Iran's Nuclear Program: Recent Developments
Iran’s Nuclear Program:
Specialist in National Defense
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections since 2003 have revealed
two decades’ worth of undeclared nuclear activities in Iran, including uranium
enrichment and plutonium separation efforts. Iran agreed in 2003 to suspend sensitive
activities in negotiations with Germany, France, and the UK (EU-3), which broke down
in August 2005. On September 24, 2005, the IAEA Board of Governors found Iran to
be in noncompliance with its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) safeguards
agreement and reported Iran’s case to the U.N. Security Council in February 2006. The
Security Council called upon Iran to resuspend enrichment and reprocessing, reconsider
construction of its heavy water reactor, ratify and implement the Additional Protocol,
and implement transparency measures. Iran has continued its enrichment activities,
failing to meet deadline after deadline. On December 23, 2006, the Security Council
adopted limited sanctions under UNSCR 1737 and gave Iran another 60 days. However,
the February 21, 2007, deadline has passed with little progress, and further sanctions
may be under consideration. This report will be updated as needed.
Iran has had a nuclear program for close to 50 years, beginning with a research
reactor purchased from the United States in 1959. The Shah’s plan to build 23 nuclear
power reactors by the 1990s was regarded as grandiose, but not necessarily viewed as a
“back door” to a nuclear weapons program, possibly because Iran did not then seek the
technologies to enrich or reprocess its own fuel.1 There were a few suspicions of a
nuclear weapons program, but these abated in the decade between the Iranian 1979
revolution and the end of the Iran-Iraq war, both of which brought a halt to nuclear
1 Reports in the 1970s indicated that Iran sought laser enrichment technology in the United States
and conducted reprocessing-related experiments. Intelligence reports suggested that the Shah had
a secret group to work on nuclear weapons. See Leonard S. Spector, Nuclear Ambitions
(Colorado: Westview Press, 1990), p. 204.
activities. Iran’s current plans — to construct seven nuclear power plants (1000 MW
each) by 2025 — are still ambitious, particularly for a state with considerable oil and gas
reserves.2 Iran argues, as it did in the 1970s, that rising domestic energy consumption
should be met by nuclear power, leaving oil and gas sales to generate foreign currency.
Few observers believe that such an ambitious program is necessary or economic for Iran
and many question Iran’s motives in developing uranium enrichment before even a single
power reactor is in operation.
Iran has asserted repeatedly that its nuclear program is strictly peaceful, stating in
May 2003 that “we consider the acquiring, development and use of nuclear weapons
inhuman, immoral, illegal and against our basic principles. They have no place in Iran’s
defense doctrine.”3 Iranian government spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham said in July
2006 that the Islamic Republic will never produce weapons of mass destruction. At the
same time, Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei said in November 2004 that Iran would not
“give up” its enrichment “at any price” and former President Khatami stated in March
Uranium enrichment can be used for both peaceful (nuclear fuel) and military (nuclear
weapons) uses. However, two decades of clandestine activities have raised questions
about Iran’s intentions, and many have called for Iran to rebuild world confidence by
refraining from enrichment and reprocessing, perhaps indefinitely. Nonetheless, the
further Iran proceeds down the path of enrichment, the more difficult it will become to
foreswear it, if only for financial reasons.
What Inspections Revealed
In 2002, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCR) helped expose Iran’s
undeclared nuclear activities by providing information about nuclear sites at Natanz
(uranium enrichment) and Arak (heavy water production). Three years of intensive
inspections by the IAEA revealed significant undeclared Iranian efforts in uranium
enrichment (including centrifuge, atomic vapor laser and molecular laser isotope
separation techniques) and separation of plutonium, as well as undeclared imported
material. Iranian officials have delayed inspections, changed explanations for
discrepancies, cleaned up facilities and in one case, Lavizan-Shian, razed a site.4
According to IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, “Iran tried to cover up many
of their activities, and they learned the hard way.”5
Among other activities, Iran admitted in 2003 it conducted “bench scale” uranium
conversion experiments in the 1990s (required to be reported to the IAEA) and later,
admitted that it used for those experiments some safeguarded material that had been
declared lost in other processes (a safeguards violation). Iranian officials told the IAEA
2 See statement by Iran’s former Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi at [http://www.pbs.org/
newshour/bb/mi ddle_east/j ul y-dec04/iran_9-27.html ].
