Iran: Nuclear Suspicion Grows

U.S. intelligence believes Iran is running a two-track nuclear effort. On one side, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) is buying reactors for a “civilian” nuclear program. On the other, the military is seeking nuclear equipment and materials to satisfy its appetite for weapons of mass destruction.

Most U.S. officials concede that Iran’s nuclear quest is at the embryonic stage. Many of Iran’s best scientists left the country after the 1979 revolution, and most of those left working at the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) “are not considered first rate,” says a U.S. analyst. But no one wants to underestimate the Iranians, particularly the military outfit known as the Defense Industries Organization. “DIO is a fairly competent organization at pulling programs together,” says a senior U.S. official, who credits it with building Iran’s chemical and biological weapons and long-range missiles.

U.S. officials worry that the military in Iran will use the civilian nuclear program as a front for its weapon research. That is why Washington is trying to convince Moscow to cancel its plans to build nuclear reactors at Bushehr. “Bushehr will give Iran training, legitimacy and a billion-dollar cover for the nuclear program,” warns one official, who predicts that Iran will use the reactors as a pretext for all sorts of sensitive nuclear purchases. This sentiment is shared by the Russian Academy of Science’s Dr. Aleksey Yablokov, who recently wrote in Izvestiya that he suspects “a hidden military component” in Russia’s planned sales of reactors to Iran.

The uranium path

To make a bomb, Iran needs to produce high-enriched uranium or plutonium. Iran denies it has any intention to develop nuclear weapons or that it is even interested in uranium enrichment. But U.S. officials counter such claims, pointing to Iran’s obvious attempts to buy sensitive uranium-processing technology.

Iran’s procurement efforts seem to follow almost exactly the pattern set by Pakistan and Iraq, countries that smuggled equipment from Western Europe and China to construct gas centrifuges. Pakistan succeeded in enriching enough uranium for a small nuclear arsenal, but Saddam was thwarted by the Gulf War. U.S. officials deny reports that Pakistan is now helping Iran’s nuclear program, but they do believe Iran is using the same suppliers and methods as Pakistan. “There’s this club of suppliers in Europe … the same guys that sold to Pakistan and Iraq,” a senior official tells the Risk Report. He says that the State Department is briefing the Europeans “pretty religiously” on the matter.

Western officials are watching Iran’s procurement patterns closely. Iran is making progress on centrifuge research, U.S. officials say, but it is unlikely that Iran has bought enough equipment to put together any significant enrichment hardware or production capability.

Of particular concern is a deal brewing in China where Iran is “looking to buy a turnkey facility” to convert uranium to hexafluoride gas, says a senior U.S. official familiar with U.S. intelligence. Uranium hexafluoride is the feedstock gas that is enriched in centrifuges to make weapon-grade material. The only practical use for a hexafluoride plant is uranium enrichment. Foreign officials also tell the Risk Report that Iran is shopping for a fluorine production plant from France. Fluorine is needed to make hexafluoride gas, and Iran reportedly tried without success to buy fluorine in 1991 for the Sharif University of Technology.

Iran is also trying to develop its own sources of uranium. China has already helped with mining, purification and fuel fabrication. In September 1989, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization announced that Iran was prospecting for uranium in the Saghand region of Yazd Province, where uranium reserves of over 5,000 tons have been reported. International inspectors visited Saghand in February 1992 and found uranium-ore drilling rigs staffed by fewer than two dozen workers, indicating that large-scale mining had not yet occurred.

Meanwhile, Iran was negotiating to buy 2,000 tons of natural uranium from Russia as part of the Bushehr reactor deal. This has fueled suspicion in the West because the Bushehr reactors will never use natural uranium they will be fueled by enriched uranium from Russia and they won’t be built for several years.

The fear is that Iran wants to enrich the uranium to make bombs.

U.S. officials also suspected Iran’s motives in 1992-93 when Iranians visited Kazakhstan to buy low-enriched uranium from the production complex at Ust-Kamenogorsk. Again, the Iranians cited the Russian reactors as the reason they were interested in uranium.

The plutonium path

Dr. Reza Amrollahi, director of Iran’s civilian nuclear program, says nearly 200 Russian technical and engineering personnel are already in Iran working on the Bushehr reactor site. When complete, the reactors will give Iran its first access to bomb quantities of plutonium.

U.S. officials believe Iran is interested in plutonium for bombs because of Tehran’s keen interest in a particular type of reactor, one that is ideal for making nuclear weapons. Iran has been shopping in China and Russia for a 30-40 megawatt heavy water research reactor, precisely the size and type Israel and India used to make the plutonium for their first fission bombs. Iran also tried to buy smaller versions of this reactor from Argentina and India. U.S. officials say that Iran’s sudden interest in heavy water technology cannot be peaceful because Iran’s nuclear program since the days of the Shah has been based on light water reactors, a wholly different technology. So far, the United States has persuaded other countries not to sell heavy water reactors to Iran, but Russia may sell a light water research reactor instead.

To prepare plutonium for use in bombs, Iran would have to build a plant to extract it from spent reactor fuel. So far, there is no evidence that Iran is doing that. Iran has only been able to extract gram quantities of plutonium in laboratory “hot cells” supplied by the United States in 1967 along with a small research reactor.

Western officials hope they are catching Iran’s nuclear weapon program in its early phase the best time to stop it. “We have done remarkably well so far using export controls; they seem to be working in Iran,” says a U.S. official. But this optimism will be short-lived unless other countries cooperate. Russia is persisting in its reactor deal despite being shown a laundry list of U.S. intelligence reports this spring. Atomic Energy Minister Viktor Mikhaylov said the reports “did not contain specific facts which would be evidence” of Iran’s “striving” for nuclear weapons. And West European officials complain that the U.S. intelligence they have seen is “only circumstantial,” which helps explain why European governments have declined to join the U.S. trade embargo on Iran.

Finally, there is the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iranian spokesmen never tire of citing the agency to prove Iran’s innocence. The AEOI’s Dr. Amrollahi says: “We would like to tell the world community that if our activities were not peaceful, the IAEA would have said so.” Tehran has challenged Washington to give the IAEA any proof U.S. intelligence has that Iran is trying to build the bomb, and Tehran has invited the agency to look anywhere it likes to verify U.S. claims. David Kyd, the agency’s spokesman, says: “If U.S. intelligence has proof that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, we haven’t seen it.”