Iran’s Nuclear Relations
Oil, or Black Gold as it is commonly referred to, is one of the most sought after resources in the global system, if not the resource to own. It has been a dominant factor for conflicts in the Middle East, a major political agenda of any nation vying for economic strength. Oil has been the catalyst of foreign dignitaries to create alliances between nations and to foster good relations. Historically, oil has been playing a major role in foreign policy since World War II, were the dependence on this invaluable resource quickly became realized. It was the lack of oil that forced the rolling armies of Germany to stumble and come to a halt, as the access to fuel became impossible. Allied armies, navies and air forces had the help and support of the Texan oil fields to fuel its aggressive counter-intervention across Europe and Africa, and essentially against the dominant Japanese forces in the Pacific. The ultimate dependence on oil became increasingly aware following the years of World War II, and the creation of alliances with oil-rich states became a staple of foreign policy of many states. Not every nation had the access to it and capability to control global flows like the United States did, so Middle Eastern nations quickly became an important friend to most of the Western nations. The Middle East, predominantly Saudi Arabia, used these new alliances to create an unimaginable wealth based entirely on the oil revenues and is still today an important factor in this sector, and Syria, Kuwait, Iraq and Iran, among other, quickly followed suit. It was during this time that the United States used the knowledge and capacity of nuclear scientists to look for alternative fuel possibilities.
The power of nuclear fission was well known at this time and the ability to harness the awesome power to fuel American cities was of great importance. The quest for nuclear fuel also struck other nations and eventually spread to the Middle East and in turn to Iran. In the 1950s, the dream became a reality, when President Eisenhower started the “Atoms for Peace” Program to spur on nuclear energy at home and abroad. Iran and Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi were enthralled by the idea of this program and quickly became a part of it, making deals with the United States and other countries to begin research in the nuclear field. This was the beginning of how Iran came onto nuclear power and shaped US-Iranian policy. Over time, this relationship turned sour and fast-forward to today’s world of politics, Iran has possibly become enemy number one, with accusations of proliferation of nuclear weapons, theocratic Islamist regime and hate-filled speeches by current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The nuclear issue has become an important topic over the last couple of months and is the focus of this paper. It will be important to look at how the relations to Iran have changed over time and what the possible threats are. The newly published report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will be a major focus as the assessment of the Iranian nuclear sector has changed the entire playing field regarding Iran and its role in the Middle East, and will affect policies yet to come. The history surrounding the United States and Iran relations that affect this important topic, as stated above, began under the Eisenhower administration. The “Atoms for Peace” was a program used to spread research and information in the field of nuclear physics to institutions around the world. It was under this program that Iran received its first insight into nuclear power. On March 5, 1957, the first deal between the United States and Iran was fostered and “was intended to open doors for U.S. investment in Iran’s civilian nuclear industries, such as health care and medicine. The plan also called for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to lease Iran up to 13.2 pounds of low-enriched uranium (LEU) for research purposes.” (Bruno) This was a so-called jump start for the Iranian nuclear program and had the most peaceful intentions that can be applied. Bruno states that the Shah then created the Tehran Nuclear Research Center and quickly brokered a deal with the United States for the construction of a five-megawatt reactor. Throughout the 1960s, the two countries enjoyed peaceful relations and Iran gladly received assistance for the development of nuclear energy. It was at this time that the “Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons” was designed to help calm the Cold War situation between the US and Soviet Union. Iran became a signatory on its opening day July 1, 1968, agreeing to its tenets of not pursuing militarization of nuclear capabilities, among other things. The IAEA followed suit with its Safeguards Agreement and Iran quickly became a member as well. The Council on Foreign Relations states the following on these safeguards:
“Areas covered include the application and implementation of safeguards, materials control, provision of information to the IAEA, and the non-application of safeguards to nuclear material to be used in non-peaceful activities.” (CFR)
The combination of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Safeguards Agreement provided for a peaceful means of nuclear application. With Iran signing both of these, further doors opened for investment opportunities and Germany and France joined the United States in providing assistance to Iran. Bruno argues that “Regional wars and predictions of a looming energy shortfall prompted the shah to explore alternative forms of power production.” With the help of Germany’s Kraftwerk Union and the French Framatome, Iran was promised contracts for the construction of nuclear plants and continued supply of nuclear fuel.
