Remarks on Iran’s Nuclear Program

Remarks to the Democratic Study Group on National Security

by Gary Milhollin
October 16, 2003

I am pleased to be able to address this distinguished group on an important question: what should be done about Iran’s nuclear program? I had occasion to make a presentation on this subject last month to the US-Israeli Joint Parliamentary Committee. The presentation can be found on my organization’s web site: Today, I will try to tackle this subject by emphasizing what is supposed to happen at the end of this month.

In mid-September, the International Atomic Energy Agency gave Iran a deadline. By October 31, Iran is supposed to come clean about its nuclear program. Iran is supposed to explain the traces of highly enriched uranium found at the Natanz site, where Iran is building a plant to enrich uranium with centrifuges, and explain the traces of highly enriched uranium found at the Kalaye site, where Iran developed the centrifuges. Iran says that the traces came from material that was already on components that Iran had imported. By the deadline, Iran is supposed to explain where those components came from, so that Iran’s story can be checked. The suspicion is that they came from Pakistan.

Iran is also supposed to answer the Agency’s questions about how it was possible to achieve the level of enrichment technology at Natanz without prohibited testing with nuclear material. The Agency has decided that it was impossible to develop the level of enrichment technology shown at the Natanz site without testing the centrifuges with uranium hexafluoride feed, which Iran denies doing. If Iran did that, it would be a violation of its inspection agreement with the Agency. The agreement requires Iran to allow the Agency’s inspectors to observe any activity using nuclear materials and to keep track of the materials.

There are other questions about Iran’s nuclear program. One concerns heavy water. Iran is building a plant at Arak to produce heavy water and has plans to build a 40 megawatt research reactor that will use the heavy water to produce plutonium, a nuclear weapon fuel. Construction of this reactor is expected to begin next year. History has shown that most states with this type of reactor – too small to make electricity and larger than necessary for research purposes – use it to produce bombs. The precedents are Israel’s Dimona reactor, supplied by France and Norway, and India’s Cirus reactor, supplied jointly by Canada and the United States. More recently, Pakistan commissioned a heavy water reactor of about the same size with help from China, and is using it to make bombs. We can expect Iran’s reactor to do the same. Why? Because heavy water reactors have nothing to do with Iran’s civilian nuclear program, which is based on light water technology. Thus, Iran must have something else in mind.

Iran has decided to build all the things necessary to give it nuclear independence: a uranium mine, a plant to convert the uranium to gaseous form for processing by centrifuges, and the centrifuges to enrich the uranium to reactor- or weapon-grade. Once Iran’s nuclear program matures, Iran will have what it needs to fabricate a bomb, perhaps without being discovered. Or, Iran could cite the treaty’s escape clause, declare its “supreme interests” to be in jeopardy, and cancel its treaty obligations. Three months later, Iran could use all the nuclear material it accumulated while a member and convert it to bomb-making without breaking any rules.

The question this poses is evident: why does Iran want such a nuclear capability?

Iran says it only wants to make electricity. But this does not make sense. Iran is paying Russia some $800 million for a reactor at Bushehr that Iran doesn’t really need for making electricity. Given Iran’s copious oil and gas reserves, it will cost Iran many times more to produce a kilowatt of electricity from uranium than from petroleum. According to the U.S. State Department, Iran now flares enough gas to generate electricity equal to the output of four Bushehr reactors. So why would Iran pay so much money for something it does not need? The answer is that this payment is probably financing a lot more than just the reactor. There is evidence of Russian help in laser enrichment and heavy water, and there are probably other information exchanges going on that we don’t know about.

One more piece of evidence bearing on Iran’s nuclear intentions is its effort to develop long-range missiles. Countries seldom develop such missiles to carry anything but nuclear warheads. Iran has developed a 1,300 kilometer missile called the Shahab-3 that can already reach Israel, Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and U.S. forces in the region. It is widely assumed that the Shahab-3 will be followed by the 2,000 kilometer Shahab-4, based on the Soviet SS-4 “Sandel” missile. Although the status of the Shahab-4 is unclear, its design would allow it to fly far enough to reach Eastern Europe.

If Iran fails to comply with the Agency’s deadline, the credibility of the Non Proliferation Treaty and its inspection regime will be at stake. Under the treaty, the issue should be referred to the United Nations Security Council. The Security Council’s first step might be to reiterate the demand that Iran come into compliance with its NPT obligations, which would mean explaining to the IAEA’s satisfaction the history of Iran’s enrichment efforts and the genesis of the samples. If Iran comes clean by providing all necessary records and allows for unfettered inspections and sampling, then a crisis probably will be averted. However, if Iran balks, or provides only partial or misleading information, then the Security Council may move towards imposing economic sanctions or mandating the cessation of all nuclear cooperation with Iran.

The sanctions would have to be severe and they would have to be enforced. They would have to convince Iran that the option of having nuclear weapons is not worth the cost. The question is whether the world is ready to impose such a burden on Iran rather than see another nuclear weapon state emerge in the Middle East. The answer will come over the next several months.