3 Statement by H.E. Mr. G. Ali Khoshroo, Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International
Affairs, Second Session of the Prepcom for the 2005 NPT Review Conference, Apr. 29, 2003.
4 David Albright and Corey Hinderstein, “Iran: Countdown to Showdown,” Bulletin of Atomic
Scientists, Nov./Dec. 2004, vol. 60, no. 6.
5 “Iran Was Offered Nuclear Parts,” Washington Post, Feb. 27, 2005.
only in January 2005 of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan’s 1987 offer of a centrifuge
enrichment “starter kit.”6 In November 2005, Iran finally admitted that the Khan network
supplied it with information on casting and machining parts of nuclear weapons.7
Enrichment Activities. Inspections revealed two enrichment plants at Natanz —
a pilot-scale facility (planned to have 1000 centrifuges) and a commercial-scale plant
under construction (planned to have 50,000 centrifuges). The pilot-scale plant (PFEP)
started up in June 2003 only to shut down after Iran suspended enrichment activities in
December 2003. Since February 2006, when Iran resumed enrichment-related activities,
Iran has tested small cascades (10, 20, then 164 machines) with uranium hexafluoride gas8
(UF6), all under IAEA safeguards. The IAEA has reported that Iran has achieved a
maximum enrichment of 4.2% at PFEP.9 Construction on the commercial-scale plant
(FEP) was also suspended in 2003. Although Iran announced plans in April 2006 to
install 3,000 centrifuges in the commercial plant by the end of the year, it did not even
meet a third of that goal. As of February 2007, Iran was operating two cascades under
vacuum (without feedstock), and was in the process of installing another two cascades,
which would bring the number of centrifuges up to 656. At the point when Iran
introduces UF6 into the FEP, nuclear material accountancy must begin. The IAEA has
also told Iran it must have remote monitoring equipment installed before 500 centrifuges
are operating in FEP, which Iran has resisted.10
A few enrichment issues remain unresolved. The first is the source of highly
enriched uranium (HEU) particles at sites in Iran. Iranian officials asserted that HEU
particles found at the Natanz pilot plant in 2003 were contaminants from foreign
centrifuge assemblies, a first clue revealing the Pakistani A.Q. Khan network. Iran
admitted to enriching uranium to just 1.2%, while the particles sampled ranged from 36%
to 70% U-235. In October 2003, Iranian officials admitted they tested centrifuges at the
Kalaye Electric Company using UF6 between 1998 and 2002. IAEA report GOV/2006/15
reveals that components also came from another country besides Pakistan.
Another unresolved issue is how far Iran has pursued more sophisticated centrifuge
and laser enrichment technology. Iran admitted in October 2003 that it also pursued a
laser enrichment program beginning in the 1970s, and admitted that it possessed more
advanced centrifuge designs (P-2) in January 2004. Such advanced designs could double
Iran’s enrichment capabilities, shortening the time, potentially, to a bomb. Iran insists that
it received no centrifuge components after 1995, but admitted it received a limited number
of magnets for P-2 centrifuges in 2003 and in April 2006, admitted to purchasing magnets
suitable for the P-2 design. The IAEA continues to investigate this issue.
Plutonium-Related Activities. In October 2003 Iran revealed that it had
conducted plutonium reprocessing experiments in a hot cell at the Tehran Nuclear
6 Iran, Report by the Director General, GOV/2005/67, Sept. 2, 2005.
7 “Iran ‘Hands Over Nuclear Cookbook,’” Nov. 18, 2005, Aljazeera.net
8 Iran, Report by the Director General, GOV/2006/15, Feb. 27, 2006.
9 Iran, Report by the Director General, GOV/2006/64, Nov. 14, 2006
10 Iran, Report by the Director General, GOV/2007/8, Feb. 22, 2007
Research Center and estimated the amount separated as 200 micrograms. The IAEA
calculated that more plutonium would have been produced (about 100g) and Iran admitted
in May 2004 that it understated the amount. Inspections also revealed that Iran
experimented between 1989 and 1993 on irradiating bismuth, which can be used to
produce Polonium-210 for civilian purposes (for nuclear batteries) or in conjunction with
beryllium to create a neutron initiator for a nuclear weapon.
Finally, the heavy water program also has raised questions about Iran’s intentions.
