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October 15, 2003

Iran's Nuclear Plan: a Matter-of-Fact Review
Arash Bateni  [info|posts]

Click to Enlarge The controversy about Iran's nuclear activities was raised earlier this year when officials from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran was building a surprisingly sophisticated uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz. Initial information about this plant had come last year not from Iranian government but from an exiled opposition group. In this posting I would like to provide a more technical view of the current situation.

There are only two realistic uses for uranium enrichment: to produce low-enriched uranium fuel for nuclear reactors and to produce highly-enriched uranium for fissile heart of nuclear weapons. Tehran claims that it is pursuing a nuclear program for energy production only. However, practically and economically, establishing an enrichment facility cannot be justified for the current civilian program (Bushehr nuclear reactor), for which Russia had agreed to prove the uranium fuel. One report suggests that the gas that Iran's oil industry routinely burns would generate several times the electricity expected from the controversial Bushehr reactor.

There are some other suspicious nuclear activities in Iran. For instance, Iran has turned some of its imported uranium (from China) into uranium metal: a bomb ingredient! It can also be used in some kinds of reactor fuel, but it has no use in Iran's planned reactors. Iran has also announced a plan to build a heavy-water research reactor in Arak. Heavy water is extremely useful in making plutonium for bombs and the existing power program depends on light-water reactor. Yet, the main controversies about Iran's nuclear plan remains around its uranium enrichment activities.

The process of uranium enrichment is incredibly difficult and energy intensive. Thousands of tons of uranium ore should be processed into powder form called yellowcake. Then it needs to be refined and converted to a uranium hexafluoride gas that requires a separate chemical plant itself. Only then the real enrichment work can be started, based on either a membrane or centrifuge plant, which is the size of at least 10 football fields. More that 100 centrifuge casings have already been installed in Natanz!

Many of the techniques required for the above process are safeguarded by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). So Iran had to undertake a secrete program to acquire the advanced hardware and technical knowledge. Where form, is still a question. But possible candidates are Russia, China, Pakistan and North Korea.

There are several ways to monitor the nuclear activities of the country. Very advanced technologies are needed to stop the discharges emitted from the plants. In a rush to build up a nuclear arsenal, Iran probably does not have the time and resources to implement such facilities. By monitoring such emissions, both atmospheric and aquatic, it is possible to determine the state of progress in weapon development that Iran might have reached. Satellite thermal imaging can also spot such energy intensive plants easily.

However, the main international concern is that Iran already has the basic technologies needed for weapons making. From now on it could stay even within the tougher rules, polishing its enrichment and other skills that are all legal for civilian purposes under the NPT. Then a 90-day notice is all that required to quit and go rapidly nuclear. Such undermining the NPT's peaceful intent from inside makes the treaty worse than useless. (Countries like Israel, India and Pakistan never joined the treaty and North Korea withdrew in January 2003.)

Despite the above controversies, no evidence has found so far that can 'prove' Tehran's intention for nuclear weapons. The Bushehr electricity generating reactor has the capacity of 1,000 MW. Iran claims over next 20 years it intends to build several more reactors with a total capacity of 6,000 MW. Meanwhile, it aims to master all the technologies of the nuclear-fuel-cycle, hence building a fuel manufacturing plant at Isfahan.

Currently there are more questions than answers regarding Iran's nuclear plan. But one point is clear: time has past for Russia to suspend its nuclear dealings with Iran, and for Europeans to call off their trade talks. If Iran has started a nuclear weapon program it will not see the benefit of giving it up, unless the price of keeping it is driven up sharply.

For more information see:
Iran's Nuclear Threat, Time
Time to Call a Halt, The Economist (subscribers only)
Fissionable, The Economist (subscribers only)
Iran's Nuclear Plan: Q&A, BBC News
Iran needs nuclear power, International Herald Tribune

KID at October 15, 2003 08:47 PM [permalink]:

Thanks Mr. Bateni.

