October 2, 2003 | Op-ed

Iran’s Emerging Nuclear Threat

October 2, 2003

Topic:  Iran‘s Emerging Nuclear Threat


Under suspicion of developing nuclear weapons for more than a decade, Iran’s nuclear programs garnered limited interest until the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently demanded greater access to its nuclear facilities, some of which are suspected of engaging in weapons research. A 1970 signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran is permitted the peaceful use of nuclear technology but is prohibited from acquiring nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons-related technology by itself or from other states.[1] With Russian and Chinese help Iran has pursued a diverse, nuclear program of uncertain intentions. The IAEA has now set a deadline of October 31, 2003 for Iran to permit unfettered inspections of its facilities but Tehran has yet to state definitively if it will cooperate as required by the NPT.


Iran’s Nuclear Program

Ø       Civilian power? Iran claims to seek a nuclear energy- generating capacity to keep pace with the electricity demands of its growing population. But such claims don’t hold up: The oil and gas – rich nation announced the discovery of the world’s second largest oil field on July 14th (estimated at 38 billion barrels), and had an estimated 90 billion barrels in reserves even before the recent discovery. Given Iran‘s failing economy (16% unemployment, 40% of the population under the poverty line) and the abundance of petroleum resources, a nuclear program is unnecessary and wasteful.[2]


Ø       In search of a bomb. Iran‘s nuclear program began with the acquisition of an American-made research reactor in 1967. Construction of the 1000 Megawatt nuclear power generation facility at Bushehr began in 1979 with German help but was halted by the Iran-Iraq War. Iran‘s largely dormant nuclear programs were restarted in the early 1990s with Russian and Chinese help. The American economic embargo imposed on Iran in 1995 and pressure on China, Russia and Ukraine to discourage them from assisting with Iranian nuclear projects has slowed developments. But these measures have not discouraged Iran from continuing its search for nuclear technology. Russia took over construction of the Bushehr reactor currently scheduled to go on line in 2005. According to one estimate, with the right fuel rod extraction capability, the reactor could provide Iran with enough weapons-grade plutonium to construct 35 nuclear weapons annually.[3]


Ø       Multiple sources. Iran has been careful to diversify and presumably hide its most sensitive nuclear research and development facilities. Purchases of key uranium enrichment chemicals and technologies like centrifuges and the construction of a uranium mine (some secret activities only recently exposed) continued apace throughout the 1990s and were scattered about the country. The IAEA’s recent discovery of small amounts of highly enriched, bomb-grade uranium at two facilities, one in the capital (August 2003) and another at the Natanz facility (July 2003), has fed speculation about the intentions of the nuclear program. Iranian officials had blocked IAEA officials from the former site for two months before finally permitting the inspection and lied about the disposition of other sites. The revelation that a heavy-water production facility was under construction in Arak coupled with Iran’s May 2003 announcement that it will build a heavy-water reactor at the site created suspicions that it is pursuing both uranium and plutonium bomb options.[4]


Ø       IAEA actions. In a June 6, 2003 report, the IAEA Director General stated that Iran had failed to meet its obligations “with respect to the reporting of nuclear material imported into Iran and the subsequent processing and use of the material, and the declaration of facilities and other locations where the material was stored and processed.” The agency is hopeful that Iran will sign an additional protocol allowing more inspections. It has set an October 31st deadline for Iran to prove that it does not have a nuclear weapons program and to allow for more intrusive inspection of suspect facilities.[5]



Under worst-case scenarios, Iran could have a nuclear weapon within two years. In other scenarios it could significantly expand its ability to produce the components for nuclear weapons by 2010 giving it a much larger weapons-making capacity.[6] The IAEA will meet again on November 20th to determine if Iran has violated the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. If it has, the U.N. Security Council could impose diplomatic or economic sanctions.

[1] For the text of the treaty see: http://www.un.org/Depts/dda/WMD/treaty/