Iran first told the IAEA that it planned to export heavy water, then suggested that the
heavy water would be used as a coolant and moderator for a planned IR-40 reactor for
research and development, radioisotope production, and training. However, Iran’s design
information for the facility, which omitted necessary hot cell equipment for producing
radioisotopes, conflicted with reported Iranian efforts to import hot cell equipment.
Construction of the IR-40 reactor has continued, despite the Board’s continued calls for
a halt, although Iranian officials predict that the reactor will not be operational until
2011.11 The heavy water production plant reportedly has been operational since 2004, and
in August 2006, Iranian officials announced they would double its production.
Significance for a Nuclear Weapons Program
Iran is likely years away from producing weapons-grade plutonium or highly
enriched uranium. Then-Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte told the
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on February 2, 2006, that, “We judge that Tehran
probably does not yet have a nuclear weapon and probably has not yet produced or
acquired the fissile material.” According to one report, the 2005 National Intelligence
Estimate on Iran assesses that it will be 10 years before Iran has a bomb.12 That said, Iran
has pursued three different methods of enriching uranium and has experimented with
separating plutonium, suggesting a steady accrual of expertise in weapons-relevant areas,
according to some observers. If Iran received the same nuclear weapon design that A.Q.
Khan gave Libya, the remaining technical hurdle (albeit the most difficult) would be
fissile material production. On January 18, 2007, then-DNI Negroponte told Members
of Congress that, “Our assessment is that Tehran is determined to develop nuclear
weapons. It is continuing to pursue uranium enrichment and has shown more interest in
protracting negotiations than reaching an acceptable diplomatic solution.”
Calculations of nuclear weapons production are generally based on estimates of
fissile material production. One calculation is that a cascade of 1000 P-1 centrifuges could
produce one bomb’s worth of HEU (25 kg) in 2.2 to 2.7 years; and that a cascade of 3000
P-1 centrifuges could produce the same amount in 271-330 days.13 Such an estimate
assumes that Iran has the necessary amount and quality of uranium hexafluoride to feed
the enrichment plant, the components for building 1000 or 3000 centrifuges, and the
engineering skills to keep such cascades operating with few mishaps. In short, Iran’s
12 “Iran is Judged 10 Years From Nuclear Bomb,” Washington Post, Aug. 2, 2005.
13 International Institute for Strategic Studies, Iran’s Strategic Weapons Programmes: A Net
Assessment, (UK: Routledge, 2005), p. 54.
limited experience in enrichment so far should not be equated yet with an ability to operate
an industrial-scale enrichment plant for peaceful or weapons purposes.
Negotiating with Iran
Since 2003, negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program have proceeded on two
levels — with IAEA inspectors and at the IAEA Board of Governors in Vienna, and with
the European Union foreign ministers (known as the EU-3) of Germany, the UK, and
France. In 2006, the EU-3 were joined by Russia, China and the United States after Iran’s
noncompliance was reported to the UN Security Council.
Some observers may view the second negotiating track as necessary because the
IAEA and Board of Governors failed to take decisive action against a clear pattern of
deception early on; others may view it as necessary because of the potential danger of Iran
pulling out of the NPT. Iran’s voluntary measures negotiated with the EU-3 may have
allowed IAEA inspectors greater access than would otherwise be granted under Iran’s
comprehensive safeguards agreement, but also may have left Iran free to set the terms of
engagement, since Iran’s concessions were voluntary and political. While it is true that
the EU-3 have been unable to obtain Iran’s agreement to a permanent halt to uranium
enrichment activities — their key objective — such an objective could not have been
pursued by the IAEA because that is not in its mandate.
Within a few months of Iran’s voluntary moratorium, there were signs of continued
activities that called into question Iran’s commitment. Although the November 2004 Paris
agreement clarified the terms of the moratorium, by March 2005 Iran proposed running
its pilot-scale enrichment facility, which EU-3 negotiators rejected. In April 2005, Iran
said that unless negotiations progressed, it would start up its uranium conversion plant,
which it did in August 2005.14 Following Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory
remarks at the September 2005 U.N. Summit, the IAEA Board voted on resolution
GOV/2005/77, which found Iran in noncompliance with its safeguards agreement.