Something is not still clear to me. Isn't it possible to find out whether the current facilities are for civilian purposes or for weapon manufacturing. I mean possible for the inspectors who have visited the facilities several times.

Also you didn't say how far iran has made progress in its nuclear program.

yahya at October 15, 2003 10:39 PM [permalink]:

Dr. Sahami is making a case for Iran's need for nuclear energy in

There is the following paragraph that often appears in other articles written about Iran's nuclear program as well:
"One report suggests that the gas that Iran's oil industry routinely burns would generate several times the electricity expected from the controversial Bushehr reactor."

I don't found it credible. I am not an expert on this, but from what I have seen, gas burning on the top of oil wells looks so little and insignifact that I don't think it will be economical to redirect it for generating energy. Also, it is probably burning more complex cabon molecules and preventing them from poluting the air. I see the above paragraph as a journalistic sentence to dismis Iran's need for nuclear energy without giving clear reasons.

Iran can not get any investment in oil industry because of US sanctions on third countries that are interested to invest in Iran. This is one reason why diversifing Iran's energy resources becomes so important.

I do not rule out any ambition that Iranian government might have for military purposes, but I want to say there is an economical component into this, and that is why there are people in Iran who whole heartedly believe that Iran wants nulcear energy for peaceful purposes.

Hamed at October 16, 2003 10:01 AM [permalink]:

Once in an airport, there was a check for drug and a police dog was sniffing anybody. I do not like dogs, so I tried to avoid it. The effort was not so successful and I was face to face with the dog and its hands on my shoulder!
I went to the police office and they tried to find drug. The policeman searched all my luggages, pockets and even inside my shoes. He couldn't find anything. Before letting me to go, he told me that however he had not found anything, he was sure that I had drug.

I wondered how could I prove that I did not have any thing at that time. It was absolutely impossible. Fortunately you mustn't show that you do not have drug, police has to prove you have it.

The same story is going with the nuke. How we can show that we do not have it and we don't intend to have it? Whatever we do, one can think that we have been fooling them and we have some strange stuff hided in some where far from their view.

Maybe they want something else to stop asking the impossible?!

Arash Bateni at October 16, 2003 10:47 AM [permalink]:

Yahya: Thanks for your comment.

I absolutely agree with you that Iran has the right to diversify its energy recourses. I am also aware of the current problems regarding foreign investments in oil industries (thanks for the link). It can justify the investment in nuclear energy, but not necessarily uranium enrichment.

You are perhaps right too with respect to the gas which is burned in Iran's oil industry. As I was trying to describe the concerns bout Iran's nuclear activities, I coated from a report, which was apparently suspicious of these activities. It wasn't my opinion, but just a report.

Arash Bateni at October 16, 2003 11:04 AM [permalink]:

KID: As far as I know all the uranium enrichment facilities in Iran can be used to produce low-enriched uranium (reactor-grade) for civilian purpose. That's why it cannot be a proof of Iran's intention for nuclear weapons. The point is that they can also be modified to produce high-enriched uranium (bomb-grade) and that is what concerns IAEA. So they want to have immediate access to those facilities to ensure that only reactor-grade uranium is produced.

Regarding the progress: Most of the plants are still under construction. It seems that Iran has conducted sophisticated modeling and simulation for such facilities and some of the centrifuge machines are being produced in Iran (at Klaye Electric Co. for instance).

The Bass Voice at October 16, 2003 12:49 PM [permalink]:

Hamed, I would have told the police officer, just on my way out the door: "I see you still think I have drugs. Well, that's because you believe too much in a dog. You see, that's even worse than believing in a god."

On a second thought, though, maybe not.

mo at October 16, 2003 05:47 PM [permalink]:

informative article.
the case is not complicated in my view.
the current regime shouldn't have access to nuclear weapons for apparent reasons. so i do not support any action in that direction.
nuclear energy is however a good idea. but if that's the case why not leting the IAEA inspect the whole process?