While 1974 may have been the key moment in relations to the West, it instead became the year of roadblocks and disappointments. It all began with a US special intelligence estimate in August of 1974, stating that while “Iran’s much publicized nuclear power intentions are entirely in the planning stage, the ambitions of the shah could lead Iran to pursue nuclear weapons…” (Bruno) This accusation led the West to slowly pull investment plans out of Iran. France was pressured by other Western governments to renege on its deal to construct two reactors and Germany backed out of its construction deals by 1975. The background to this move instigated by the United States was the fact that India was successful in its nuclear tests in May of 1974 and it was believed that Iran would be motivated to compete. Now that Iran was without assistance from Western nations, it looked elsewhere for support and it was quickly found in Argentina, China and Russia. These moves were quickly blocked by Washington, forcing Iran to disclose as little information on its advances in the nuclear field. This was seen as a clear violation of the Safeguards Agreement and thus began the quick downward spiral of relations toward the West.
The well-known Islamic Revolution of 1979 not only brought a highly Islamic government into the global order, but anti-Western views instigated by the new Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Relations with the United States were strained already, and then on November 4, 1979 came the final straw to US policy. The US Embassy in Tehran was overrun by angry mobs and while some were released early on, 50 hostages remained under Iranian force. The crisis lasted for 444 days until January 20, 1981 and Yergin states that “…Khomeini and his immediate circle had some idea of the planned assault and even encouraged it.” While the crisis ended relatively peacefully, it set the pace for the next decades of US-Iran relations. As a retaliation, and obvious stunned move, the United States closed its embassy in Tehran and closed diplomatic relations. Any further relations between the two governments, as is still the case today, are done through a Swiss envoy.
The Islamic Revolution gave a huge boost of morale to the population but then followed the Iran-Iraq War, raging from 1980 until 1988. It was a major blow to Iranian confidence as it ended in a stalemate, or as John Calabrese put it, an “imposed peace”. Animosity between the two countries can still be felt today in Iran’s foreign policy. Relations between Iran and the US at the time of war was surprisingly pleasant but turned out to be deceiving. When the Iran-Contra affair under Reagan became public, it became known that the US was selling weapons to Iraq and Iran simultaneously. The war itself helped push for the need for a more prominent military force, which was to be revived in the years following the war.
Following the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the anti-Western sentiment did not end and while the nuclear programs were placed in the background of international policy, it was quickly revived. The new Ayatollah, Ali Khamenei, took proactive steps in reviving the nuclear program crushed by Western influence. Known Pakistani nuclear scientist AQ Khan was involved in this process starting in 1985 and original plans with German and French firms were replaced with promises of Russian deals by 1995. “Analysts also believe the discovery of Iraq’s clandestine nuclear weapons program during the 1991 Gulf War, as well as a growing U.S. presence in the region, pushed Tehran to ramp up its research.” (Bruno) With outside help, most prominently from Russia, China, Pakistan and North Korea, Iran was able to revitalize its nuclear program and constructed several reactors and research institutes. Bruno points to many experts voicing their opinions in the development of the nuclear research and argues that Iran has developed “a vast network of uranium mines, enrichment plants, conversion sites, and research reactors.” Several intelligence reports point to centrifuges used in the uranium enrichment process being installed at various locations, and even the holy city of Qom is believed to house as many as 3,000 centrifuges. Bruno argues, echoing expert opinions, that while the extent of machines could be used for civilian purposes, it is too small and points towards a possible military effort. Further, the Isfahan Nuclear Technology Center is suspected of housing Iran’s weapons program and further facilities at Natanz are operated by Pakistani centrifuges. Many of these facilities are pointed out in the newly published report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, but more detailed information on that will follow below.
