Iran’s nuclear program



Howard Adelman

I am going to have lunch today with an Israeli expert on Iran. From my collected files on the subject, I prepared the following notes in preparation. I suspect that he will focus more on the geo-politics of the region and Iran’s alliances with the Assad regime. Hezbollah and Hamas, but I have focused on Iran’s nuclear program — the technological developments that will put Iran in a position to produce weapons grade enriched uranium and the diplomatic, economic sanctions and sabotage efforts to prevent this from happening. The UN economic sanctions are applicable to “a person engaged in activities that directly or indirectly facilitate, support, provide funding for, contribute to, or could contribute to, Iran’s proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities, or to Iran’s activities related to the development of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons of mass destruction or delivery systems for such weapons, including when the person is an entity, a senior official of the entity.”

As many will recall, in September of last year, at the height of the presidential election campaign, Barack Obama rebuffed Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to get the United States to announce a red line that if Iran crossed, the USA would resort to the use of military means to destroy Iran’s nuclear program. Last week, on 7 March, Obama reiterated that he is working the diplomatic channel to resolve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program, but other options remain on the table. Obama promised to issue a clear and direct challenge to Iran during his forthcoming Middle East trip. Clearly, the Iran file is critical to foreign affairs generally, to Israel’s security and as a bargaining chip between the USA and Israel to gain traction on the Israel-Palestine file.

I hope you find the notes helpful. Excuse the absence of quotes; these are notes and not meant for publication. A map prepared by BBC (…rid-middle-east-17115643) may also be helpful for orientation but I was unable to reproduce it in this version of the blog.

1. Technological Developments

Though the issue is discussed under Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Iran does not yet have such a program. However, Iran has a uranium enrichment program that seems designed to produce enough enriched uranium to produce nuclear weapons. A full program would involve making the bomb as well as the delivery system for such a bomb. Iran has demonstrably had a rocket program development that could be used for such purposes. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has also identified that Iran is developing a nuclear payload for a missile relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device. However, most of what is labelled as a nuclear arms program is more accurately discussed as a weapons-grade uranium enrichment program.

On the latter program, the information comes largely from IAEA. Even the information on the Parchin military facility comes largely from IAEA though IAEA has not been permitted to inspect that facility just outside Tehran. According to Associated Press reports last week, two diplomats told AP that satellite images show trucks and earth-moving vehicles indicating that crews were trying to clean up traces from possibly testing a small neutron trigger, a so-called neutron initiator, used to set off a nuclear explosion.

In 2000, according to IAEA, Iran constructed at Parchin a large explosives containment vessel to conduct hydrodynamic experiments which are strong indicators of possible nuclear weapon development, but its location was only identified in March 2011. Since the Agency’s first request for access to this location in January 2012, satellite imagery showed that extensive activities and resultant changes have taken place – reinstatement of wall panels and exhaust piping, alterations to the roofs of the chamber building, dismantlement and reconstruction of the annex, construction of one small building at the same place where a building of similar size had previously been demolished, spreading, levelling and compacting of another layer of material over a large area – but Iran never granted the Agency access to the site in spite of repeated requests. If the Agency does gain access in the near future, its ability to conduct effective verification will have been seriously undermined.

It should be noted that, under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, there is a loophole; Iran is not obliged to allow IAEA inspectors to inspect its military areas. Ali Asghar Soltani, Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, has insisted that his country does not rule out inspections of such sites, but insists on imposing conditions, including ‘receiving a clean bill of health’ and not permitting follow-up visits. In addition to IAEA reports, information has also come from intelligence leaked deliberately by Israel and the USA as well as satellite imagery.

David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security on 7 March 2013 made the following claims:

· Though the U.N Security Council resolutions sanction goods that Iran could use in its gas centrifuge program, Iran has made strenuous efforts through Jahan Tech Rooyan Pars Company (sanctioned by the Government of Canada[1]) to purchase 100,000 ceramic ring magnets for the IR-1 gas centrifuge (and not for loudspeakers or other double use purposes).

IR-1 Enquiry Match
Inner diameter Exact to all four digits given
Thickness Exact to all four digits given
Outer diameter mn.op mn.qr Exact to two digits, differ slightly in digits op and qr

· The dimensions of the magnets being sought make clear that their use would be for upgrading the centrifuges.