AIS at October 17, 2003 06:54 AM [permalink]:

Dear Bass Voice,

Dogs are infinitely better than gods! ;)

Layla at October 17, 2003 03:15 PM [permalink]:

Mo, I'd like you to clarify your "apparent" reasons because they're not so apparent to me.

Although I'm not a sympathizer of the current so-called Islamic regime, your comment is reminiscent of America's argument for unilateral control of weapons. Which is to say that developing nations shouldn't have nuclear weapons because they wouldn't know when not to press the fateful button. Gone are the days when the Islamic regimes could export their revolution via nuclear weaponry - there are too many countries in close physical proximity, including Pakistan and Israel that would deter that sort of expansion.

The simple fact is that U.S. is spread pretty thin right now, especially with an election on the horizon. It doesn't want to have to negotiate with Iran, it's bad enough that it has to negotiate with Pakistan.

My concern is that after Iraq is under control (literally) and the election has passed with, god forbid, a second victory for Bush, the magnifying glass will fall heavily on Iran. And like Hamed described, regardless of whether Iran is planning to produce nuclear weapons or not, Iran may be the U.S.'s next stop in it's ambitions of re-drawing the Middle East. We saw it with Iraq, and it may next be Iran's turn.

Babak S at October 17, 2003 06:12 PM [permalink]:

I don't want to respond for mo, but I agree with him/her (is mo short for Mohammad?!) on that this regime should not be let have acces to such dangerous weapons as nuclear ones. My `apparant' reasons are: For one thing, the terrorists could have an easier acces, if not direct, to their tools of terror. Everyone knows that the government of Iran, or at least the more powerful part of it, back terrorist groups. For a second thing, the current disappointing state of affairs could be extended indefinitely. My concern is not at all about the exportation of the revolution--I don't believe it could have ever been done--but the suffering of the people inside.

Arash Bateni at October 17, 2003 07:00 PM [permalink]:

I tend to agree with Babak S (or MO).
I don not believe that developing nuclear weapons has any benefit/use/advantage for Iranian people. It may push Iran's situation to that of Cuba or North Korea. (i.e. isolation of the country in international term and more repression inside).
However, I personally agree with nuclear research or activities for civilian purposes.

Arash Bateni at October 17, 2003 07:08 PM [permalink]:

Today I read in the news that European Union is pushing Iran to stop it's uranium enrichment activities. This is in addition to the requested though inspections.

This does not make any sense to me. As I mentioned in my posting uranium enrichment can be done just for future energy productions. They claim that they will provide the fuel for Iran, but Iran does not have the right to produce it!

Iran had agreed to let more inspections but indicated that it will continue uranium activities.

AIS at October 18, 2003 03:00 AM [permalink]:

The scenario you depicted at the bottom of your post is my best dream!
Bush winning is also IMO, the best outcome as far as Iran is concerened.

But aside from my view, what do you think is better? Mullas with nukes ruling indefinitely and without fear of international pressure anymore over us, or a lengthy sanction the horrors of which Hazhir had expressed very well in his article a while ago, or a fast attack on those facilities and other Mullah targets if we are lucky?!

AIS at October 18, 2003 05:31 AM [permalink]:

Finally, here is the link to a good article-for Layla and everyone else: link

AIS at October 18, 2003 05:49 AM [permalink]:

Here are also two links to the Life Magazine 1946. Inetersting how similar the negative tone in those days was to the current situation about Iraq and Afghanistan: this and this.

Can you deny today that Europe was saved back then?!