While Iran continues to argue that its nuclear facilities are for civilian and research purposes only, Western analysts and experts are stating the opposite. With some information stated above, experts are arguing that Iran could achieve proliferation of nuclear weapons in the near future. One of these experts is the President of the Institute for Science and International Security, David Albright. He argued in Bruno’s article from 2010 that enough weapons-grade uranium could be achieved within a couple of months. A quick overview of the weaponization process is offered by Bruno:
“Natural uranium contains 0.7 percent of the uranium-235 isotope, and generally, light-water power reactors require enrichment levels of 3 percent to 5 percent (levels of low-enriched uranium, or LEU). Weapons-grade uranium–also known as highly-enriched uranium, or HEU–is around 90 percent (technically, HEU is any concentration over 20 percent, but weapons-grade levels are described as being in excess of 90 percent). According to the IAEA, Iran is capable of enriching to about 4.7 percent.”
Through this process and recent reports, Iran could use its enrichment facilities to produce enough low-enriched uranium to start tests. Albright states that with 2.77kg of the Low-Enriched Uranium being produced, the necessary amount of 25kg for a small bomb could be achieved in several months. The problem that exists with the known information is that Iran itself has rarely offered information regarding its nuclear program, so intelligence agencies have acquired information through different channels. It was through this process, among other, that the IAEA was able to create the report published on November 8 of this year. The report, titled “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran”, gives a very detailed outline of the weapons program, conventional and possible nuclear dimensions. In the interest of time, however, this paper will outline only the most important aspects and will offer an analysis with the support of Anthony Cordesman’s opinions. Cordesman is an expert on Iran and is Strategy Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
As noted above, Iran rarely discloses information on its nuclear program, so the IAEA and intelligence agencies of member states have used other means to come to the conclusions stated in the report. However, it is very important to keep in mind, and this is often reiterated by the IAEA in the report, that many of the techniques and applications used by Iran in its nuclear research have purposes for civilian, conventional military as well as nuclear uses. With Iran keeping much of its information close by, the authorities on this matter have had to come to conclusions through other means. The IAEA had used satellite imagery to analyze facilities and intelligence reports on procurement information, travel information by certain individuals, financial records, health and safety arrangements and documents demonstrating manufacturing techniques for certain high explosive components. Some notable information that was disclosed by Iran however, has generally been treated as troublesome. Iran has announced constructions on a further 10 new uranium enrichment facilities and continued construction on the heavy water related projects, such as the heavy water plant called IR-40. The IR-40 is located at Arak and has been under IAEA Safeguards for some time, and is expected to go into operation at the end of 2013.
While these are obvious violations of the Safeguards Agreement, which was to provide disclosure over procurement activities, Iran has also continued to not allow IAEA scientists and investigators in to look into the program and its activities. Evidence has been made available that states to even more violations of the agreement and NPT itself, as proliferation attempts date back to before 2003, and go back to time periods in the 1970s, 80s and through to the 2000s. One of the most important centers, the Physics Research Center was in charge of nuclear defense and led the AMAD Plan. This plan was involved with green-salt projects, used for providing a source of uranium suitable for the use in an undisclosed enrichment program. Missile re-entry programs intended for the Shahab-3 missiles were also led by the AMAD Plan. Interestingly enough, this plan was aborted in 2003, as the United States became more active in the Middle East preparing for the invasion in Iraq. With the US presence so close to home, it became important to not give the US an incentive to become more active in Iranian affairs. It was at this time that Tehran changed gear in light of the Iraq situation, and insisted on active neutrality towards the US. This entailed “preference for a political situation to the crisis, focus on disarmament, and commitment to a multilateral approach.” (Calabrese) Iran quickly became engaged in regional politics to attempt to avert the Iraq War, supporting Saudi and regional initiatives, and Calabrese also points towards an attempt to engage the international order. Tehran became involved with Security Council members that were against the US-invasion, with a possible second motivation. While Iran was deeply concerned with the possible flow of refugees towards its borders, these consultations with foreign powers were a way to “[build] political capital to head off possible future US action against Iran, and winning sympathy and support for Iran for having been a victim of Saddam’s sting.” (Calabrese)
As the invasion of Iraq was underway, Iran had to decrease its activities, but it was reported that the accomplishments achieved under the AMAD Plan were later continued under the Section for Advanced Development Applications and Technologies (SADAT). The report states that this undertaking used cover companies to hide real procurement purposes and activities. Even though much of this information is overwhelming and the applications are of multipurpose, one intelligence report quickly became controversial.
