Nuclear Program of Iran - Overview


The controversy over Iran's nuclear programs centers in particular on Iran's failure to declare sensitive enrichment and reprocessing activities to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Enrichment can be used to produce uranium for reactor fuel or (at higher enrichment levels) for weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful, and has enriched uranium to less than 5%, consistent with fuel for a civilian nuclear power plant. Iran also claims that it was forced to resort to secrecy after US pressure caused several of its nuclear contracts with foreign governments to fall through. After the IAEA Board of Governors reported Iran's noncompliance with its safeguards agreement to the UN Security Council, the Council demanded that Iran suspend its nuclear enrichment activities while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has argued that the sanctions are "illegal," imposed by "arrogant powers," and that Iran has decided to pursue the monitoring of its self-described peaceful nuclear program through "its appropriate legal path," the International Atomic Energy Agency.

After public allegations about Iran's previously undeclared nuclear activities, the IAEA launched an investigation that concluded in November 2003 that Iran had systematically failed to meet its obligations under its NPT safeguards agreement to report those activities to the IAEA, although it also reported no evidence of links to a nuclear weapons program. The IAEA Board of Governors delayed a formal finding of non-compliance until September 2005, and reported that non-compliance to the UN Security Council in February 2006. After the IAEA Board of Governors reported Iran's noncompliance with its safeguards agreement to the United Nations Security Council, the Council demanded that Iran suspend its enrichment programs. The Council imposed sanctions after Iran refused to do so. A May 2009 U.S. Congressional Report suggested "the United States, and later the Europeans, argued that Iran's deception meant it should forfeit its right to enrich, a position likely to be up for negotiation in talks with Iran."

In exchange for suspending its enrichment program, Iran has been offered "a long-term comprehensive arrangement which would allow for the development of relations and cooperation with Iran based on mutual respect and the establishment of international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program." However, Iran has consistently refused to give up its enrichment program, arguing that the program is necessary for its energy security, that such "long term arrangements" are inherently unreliable, and would deprive it of its inalienable right to peaceful nuclear technology. In June 2009, in the immediate wake of the disputed Iranian presidential election, Iran initially agreed to a deal to relinquish its stockpile of low-enriched uranium in return for fuel for a medical research reactor, but then backed out of the deal. Currently, thirteen states possess operational enrichment or reprocessing facilities, and several others have expressed an interest in developing indigenous enrichment programs. Iran's position was endorsed by the Non-Aligned Movement, which expressed concern about the potential monopolization of nuclear fuel production.

To address concerns that its enrichment program may be diverted to non-peaceful uses, Iran has offered to place additional restrictions on its enrichment program including, for example, ratifying the Additional Protocol to allow more stringent inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, operating the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz as a multinational fuel center with the participation of foreign representatives, renouncing plutonium reprocessing and immediately fabricating all enriched uranium into reactor fuel rods. Iran's offer to open its uranium enrichment program to foreign private and public participation mirrors suggestions of an IAEA expert committee which was formed to investigate the methods to reduce the risk that sensitive fuel cycle activities could contribute to national nuclear weapons capabilities. Some non-governmental U.S. experts have endorsed this approach. The United States has insisted that Iran must meet the demands of the UN Security Council to suspend its enrichment program. In every other case in which the IAEA Board of Governors made a finding of safeguards non-compliance involving clandestine enrichment or reprocessing, the resolution has involved (in the cases of Iraq and Libya) or is expected to involve (in the case of North Korea) at a minimum ending sensitive fuel cycle activities. According to Pierre Goldschmidt, former deputy director general and head of the department of safeguards at the IAEA, and Henry D. Sokolski, Executive Director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, some other instances of safeguards noncompliance reported by the IAEA Secretariat (South Korea, Egypt) were never reported to the Security Council because the IAEA Board of Governors never made a formal finding of non-compliance. Though South Korea's case involved enriching uranium to levels near weapons grade, the country itself voluntarily reported the isolated activity and Goldschmidt has argued "political considerations also played a dominant role in the board's decision" to not make a formal finding of non-compliance.

Estimating when Iran might possibly achieve nuclear "breakout" capability, defined as having produced a sufficient quantity of highly-enriched uranium to fuel a weapon - if a working design for one existed and the political decision to assemble it was made - is uncertain. A detailed analysis by physicists at the Federation of American Scientists concludes that such an estimate would depend on the total number and overall efficiency of the centrifuges Iran has in operation, and the amount of low-enriched uranium it has stockpiled to serve as "feedstock" for a possible high-enrichment program. A 23 March 2012 U.S. Congressional Research Service report quotes the 24 February 2012 IAEA report saying that Iran has stockpiled 240 pounds of 20-percent-enriched uranium - an enrichment level necessary for medical applications - as an indication of their capacity to enrich to higher levels. The authoritarian political culture of Iran may pose additional challenges to a scientific program requiring cooperation among many technical specialists. U.S. intelligence agency officials interviewed by The New York Times in March 2012 said they continued to assess that Iran had not restarted its weaponization program, which the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate said Iran had discontinued in 2003, although they have found evidence that some weaponization-related activities have continued. The Israeli Mossad reportedly shared this belief.

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