· 5,000 centrifuges were installed last year for a total of 15,800 centrifuges, 2,000 at the deeply buried Fordo enrichment site

· Early in 2012, 6,000 empty IR-1 centrifuge outer casings were installed at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant

· As of early 2013, over 3,000 IR-1 centrifuge rotor assemblies were installed in the above outer casings, 2,255 in the last three months

What can one conclude? Only a tautology – Iran has rapidly expanded the number of installed IR-1 centrifuges. However, Iran is not prohibited by international agreement from building nuclear plants for peaceful energy production, so upgrading and expanding its centrifuges are not in themselves problems.

On 21 February 2013, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its latest report on the implementation of NPT safeguards in Iran and the status of Iran’s compliance with Security Council resolutions. In addition to documenting that almost all of the cascades at Fordo near the holy city of Qom are now vacuum tested and likely ready for enrichment, there has been a substantial increase in the number of installed IR-1 centrifuges at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) at a faster rate than expected. New IR-2m advanced centrifuges are now being installed at Natanz.

Nevertheless the number of cascades producing near 20 percent low enriched uranium (LEU) needed for weapons grade uranium has remained constant and Iran has not yet reached the threshold where it can have produced enough 20 percent low enriched uranium hexafluoride for one nuclear weapon, if further enriched to weapon-grade. 250 kilograms of near 20 percent low enriched uranium hexafluoride is needed for one nuclear weapon. Iran now has about 167 kilograms. The IAEA also determined that Iran continues to convert near 20 percent LEU hexafluoride to oxide form. Iran itself said that between 2 December 2012, when it resumed conversion activities, and 11 February 2013, 28.3 kg of UF6 were enriched up to 20% U-235 and 12 kg of uranium were produced in the form of U3 bringing the total amount of UF6 enriched up to 20% U-235 which had been fed into the conversion process to 111 kg and the total amount of uranium in the form of U3 which had been produced to 50 kg. The difference between the figures supplied by Iran and those of independent experts is minor and suggests that Iran is already two-thirds of the way to having enough enriched uranium for an atomic weapon.

Iran has continued construction of the IR-40 Arak reactor that is already far more than a medical isotope production reactor and could be used to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons in violation of UNSC resolutions. It is expected to commence operations in the first quarter of 2014. Iran has not provided the IAEA with an updated DIQ for the IR-40 Reactor since 2006. The lack of up-to-date information had an adverse impact on the Agency’s ability to effectively verify the design of the facility and to implement an effective safeguards approach.

2. Sabotage Counter-measures

In late 2007, the malware Stuxnet was used at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) in late 2007 to attack a cascade of 164 IR-1 centrifuges at a time that Iran was setting up and operating its first module of about 2,952 IR-1 centrifuges. The malware takes over the monitoring without the knowledge of the operator and closed the valves of six of 18 cascades in one module, or about 110 centrifuges. (See ISIS, "Basic Attack Strategy of Stuxnet 0.5", 28 February 2013). The most likely valves closed were the three fast acting valves on the three thin pipes for feed, product, and waste (or tails) that pass through the top cap of an IR-1 centrifuge.

The three fast-acting electronically-controlled valves are part of an emergency response system of the cascade aimed at protecting the remaining centrifuges in the cascade from the effects of a crashing centrifuge. If a centrifuge crashes, or there is an imminent risk of one crashing, the computer monitoring system closes the valves of the affected centrifuge rapidly, effectively isolating it. The kinetic energy of a rotating centrifuge is huge. Because this energy is converted mainly into heat, a crashing centrifuge produces a large pulse of hot uranium hexafluoride gas and other gases that must be contained. Otherwise, this pulse travels down the cascade, taking out additional centrifuges in its path. Thus, the emergency system is designed to act within milliseconds in the event of an anticipated crash and isolate the centrifuge from the cascade.

The Natanz cascade emergency response system appears to rely principally on a vibration sensor, an accelerometer, on each centrifuge. Many pressure transducers are also in each cascade to measure pressure, but the most important sensor to detect crashing appears to be the accelerometer. This sensor sends a shut-off signal to the computer monitoring system if the vibration level exceeds a certain, dangerous value. An increase in the feed rate by four to five times would likely cause an increase in the wall pressure to near or above the condensation point of uranium hexafluoride. Any condensation could cause the centrifuge to crash. The initial attack was subsequently replaced by a strategy directed at the frequency converters, causing the rotors to speed up to the point of rotor material failure — suggesting a plan to destroy more centrifuges than this initial attack strategy.

