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Nuclear Weapons


Iran's nuclear program began in the Shah's era, including a plan to build 20 nuclear power reactors. Two power reactors in Bushehr, on the coast of the Persian Gulf, were started but remained unfinished when they were bombed and damaged by the Iraqis during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). Following the revolution in 1979, all nuclear activity was suspended, though subsequently work was resumed on a somewhat more modest scale. Current plans extend to the construction of 15 power reactors and two research reactors. Research and development efforts also were conducted by the Shah's regime on fissile material production, although these efforts were halted during the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war.

Iran ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970, and since February 1992 has allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect its nuclear facilities.

It is generally believed that Iran's efforts are focused on uranium enrichment, though there are some indications of work on a parallel plutonium effort. Iran claims it is trying to establish a complete nuclear fuel cycle to support a civilian energy program, but this same fuel cycle could potentially be applicable to a nuclear weapons development program. Iran appears to have spread their nuclear activities around a number of sites to reduce the risk of detection or attack.

Recent Developments:

Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council Resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008) and 1835 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Report of the International Atomic Energy Agency, February 19, 2009.

There are ongoing investigations by the IAEA concerning Iran's compliance with the NPT. At the end of August 2003, the IAEA stated in a confidential report leaked to the media that trace elements of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) were found in an Iranian nuclear facility. In June of 2003, an IAEA Director General report stated that Iran had not met the obligations required of it by the NPT. A November 2003 report identified further violations. In February 2004 it was discovered that Iran had blueprints for an advanced centrifuge design usable for uranium enrichment that it had withheld from nuclear inspectors. In December 2003, Iran signed an additional protocol authorizing IAEA inspectors to make intrusive, snap inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities. The protocol was signed as an addition to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Remaining uncertainties surrounding Iran's uranium enrichment activities were addressed in the IAEA's November 2004 report. IAEA Deputy Director for Safeguards, Pierre Goldschmidt, reported in June 2005 that Iran had admitted to separating out small amounts of plutonium as recently as 1998.

Despite suspending its enrichment and conversion programs in 2003, Iran resumed uranium conversion in 2005 and enrichment in 2006. In 2009, it was revealed that Iran had secretly constructed a second enrichment facility within a Revolutionary Guards military base twenty miles from the city of Qum. The enrichment facility near Qum is smaller than the Natanz enrichment facility. The smaller size of the Qum enrichment facility combined with its location within a military base suggests to some that this second enrichment plant is not for enriching uranium required for generating civil nuclear power. Iran maintains that the facility is necessary for enriching uranium for its research reactor and it was built due to worries that the Natanz facility is vulnerable to attack. One study notes that the Qum enrichment facility is potentially too small to be an effective enrichment plant for weapons grade material. In the study’s conclusion, the authors note that the Qum enrichment facility is “neither ideal for commercial nor military purposes.”

In November 2007, a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) undertaken by the United States Intelligence Community concluded “with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” The NIE further stated that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons until the fall of 2003 and that it was likely that international pressure persuaded the Iranians to end its nuclear weapons program. The NIE went on to say that Iran’s civilian uranium enrichment program was ongoing and that some commercial and conventional military research programs Iran was conducting could potentially have limited use in a nuclear weapons program although the NIE asserted that Iran’s nuclear weapon program was suspended.

More recently, on November 9, 2011, the IAEA reported that it still had serious concerns that Iran’s nuclear program continued to have potential military dimensions to them and that Iran has been carrying out activities relating to developing explosive nuclear devices. This report stated that evidence suggests that Iran has likely continued to have an organized nuclear weapons program going back to 2003. The conclusions of the November 9, 2011 IAEA report have been reiterated in more recent reports, indicating that concern over Iran’s nuclear program has not diminished. In January 2012, in response to continued concern over Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s stonewalling of IAEA inspections, the European Union agreed to tighter sanctions against Iran that banned oil purchases from the Islamic Republic. This was in collaboration with the United States, which further tightened its own economic sanctions against Iran. In late May 2012, satellite imagery revealed that Iran has potentially engaged in “ground-scraping activities” in Parchin to conceal facilities and equipment that could be associated with developing nuclear weapons before United Nations inspectors could visit the site.

Sources and Resources

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Maintained by Steven Aftergood and Jonathan Garbose
Created by John Pike
Updated June 5, 2012