"People never learn from past experience"
Albert Einstein

A Reader at October 18, 2003 11:44 AM [permalink]:
Amil Imani August 21, 2003 Recently, the 35 nations of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board have issued a statement and set a deadline for the Islamic regime in Tehran to come out clean and sign the additional protocol to the treaty which would allow short-notice and tougher inspections. This is something that the Islamic regime has refused to do. While Iran has a legitimate right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes or for deterrence from her natural enemies in the region, it would be extremely dangerous to be developed under this current regime. It would be catastrophic for both Iran and the entire region if the Islamic Republic was allowed to continue their aspirations of building nuclear power plant. For example: Just try to envision Ben Ladan's Al Quada wishes to build a nuclear power for peaceful purposes somewhere in Afghanistan. Or picture Abu Hamza of Yemen, who calls the United State of America "United Snakes of America". He would also like to develop nuclear power plant for peaceful purposes and is convinced that the "Islamic invasion" must set out from his country, following the path of the Prophet Muhammad, to the entire Islamic world. This is also true of the Hezbollahs in Lebanon who would like to do the same. There is not much difference between Al Qada, Abu Hamza and Hezbollahs' aspirations for the annihilation of United States and Israel and the Islamic Republic's dream to kill the enemies of Islam, whomever that maybe. It is incumbent upon the civilized world to make a note of it and, if they ever want to avoid a nuclear holocaust, to stop the Islamic regime from developing nuclear power plant. The entire population of Iran hates this regime, and we must not allow them to jeopardize the stability of the world. The past resume of the Islamic Republic clearly indicates that the Islamic Republic is only interested in one thing and that is to develop nuclear capabilities and to use it against the enemies of Islam, regardless of the outcome of such action. "If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in possession, the strategy of colonialism would face a stalemate because application of an atomic bomb would not leave any thing in Israel but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world", Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani told last year to a crowd at the Friday prayers on International Qods (Jerusalem) Day" which is celebrated by the Islamic Republic. One only has to see what Mr. Rafsanjani has done in Iran to see that he means business when he utters those words. His ultimate goal is to acquire the Islamic bomb. Mr. Rafsanjani, who entered Iran's sixth general election was stunned by magnitude of the personal defeat and trailed humiliatingly in 29th position in the vote count. He is known in Iran and among Iranians all over the world, primarily, as a brutal criminal with a resume replete with kidnapping, torturing, and executing his enemies. He has plundered Iran's wealth and has become the fifth richest man in the world, according to Forbes' magazine. Now this man who is dubbed " the brain of the Islamic Republic" wishes to rule the world with his Islamic bomb. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to notice that he would not hesitate one second to drop the bomb on Israel, even if that would mean the end of Iran, as we know it. He is willing to sacrifice the lives of millions of Iranians to gratify his passion of being the leading ["Toooo long!" editors say, "Here: click to read the whole thing!"]
AIS at October 20, 2003 12:46 AM [permalink]:

A Weblog from an Iraqi living in Baghdad:

Most interesting.

MHF at October 27, 2003 12:15 AM [permalink]:

Additional information besides Mr. Bateni's material regarding nuclear activities in Iran.

1. There is NO QUESTION that mullah government in Tehran is engaged in nuclear weapon making activities. Here is why in simple words: mullahs are producing heavy water which can only be used in heavy water reactors. These reactors work using natural uranium, meaning that natural Uranium (Uranium without enough fissionable isotop, and without any enrichment) can be used in these reactors to produce Plotunium, which is the other metal used in nuclear weapon. Since Iran (like most of the world) is committed (by their own admission) to the production of electricity using light water reactors (which require slight enrichment of Uranium) same as the Bushehr power stations, there is NO LOGICAL reason for heavy water production and heavy water reactor construction.

2. The magnitude of energy, money, time, and effort needed to enrich Uranium is so much that there cannot be any realistic and financial justification for enrichment facility constrcution and operation to prepare fuel for two (or even ten) reactors the size of Bushehr reactors. As an example, There were two enrichment plants in U.S. to produce enriched Uranium for weapons as well as over 50 commercial power stations in U.S., as well as for foreign customers. After 1991, they had to close one, and run the other one only part time.

As one can see, in the eyes of experts, Iran's nuclear weapon making is undeniable. Mullah government of course is well known for the lies they make, and hence, it is no wonder that they have been lying in this matter as well.

Those who think Khatami being an hororable man would not have lied about this subject, here is the point about khatami: he is too stupid to understand these matters. Furthermore, the real governing groups in Iran are doing everything behind his back, and he is too stupid to know anything about it.