What was the result? Starting in late 2008 and continuing into early 2009, the average enrichment output decreased sharply, before rising again. This could imply many centrifuges crashing but not being reflected in the total number of enriching centrifuges stated by the IAEA in its reports. The damage from the second attack strategy was more systematic, destroying most of the centrifuges in each cascade. Iranians would remove many centrifuges at one time; the IAEA would record this removal. In the end, the crashed centrifuges did not affect the average enrichment output although it likely slowed down the rate of acceleration of the program.

The rumours of a successful sabotage or an accidental series of explosions at the Fordo Fuel Enrichment Plant near the Iranian city of Qom in January were proven to be highly unlikely based on an analysis of satellite imagery. (See David Albright, Robert Avagyan and Andrea Stricker, Day after Alleged Sabotage at Fordo: Hardly the Expected Emergency Response, ISIS, 30 January 2013)

3. Diplomacy

After several days after the resumption of diplomatic talks this month between Iran and the U.N. Security Council’s permanent five members, the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia, plus Germany (Pf+1), diplomats emerged and, unusually, expressed cautious optimism. In the effort to stop Iran from enriching uranium to 20 percent, technical experts will meet in Istanbul later this week on 18 March and the diplomatic discussions will resume in Almaty, Kazakhstan on 5-6 April to discuss putting in place confidence-building measures, specifically the P5 +1 offer to reduce some sanctions on Iran in exchange for Iran scaling back its nuclear program and shutting down Iran’s underground Fordo enrichment plant. Iran’s foreign minister expressed confidence that an agreement could be reached and Jalili, Iran’s chief negotiator, claimed the Almaty meeting could be a "turning point".

4. Sanctions

As diplomatic talks continue, the U.S. is upping the ante as U.S. lawmakers plan to table a bill tomorrow on 13 March to expand sanctions that already bar habitual commercial relations, choke off Tehran’s principal source of currency from the export of oil, and deny insurance, thwarting Iran’s ability to transport goods. The sanctions are crippling Iran’s economy, but are they undermining support for the regime?

Even though the US has been leading this program, it is a UN program to implement Security Council resolutions on the Islamic Republic of Iran (Iran) based on the Agreement between Iran and the Agency for the Application of Safeguards in Connection with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (INFCIRC/214), which entered into force on 15 May 1974. Between 2003 and 2013, the Security Council passed 12 resolutions directed at Iran. For example, resolution 1929 (2010) affirmed that Iran shall, without further delay, take the steps required by the Board in GOV/2006/14 and GOV/2009/82 to cooperate fully with the IAEA on all outstanding issues, particularly those which give rise to concerns about the possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear programme and that Iran shall, without delay, comply fully and without qualification with its Safeguards. Iran is required to implement its binding obligations to establish international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.

The Secretariat repeatedly reported that it has not been possible to reach agreement with Iran on the structured approach or to begin substantive work on the outstanding issues, including those related to possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme. Certain of the activities being undertaken by Iran at some of the facilities are contrary to the relevant resolutions of the Board of Governors of IAEA and the Security Council. Iran has not suspended its enrichment related activities. Iran has stated that the purpose of enriching UF6 up to 5% U-235 is the production of fuel for its nuclear facilities and that the purpose of enriching UF6 up to 20% U-235 is the manufacture of fuel for research reactors.


Yesterday it was reported that German and Turkish security forces broke up a network trying to obtain uranium refinement parts for Iran’s upgraded Arak reactor which satellite imagery showed has been operational for at least two weeks. Iran has not provided the necessary cooperation. IAEA is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and, therefore, to allow anyone to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is for peaceful activities. The Director General was unable to report any progress on the clarification of outstanding issues, including those relating to possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program. The Washington Post on 6 March 2013 quoted a senior U.S. envoy accusing Iran of "deception, defiance and delay". As The Wall Street Journal stated yesterday, we are nearing the crucial turning point on the nuclear talks with Iran. Unless the talks yield substantial results soon, the military option will be the only one left on the table. Last week French President Francois Hollande at a meeting with President Shimon Peres of Israel said a nuclear-armed Iran was a threat not only to Israel, but to the whole world. However, at five minutes to midnight, he was still calling just for increased diplomatic efforts by the international community to resolve the standoff with Tehran over its unchecked uranium enrichment.