Iran's Nuclear Efforts, Capabilities Still Murky

By Kerr, Paul | Arms Control Today, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Iran's Nuclear Efforts, Capabilities Still Murky


Kerr, Paul, Arms Control Today


Even as the UN Security Council has begun considering potential responses to Iran's controversial nuclear program, Tehran's nuclear capabilities and intentions remain shrouded in ambiguity.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is not "in a position to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran," Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei wrote in a Feb. 27 report to the agency's Board of Governors.

Largely because of Iran's lack of full cooperation with the investigation, the report adds, there remain "uncertainties related to the scope and nature" of Iran's nuclear efforts, particularly its uranium-enrichment program. An IAEA investigation, which began more than three years ago, has discovered a variety of clandestine Iranian nuclear activities, some of which violate the country's safeguards agreement with the agency. Such agreements, which are required under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), allow the IAEA to monitor NPT states-parties' declared civilian nuclear activities to ensure they are not used for military purposes.

Iran's secret nuclear activities, laggard cooperation with the IAEA, and evidence of military ties to its ostensibly peaceful nuclear program have fueled concerns that Iran is attempting to acquire nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, the evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program remains largely circumstantial. The IAEA has not recently discovered evidence of any undeclared Iranian nuclear programs. There is also no direct evidence that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.

U.S. officials, however, continue to insist that Iran is intent on acquiring such weapons, although they acknowledge that it would take Tehran some time to do so, even if the programs continue.

Robert Joseph, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, told the House International Relations Committee March 8 that the U.S. intelligence community estimates Iran to be approximately five to 10 years away from a nuclear weapons capability, a time frame consistent with previously reported U.S. estimates. (See ACT, September 2005.)

Joseph explained that Iran faces technical obstacles to developing its uraniumenrichment program but has the ability to overcome those problems over time. Washington, however, may not have a good sense of how much longer Iran needs, he said, adding that several "wildcards," including potential assistance from foreign entities, could "accelerate that timeline."

Uranium-Enrichment Program

U.S. officials' most immediate concern is Tehran's development of a gas centrifugebased uranium-enrichment program. Gas centrifuges enrich uranium by spinning uranium hexafluoride gas at very high speeds in order to increase the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope. They can produce both low-enriched uranium, which can be used in nuclear power reactors, and highly enriched uranium, which can be used in certain types of nuclear reactors and as fissile material in nuclear weapons.

Iran has a pilot centrifuge facility and is constructing a much larger commercial facility. Tehran has told the IAEA that the pilot and commercial facilities will eventually contain approximately 1,000 and 50,000 centrifuges, respectively.

Although Iran has made progress on its enrichment program during the past several months, its ability to produce centrifuges currently appears to be limited. Iran has told the IAEA that it plans to install 3,000 centrifuges in the commercial facility beginning in the last quarter of this year. But a Department of State official told Arms Control Today March 17 that Washington is uncertain that Iran will be able to manufacture enough centrifuge components in time. In addition, Iran is still dependent on foreign suppliers for some key components, the official said.

A diplomatic source had previously indicated that Tehran can build large numbers of P-I centrifuges but not enough to meet the commercial centrifuge facility's planned capacity. …

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