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Why does oil-rich Iran need nuclear fuel?

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Dore Gold

The dramatic November 2011 report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) comes after years that the agency has come close to concluding that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons without saying so explicitly. Since the Iranian nuclear program was first disclosed to the public in 2002, there have been growing suspicions that it had a military purpose, but no one could offer any definitive proof.

Many analysts asked why Iran, which had huge oil and gas reserves, needs to invest in a program to produce electricity from nuclear reactors? Iran could have used its budgetary resources more effectively if it had invested them in its oil production infrastructure. Analysts also asked why Iran needed to build a huge infrastructure at Natanz to enrich uranium for nuclear reactors that it didn’t even have. After all, Russia had promised to supply enriched uranium for the sole reactor at Bushehr that it constructed specifically for the purpose of producing electricity.

Moreover, many countries with nuclear reactors imported enriched uranium. Why was Iran building an expensive uranium enrichment industry for itself? The limited size of the deposits in Iran’s uranium mines was too small for producing nuclear fuel for all of Iran’s electricity needs; Iran would have to import uranium in the future in any case. Finally, the question remained, why did it keep this industry secret if it only had civilian applications? Iran was forced to disclose its uranium enrichment facilities (as well as its heavy water reactor at Arak) because others made them public in the West in 2002 and again in 2009.

While France already in 2006 accused Iran of developing a nuclear weapons program, Iran continued to make the case that its nuclear work had only civilian applications. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would always demand that his colleagues in the UN Security Council provide him with the proof that Iran had a military program. In the meantime, Russia and China always defended Iran in the Security Council and sought to water down the six resolutions the council adopted against Tehran.

The United States discovered proof of the Iranian nuclear program in 2004. Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton describes in his memoirs how secretary of state Colin Powell decided to reveal that he had seen new American intelligence about Iranian efforts to fit a nuclear weapon into the warhead of a missile. But in the years that followed, the credibility of the United States to convince the world that Iran indeed wanted nuclear weapons was impaired when the Bush administration argued that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and none were found.

The importance of the reports of the IAEA grew partly because of how the assessments of the United States were perceived in international circles after the Iraq War. The IAEA argued right up to 2003 that Saddam no longer had weapons of mass destruction. If the IAEA would give “hawkish” assessments on Iran, then the world might listen.

A critical turning point in the IAEA’s attitude to Iran occurred in February 2008 when its deputy director general, Ollie Heinonen, gave a briefing to representatives of more than 100 countries. According to the New York Times, Heinonen displayed Iranian documents that he stressed came from several member states of the IAEA – and not just from the U.S. Der Spiegel reported in June 2010 that the material came from a joint operation by German and American intelligence agencies that got hold of an Iranian engineer’s computer.

The IAEA had the international standing to authenticate U.S. intelligence reports for those who doubted their veracity. When the IAEA said they were true, many more countries were willing to accept them. Sanger wrote that he believed that Heinonen hoped his classified briefing would leak – and it did.

The Iranian documents detailed how to design a warhead for the 1,300-kilometre-range Shahab-3 missile, which had been operational in the Iranian armed forces since 2003. While the Iranian documents made no reference to a nuclear warhead, they did show the arc of a missile’s flight and that the warhead of the missile had to be detonated at an altitude of 600 metres. To the experts of the IAEA, a conventional explosion at that altitude would have no effect on the ground below. But 600 metres is the ideal altitude for a nuclear explosion over a city. Heinonen did not yet say that the Iranians were making nuclear weapons, but he left his audience in Vienna with many questions they were not asking before.

By May 2011, the IAEA had become far more explicit in its report on Iran than Heinonen had been. It raised its concerns about the “possible existence” of seven areas of military research in the Iranian nuclear program, the last of which was the most alarming: “The removal of the conventional high-explosive payload from the warhead of the Shahab-3 missile and replacing it with a spherical nuclear payload.” The Shahab-3 missile has the range to strike Israel from Iranian territory. In May, the IAEA was not ready to say it had reached any conclusions. It only sought “clarifications” about its suspicions.

The November 2011 IAEA report showed that the IAEA no longer had “suspicions” about the Iranian weaponization program – it had what it called “credible” information. The annex of the report, moreover, devotes a whole section to the “credibility of information.” It was not relying on the Iranian laptop that was at the heart of Heinonen’s 2008 presentation, but also on a much larger volume of documentation. The IAEA report states that the agency had more than 1,000 pages of material to substantiate its claims. In case there were suspicions that this material came from U.S. intelligence agencies alone, the annex makes sure to clarify that the sources for the IAEA involved “more than 10 member states.”

The material that the IAEA presented pointed clearly to the fact that Iran wanted to develop a deliverable nuclear weapon. There was documentation in Farsi detailing the safety arrangements that would have to be put in place for conducting a nuclear test.

The Iranians had also sought to obtain uranium for a secret enrichment program that would not be under IAEA safeguards. The uranium that would come out of this clandestine program would be further processed to produce the uranium metal required for a nuclear warhead. The planned warhead design also underwent studies that investigated how it would operate if it was part of a missile re-entry vehicle and had to stand up to the stress of a missile launch and flying in a ballistic trajectory to its target. The IAEA concluded that “work on the development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon including the testing of components” had been executed by the Iranians. That “indigenous design,” however, required external help. The IAEA report discloses that aspects of Iran’s nuclear weapons “design concept” came from a foreign country, presumably from a nuclear-weapon state.

Third, the IAEA report provided further proof that Iran’s inventory of enriched uranium was continuing to grow despite the reported damage caused to Iran’s centrifuges. If Iran had 839 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, according to the June 2009 IAEA report, it had 2,427 kilograms according to the May 2010 IAEA report. In September 2011, the IAEA report stated that Iran had enriched a total of 4,543 kilograms of low-enriched uranium. The November report put that number at 4,922 kilograms. If all Iran requires is a little over 900 kilograms of low-enriched uranium to produce sufficient weapons-grade uranium for a single bomb, then Iran already has enough uranium on hand for at least four or five nuclear bombs, should it decide to further enrich its stock of low-enriched uranium. Iran’s smaller stock of 20 per cent enriched uranium also continued to grow, albeit in smaller quantities.

Finally, it is important to recall when reviewing this information that at the end of 2007, the United States published the “key judgments” of its National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran. That document asserted with “high confidence” that Iran had halted the weaponization component of its nuclear program back in 2003. The November 2011 IAEA report shows how wrong the 2007 NIE document was. The later report specifically says, “Some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device continued after 2003, and that some may be ongoing.”

The November 2011 IAEA report provides the details for what the agency has long suspected – that Iran is determined to obtain nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them to target.

Roughly five years have passed since the UN Security Council took up the Iranian nuclear issue and adopted its first resolution demanding that Tehran halt its uranium enrichment program. The new IAEA report should be used to ratchet up the sanctions on Iran. But it is doubtful that even with this new information, there will be a sufficient consensus at the Security Council for decisive measures that might cause Iran to change the course it has decided upon.

Dore Gold is president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is the author of The Rise of Nuclear Iran: How Tehran Defies the West (Regnery, 2009).

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