Specifically, the Board found that “Iran’s many failures and breaches of its obligations to
comply with its NPT Safeguards Agreement, as detailed in GOV/2003/75, constitute
noncompliance in the context of Article XII.C of the Agency’s Statute.”
For several months thereafter, Iran provided limited details on outstanding issues and
discussed, with Russia, an offer to conduct uranium enrichment on Russian soil as an
alternative to indigenous production. In January 2006, Iran abandoned its voluntary
suspension of enrichment-related activities negotiations, as well as the interim application
of the Additional Protocol, prompting an emergency Board meeting. An IAEA report
prepared for the meeting linked, for the first time, a Khan network document in Iran’s
possession on uranium casting and machining to the fabrication of nuclear weapons
components.15 Iran asserts that the Khan network provided the document on its own
initiative. Nonetheless, Article II of the NPT obligates Iran not to receive any assistance
in the manufacture of nuclear explosives, so the question of whose initiative prompted
14 INFCIRC/648, Communication dated 1 August 2005 received from the Permanent Mission of
the Islamic Republic of Iran to the Agency. Available at [http://www.iaea.org].
15 See [http://www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/Statements/DDGs/2006/heinonen31012006.pdf].
transfer of the document is moot. The February Board passed a resolution (GOV/2006/14,
without consensus) to report Iran to the Security Council.
The U.N. Security Council issued a presidential statement on March 29, 2006 calling
upon Iran to reinstate its suspension of enrichment and reprocessing, reconsider
construction of its heavy water reactor, ratify and implement the Additional Protocol and
implement transparency measures.16 Iran continued its enrichment activities, while
claiming it was cooperating with the IAEA.17 The IAEA reported to the U.N. Security
Council (GOV/2006/27) on April 28 that it was “unable to make progress in its efforts to
provide assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran.”
Its June 8 report (GOV/2006/38) reported even less progress, given a lack of new
On June 6, 2006, the EU-3, Russia, China, and the United States (P-5 + 1) offered
Iran a new negotiating proposal, which included incentives such as affirming Iran’s
inalienable right to peaceful nuclear energy, assistance in building state-of-the-art light
water reactors for Iran, fuel supply guarantees, dismissing U.N. Security Council
consideration of Iran’s NPT noncompliance, WTO membership, and an end to certain U.S.
sanctions to allow Iran to purchase agriculture appliances and Boeing aircraft parts.18 In
return, Iran would suspend enrichment- and reprocessing-related activities, resume
implementation of the Additional Protocol and fully cooperate with the IAEA. Iran’s
moratorium could be reviewed once several conditions had been met, including resolving
all issues and restoring international confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear
program. The proposal also outlined several measures targeted at Iran’s nuclear program
should Iran not agree to cooperate: a ban on nuclear-related exports, freeze of assets,
travel/visa bans, suspension of technical cooperation with the IAEA, a ban on investment
in related entities, and on Iranians studying abroad in nuclear and missile-related areas.
Broader measures could include an arms embargo, no support for WTO membership, and
a general freeze on assets of Iranian financial institutions.
Since June 2006, the Security Council has demanded Iranian compliance and
transparency, and Iran has failed to respond. The P-5 discussed sanctions through the fall,
and the Security Council ultimately adopted UNSCR 1737 on December 23, 2006, which
requires states to prevent the supply, sale or transfer of equipment and technology that
could contribute to enrichment-, reprocessing-, heavy-water-related activities, or missile
delivery systems in Iran and to freeze the funds of persons and entities involved in the
nuclear and ballistic missile programs.19 UNSCR 1737 gave Iran another 60 days to
comply, which expired on February 21, 2007. On February 22, 2007, the IAEA reported
its inability to make further progress and hence its inability to verify the absence of
undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran (GOV/2007/8). The Security Council
continues to discuss further sanctions on Iran. (See CRS Report RL32048, Iran: U.S.
Concerns and Policy Responses, by Kenneth Katzman, for more on sanctions.)
16 See [http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2006/sc8679.doc.htm] for full text.
17 “EU says Iran Nuclear Announcement ‘Regrettable,’” Reuters, Apr. 12, 2006.
18 Text available at [http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/country-files_156/iran_301/the-iranian-
nuclear-question_2724/elements-of-revi sed-proposal-t o-iran_5314.html ].
19 See [http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs//2006/sc8928.doc.htm].