The “Alleged Studies Document” was provided to the IAEA by an undisclosed member state in 2005 and offered information on the already mentioned green-salt project and missile re-entry programs. It also provided significant information about high explosive testing and most importantly, the use of a clandestine nuclear supply network. This network involved a wide range of nations, including Libya, which through this means obtained information regarding nuclear components for explosive devices. The document also uncovered reports that Iran had covertly built a Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP), Pilot FEP at Natanz, and a Fordow FEP near Qom and as mentioned above, created concerns over possible underground facilities. The IAEA report goes on explaining that Iran has the technology to convert High-Enriched Uranium into components for use as a nuclear core. Such necessary reconversion facilities have been found, yet further details are still pending. Evidence of detonator development for use in high explosive devices, initiation of said devices and associated experiments have also been uncovered. Exploding Bridgewire Explosives, as the IAEA states, are rarely used for non-nuclear applications, yet Iran stands strong for their use in civilian and conventional military purposes. A Parchin facility was investigated by the Agency and is believed to house hydrodynamic experiments, used to simulate theoretical implosion devices using surrogate elements. While no clear-cut evidence was found, this would be a strong indicator for nuclear weapons development. Further experiments involved environmental testing, using model simulation studies and stress tests to examine levels of stress put on missiles during launch and trajectory flights, and IAEA investigators were denied access to a prototype missile. As before, the Agency stresses that all of the mentioned research sectors have non-nuclear applications, but point towards nuclear weapons development. It will not be until Iran fully opens up its facilities for investigators from the International Atomic Energy Agency that there will be complete information on these programs. Until then, reports are based on intelligence efforts of member states and assumptions over the intention of Iranian experiments.
Cordesman uses his expertise to analyze the missile capabilities of Iran and how these capabilities tie in with the possible dimensions over a nuclear weapons program. It is widely known that Iran has a huge arsenal at hand, and many of its ballistic missiles are aimed at Israel. Cordesman goes on to explain that most of the conventional technology is based on Russian, North Korean and Chinese designs. The technology has a major consequence on the effectiveness of these missiles, as most lack the accuracy and lethality to properly act as a deterrent against any outside forces. One could argue that the long and medium range ballistic missile capabilities are similar to that of putting a long-range sniper scope on a shotgun; the threat is there but at long ranges it becomes an impractical application. However, it is the lack of technology that has pressured Iran into pursuing asymmetric warfare capabilities. If Iran put use to its warhead reconversion facilities, this new technology could upset the military balance in the region. Further advances, announced by Tehran, include a Shahab-3 variant with an increased range of 2,500 km and a “smart” anti-ship missile known as the Khalij Fars. The Shahab-3 then has the ability to reach targets in southern Europe while the Khalij Fars, if used to its fullest potential could upset the naval balance and could threaten oil trade along the Strait of Hormuz, one of the most important shipping lanes that exists. As Iraq demonstrated during the war in the 1980s, there is also a threat of the so-called CBRN weapons. These are chemical, biological, radioactive and nuclear agents with missile capabilities, and with reports of possible ICBMS (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles) by 2015, Iranian military technology is potentially a worthy adversary.
