Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Origins of Iran's Nuclear Program

Thanks to the recent appearance of Benjamin Netanyahu in Congress, the issue of Iran's nuclear program and the current P5+1 discussions have made the headlines.  In this posting, I want to look at the origins of Iran's nuclear program and how the United States was involved.

Iran's first nuclear reactor was supplied by the United States in 1967.  Back then, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, better known to the West as the Shah of Iran, was a staunch ally of the United States.  In case you've forgotten history, it was a United States coup d'etat that brought the Shah into power after democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, who nationalized the country's oil industry, was deposed.

Here is an aerial photograph of the Tehran Research Reactor:

The five megawatt light water Tehran Research Reactor was designed to operate on uranium that is enriched to 90 percent (weapons-grade or highly enriched uranium), 5.58 kilograms of which was also supplied by the United States.   The reactor is capable of producing up to 600 grams of plutonium annually.   After the revolution in 1979, the United States cut off the supply of replacement nuclear fuel, forcing Iran to look elsewhere for fuel.  In 1987, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran paid Argentina's Applied Research Institute $5.5 million to convert the reactor to use uranium that was enriched to slightly less than 20 percent, a level just below the lower limit for highly enriched uranium (HEU) and the reactor has been operating with low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel since 1993.  Of the original fuel suppled by the United States, approximately 7 kilograms of HEU remains stored at the reactor site.  It is believed that Iran used this reactor to conduct its early efforts to develop nuclear weapons.  Iran used the Tehran Research Reactor to irradiate uranium oxide, separate plutonium and produce small amounts of polonium-210 in the early 1990s.  Polonium 201 is often used in a beryllium-polonium initiator that starts the chain reaction in a nuclear weapon.  The production of these radioactive products was completed without notifying the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  Iran claims that the polonium was produced as part of a study into the production of neutron sources for use in radioisotope thermoelectric generator and that it was not produced as part of its nuclear weapons program.

On May 17, 2010, Iran, Turkey and Brazil signed the joint Tehran Nuclear Declaration in which the parties agreed that Iran would deposit 1200 kilograms of 3.5 percent  LEU with Turkey as part of a deal which would see the United States, Russia, France and the IAEA (aka the Vienna Group) swap Iran's LEU for 120 kilograms of 20 percent LEU to be used in the TRR.    The 1200 kilograms of 3.5 percent fuel was to be sent to Turkey for safekeeping where it would remain the property of Iran as shown here:

"5. Based on the above, in order to facilitate the nuclear cooperation mentioned above, the Islamic Republic of Iran agrees to deposit 1200 kg LEU in Turkey. While in Turkey this LEU will continue to be the property of Iran. Iran and the IAEA may station observers to monitor the safekeeping of the LEU in Turkey.

6. Iran will notify the IAEA in writing through official channels of its agreement with the above within seven days following the date of this declaration. Upon the positive response of the Vienna Group (US, Russia, France and the IAEA) further details of the exchange will be elaborated through a written agreement and proper arrangement between Iran and the Vienna Group that specifically committed themselves to deliver 120 kg of fuel needed for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR).

7. When the Vienna Group declares its commitment to this provision, then both parties would commit themselves to the implemention of the agreement mentioned in item 6. Islamic Republic of Iran expressed its readiness to deposit its LEU (1200 kg) within one month. On the basis of the same agreement the Vienna Group should deliver 120 kg fuel required for TRR in no later than one year.

8. In case the provisions of this Declaration are not respected Turkey, upon the request of Iran, will return swiftly and unconditionally Iran's LEU to Iran."

This agreement was originally proposed in October 2009 as a measure that would temporarily remove Iran's capability to produce weapons grade product.  By the time that the deal was finalized, the 1200 kilogram was not enough; it was believed that by May 2010, Iran's stockpile of LEU could have been as high 2300 kilograms, however, that was not the point of the deal.  On top of that, the requirement that the fuel swap take place within one year was problematic since France's fuel fabricator stated that it would take two years to make 120 kilograms of 20 percent LEU.

By July 2010, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization announced that Iran was intending to produce 120 kilograms of 19.75 percent uranium by September 2011 for use in the Tehran Research Reactor.  A report by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) examined Iran's production of 19.75 percent uranium and estimated that Iran would need between 125 kilograms and 210 kilograms of 19.75 percent uranium to further enrich up to weapons-grade uranium in sufficient quantities that would be required by a nuclear weapon.  The group also estimated that it would take Iran a very short period of time to enrich 19.75 percent uranium to the 90 percent level required for a nuclear weapon.

The deal was dismissed by both the United States and Israel, largely because the deal did not include a demand on Iran that they cease enriching uranium.  The United States went on to put further sanctions on Iran, killing any hope of a successful deal.

Let's close with this quote from Peter Jenkins, former United Kingdom Permanent Representative for the International Atomic Energy Administration between 2001 and 2006:
"Since 1992, both leading Israeli parties have strived to convince Washington of Israel’s value to the US as an ally in a post-Cold War Middle East. For these Israelis, Iran’s nuclear programme has been manna from heaven—just what’s needed to persuade Americans that Iran is an evil state bent on destroying Israel, and that Iran’s programme, if left unchecked, will precipitate nuclear proliferation in an unstable region.

US neoconservatives, in thrall to dreams of reshaping the Middle East, have provided a ready echo chamber for these (highly questionable) propositions. These constituencies, Israeli and American, have no interest in the normalisation of the Iranian nuclear case through an NPT deal."

It is interesting to look back decades to see what a tangled diplomatic web has been woven when it comes to Iran and its nuclear program.

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