Iran Nuclear Update – 2002

Despite its claims to the contrary, Iran is considered by the United States to maintain an active nuclear weapon development program. As recently as January 2001, the U.S. Department of Defense – seconded by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) – reported that Iran is seeking “technology for weapons development through an elaborate network of military and civilian organizations.” The Pentagon also declared that Iran “has an organized structure dedicated to establishing the capability to produce both plutonium and high enriched uranium.” Neither plutonium nor high enriched uranium is useful in Iran’s civilian power program, but these materials are indispensable for a nuclear bomb.

Russian assistance

Russia remains Iran’s primary nuclear supplier. According to the CIA, Russia’s help “enhances Iran’s ability to support a nuclear weapons development effort, even though the ostensible purpose of most of this assistance is for civilian applications.” In Congressional testimony, the State Department has reported an acceleration in Russian assistance over the past few years, which could help Iran reduce the time needed to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Russia’s principal endeavor – and source of income – in Iran is the construction of a 1000 megawatt light-water reactor at Bushehr, which has continued despite American efforts to slow the project down. In October 2001, Russia’s Izhora Plant Joint Stock Company shipped nuclear reactor core components to the Bushehr site. Assembly of the first reactor will reportedly begin in late December. The reactor is scheduled to be commissioned in 2003. Soon thereafter, Iran will begin to have access to spent reactor fuel containing bomb quantities of plutonium. Russia has also begun to take steps toward the construction of a second reactor at the site. The Russian firm Atomenergoproyekt has been working on a feasibility study.

Although the reactors at Bushehr will be inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there is concern that Iran and Russian are using them as a cover for the development of nuclear weapons. The Pentagon has stated that some Russian entities – most of them subordinate to the Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM) – already have ties with Iranian nuclear research centers that are outside the bounds of what is needed for Bushehr. In October 2000, Robert Einhorn, Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation, testified that much of this cooperation involved technologies related to the production of weapon-grade fissile materials, which included research reactors, heavy water production, and laser isotope separation for uranium enrichment.

Iranian procurement attempts

The United States has continued to oppose Iran’s efforts to import the means to make nuclear weapon material. These efforts have included the purchase of a uranium conversion plant from China. Such a plant is essential to enrich uranium to nuclear weapon grade. As a result of U.S. pressure, China pledged in October 1997 to terminate its involvement in a conversion project in Iran and agreed not to engage in any new nuclear cooperation with Iran. China and the United States agreed nevertheless that China would complete two smaller nuclear projects, neither of which is thought to pose a significant proliferation risk: a small research reactor and a zirconium production facility at Isfahan that Iran will use to produce cladding for reactor fuel. According to Pentagon, China has been abiding by its 1997 commitments.

Iran has also attempted to import atomic vapor laser isotope separation (AVLIS) equipment from Russia. U.S. officials protested the sale, which was planned by the D.V. Eremov Scientific Research Institute of Electrophysical Apparatus, overseen by MINATOM. In March 2001, Russian officials told the United States that the deal was cancelled. MINATOM officials had argued that the lasers could not be used in a uranium enrichment program, but American officials countered that the lasers could provide “a basis to scale up” a program to enrich significant quantities of uranium.

Soon after President George W. Bush took office in January 2001, it was reported that Moscow had permitted a Russian ship in the Black Sea to proceed to Iran with a shipment of high-strength aluminum onboard. According to one version of the story, Russian inspectors boarded the vessel but were told that the aluminum was intended for aircraft, and not for the manufacture of parts for gas centrifuges designed to enrich uranium. The vessel was permitted to continue to Iran.