The previous summary of weapons capabilities gives a small insight in the potential dangers of Iran in the near future. As they are still dependent on foreign help for missile components, pressure is on Russian and Chinese arms-trade with Iran. Further, there are implications for the United States with the known information. While the US has conventional superiority, the advances in asymmetric technology are a clear threat to the Western world and US influence in the region. Iran may be incapable of a decisive victory, but as Cordesman puts it, this could change over time. It is the responsibility of the US to further establish its dominance in the region to deter Iranian pressure and to improve its detection mechanisms and early-warning systems to deter any Iranian threat. In light of the IAEA report, Israel immediately increased its rhetoric over possible preemptive strikes against the nuclear facilities. Israel is well within the range of Iranian missiles, but a strike against these facilities could give Iran more of an incentive to pursue the goal of nuclear weapons.
It is obvious that there is much animosity between Iran and Israel, and there is a constant danger of the situation spiraling out of control. Iran has taken a clear stance against the West and with the publishing of the IAEA report in November, there has been an increase in sanctions against it. Some of the harshest sanctions were applied by the United Kingdom. This resulted in a clear message by Iranian citizens, with a possible backing by the government. On November 29, riots broke out and the embassy of the UK was stormed, bringing back memories of the US Embassy crisis in 1979. Iran clearly feels threatened by Western nations, as more sanctions are applied. The relations between the United States and Iran have been suspended since 1979 and the recent events will not improve that situation. The following statement, by Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC’s Aerospace Divison, gives an idea over how Iranian officials feel under Western pressure:
“We feel to be threatened by no [country] but the US and the Zionist regime and the ranges of our missile have been designed based on the distances between us and the US bases in the region and the Zionist regime.” This rhetoric could not possibly improve relations, but it to be expected under threats from Israel and the US. Another Brigadier General, named Hossein Salami, argues the deterrent capabilities of Iranian missiles by stating that “Our missiles have tactically offensive and strategically deterrent and defensive features….Our fingers are still kept on the trigger, but the number of these triggers has increased.” As much of the IAEA report states above, Iran is entering the nuclear era, and whether it is for civilian or military purposes will not be known until relations between the governments improve. Assumptions can be made until the end of days, but these will not help the situation and further sanctions on Iran will only pressure Tehran more to act alone, as Iran has, in essence, been cut off and has been isolated through Western influence.
As US troops are pulling out of Iraq, it is important to increase diplomatic relations with Iran. Iraq will be left in a vulnerable state, and to be able to provide security for the Iraqi people, it is necessary to realize that Iran has a significant influence over its borders. Contacts through Kurdish and Shiite movements could potentially be used for good, but it all depends on future relations between the United States and Iran. While it should be taken with a grain of salt, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech at the 2010 NPT Review Conference ends with “Through cooperation and solidarity and harmony, our aspiration for establishing a world blessed with justice and peace is achievable, and the motto of “nuclear energy for all, nuclear weapons for none” is the basis for interaction among human beings as well as between human and nature.” It is true that Ahmadinejad has had an erratic history in speeches, but the basic argument should be understood. Iran cannot prosper if it is destroyed at the hands of Israel or the United States and vice versa. It should be in the international interest of all nations to improve relations with Tehran and pursue a secure global order.
Bruno, Greg. “Iran’s Nuclear Program.” Council on Foreign Relations. (Updated 2010): n. page. Web. 18 Dec. 2011. <http://www.cfr.org/iran/irans-nuclear-program/p16811>.
Calabrese, John. “The Scorpion’s Sting and the Python’s Grip.” Middle East Institute. (2007) Web. 18 Dec. 2011.
Cordesman, Anthony H. “The New IAEA Report and Iran’s Evolving Nuclear and Missile Forces.” Center for Strategic & International Studies. (2011): 1-81. Web. 18 Dec. 2011. <http://csis.org/publication/new-iaea-report-and-irans-evolving-nuclear-and-missile-forces>.
Essential Document. “Iran Safeguards Agreement .” Council on Foreign Relations. (1974) Web. 18 Dec. 2011. <http://www.cfr.org/iran/iran-safeguards-agreement/p9493>.
Essential Document. “Statement by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad before the 2010 NPT Review Conference.” Council on Foreign Relations. (2010) Web. 18 Dec. 2011. <http://www.cfr.org/iran/statement-mahmoud-ahmadinejad-before-2010-npt-review-conference/p22041>.