1991. China may also have picked up where the Argentineans left off in building the uranium milling plans. U.S. officials believe these agreements were discussed during an unusual two-day tour by Chinese Premier Li Peng of Iran's nuclear facilities on July 6-7, 1991.

By piecing together the details of a strange kidnap story, involving Chinese, Australian, and North Korean nuclear technicians, U.S. officials believe that the hex plant is known as the Rudan Nuclear Research Center and is located near the town of Fasa in the region of Shiraz.

Reports in the Russian press mentioned a shipment of uranium hexafluoride gas directly from China to Iran late last year. It is unclear whether the cargo actually contained UF6, or whether it contained equipment or chemicals needed for the Rudan hex plant, officials said.

These reports, coupled to a series of attempts to buy fluorification equipment from Britain and successful purchases of hydrogen fluoride (a fluorification agent) from Germany , are strong circumstantial evidence suggesting that Iran now has a uranium hexafluoride plant, and is actively making feedstock for a centrifuge enrichment program.

If this is the case, then Iran could be much closer to the bomb than previously thought - as little as two to three years away.

Smuggling rings

With abundant local supplies of uranium, unsafeguarded milling plants, and a secret plant to make UF6, Iran is still one important step short of obtaining weapons-grade fuel. It needs to enrich the uranium hexafluoride gas.

This is done by spinning the gas in high-speed centrifuges, which separate the uranium into its two naturally-occuring isotopes, much as cream is separated from milk at a dairy. The heavier isotope, U-238, clings to the walls of the centrifuge, while the fissile isotope, U-235, is siphoned off. This process is repeated tens of time until the concentration of U-235 reaches 93%, enough to sustain a chain reaction.

Export control officials in France and Germany said in interviews that they have broken up several attempts by Iranian intelligence agents over the past two to three years to purchase centrifuge enrichment equipment in Europe on the black market.

But some shipments are believed to have been smuggled to Iran through Hartenholm, Germany, a small private airport near Hamburg purchased by Iranian agents, which operated beyond German government control.

In November 1993, the German newsweekly Der Spiegel reported that Mehdi Kashani, a former Iranian Foreign Trade Minister, part-owner of the airport, had been arrested in Spain in 1992 for illegal arms purchases on behalf of the Iranian government. He was also being sought for attempts to purchase advanced electronics equipment in the United States.

Kashani is only one of a number of Iranians who operated such smuggling rings in Europe, the Far East, and the U.S.

Russian centrifuge plant

More recent news reports indicate the Iranians may have been able to purchase the centrifuge technology from Russia.

In an article that appeared in the Russian daily Izvestia on April 12, President Yeltsin's advisor for Ecological Affairs, Alexei Yablokov, revealed that part of the $800 million nuclear deal signed between Russia and Iran in January 1995 included a Russian offer to supply of a complete centrifuge enrichment plant.

This was confirmed when the complete text of the accord was published in May of this year by the Natural Resources Defence Council in Washington and by The Iran Brief.

Article 6 of the Jan. 8, 1995 protocol reads as follows:

"The Sides will commission their competent organizations to prepare and sign:

- in the course of three months, a contract for delivery of a light water reactor for research with a power of 30-50 MWt from Russia;

- in the course of the first quarter of 1995, a contract for the delivery of 2000 tonnes of natural uranium from Russia;

- in the course of the first quarter of 1995, a contract for the preparation/training for Organization of Atomic Energy of Iran scientific personnel, 10-20 (grad students and PhDs) annually, at Russian academic institutions;

- within a six month period of time, a contract for the construction of a uranium vault in Iran, after which negotiations will be conducted on the signing of a contract for the construction of a centrifuge plant for enrichment of uranium according to conditions, which are comparable with conditions of contracts concluded by Russian organizations with firms of third countries."

After intense U.S. criticism during the Moscow summit on May 10, 1995, President Yeltsin appeared to acknowledge that the agreement with Iran contained nuclear military technology and material. "The contract was concluded legitimately and in accordance with international law and no international treaties were violated in the process," Yeltsin said. "But it is true that the contract does contain components of civilian and military nuclear energy. [...] Now we have agreed to separate those two. In as much as they relate to the military component and the potential for creating weapons grade fuel and other matters - the centrifuge, the construction of shafts - we have decided to exclude those aspects from the contract. So the military component falls away and what remains is just a civilian nuclear power station with light water reactors, which are designed to provide heat and power."

That is about the clearest statement I know that defines Iran's nuclear intentions. It also goes a long way to explaining why the U.S. government has such deep problems with the Russian-Iranian nuclear deal. As a legend, it is becoming less and less convincing - especially given the tardiness with which the Iranian regime turned to nuclear power as an explanation for its burgeoning nuclear activity.

Can Iran pay the price?

In an interview with the New York Times recently, IAEO Chairma Reza Amrollahi claimed than Iran now intended to build 10 nuclear power plants - an ambition reminiscent of the Shah's nuclear power program. Obviously, he pointed to the Busheir reactors, and reference is now being made to two other reactor sites, in Gorgan and in Ahwaz.

The price tag for the reactors at these three sites could reach well over $12 billion, and it is unclear where Iran intends to get the money to pay for them. But what is clear is that Iran is using the legend of nuclear power to disguise an ongoing, well-developed program to enrich natural uranium and perhaps to obtain plutonium from spent power reactor fuel.

If one follows this reasoning, it becomes clear why China announced to the U.S. at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 27, 1995, that it intended to cancel the Ahwaz reactor deals with Iran. China never believed that Iran could pay for the plants. It also feared it might fail to meet its obligations to deliver the reactors to Iran, since they required German and French-supplied control equipment which those countries have pledged not to deliver to Iran.

If Iran's primary concern is power generation, then it would be better served by building natural gas or hydroelectric plants, as two recent studies argue. And if it still insists on building nuclear power plants, there is no need to go to the expense of building controversial facilities for milling, processing, and enriching natural uranium to weapons grade. Nor is there a need to send hundreds of scientists and technicians to Russia, China, and Pakistan for training in nuclear physics, or for the nuclear procurement teams that have been scouring many of the republics of the former Soviet Union, including Belorus and, most recently, Ukraine.

In its reporting on the Sept. 14, 1995 summit in Kiev between Israeli Prime Minister Yitshak Rabin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kucha, the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot quotes Kuchma as reassuring Rabin that Ukraine does not cooperate with Iran in any area that might harm Israel. "We need oil from Iran because Russia is strangling us," Kucha reportedly told Rabin. "We have no intention of responding to the repeated requests by the Iranians to share with them know-how on nuclear weapons, or to sell them any equipiment in this field."

Finally, what is perhaps most revealing is Iran's recent insistence and amplification of the legend of nuclear power. When Iran began calling its nuclear exiles home in late 1985, certainly it evoked the reconstruction of the Busheir power plant. But there were no plans on the table at that time to build a complete uranium fuel cycle, nor to build 10 or even 20 power plants. The plan was basically to recoup a $5 billion investment that was going to waste, by investing another $600 to $800 million.

If Iran's goal had been to rebuild the Busheir plant, it could have signed an agreement with Russia years ago and have virtually completed the work by now. But this was never Iran's primary interest. I would argue that the facts I have laid out in the above presentation make a powerful case that nuclear power is the myth in today's Iran, while nuclear weapons are the core reality.