Iran at a Nuclear Crossroads

By David Albright

Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS)

February 20, 2003

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohammad El Baradei, is making a critical visit to Iran this weekend. His visit could reveal much about whether Iran intends to obtain nuclear weapons, or whether Tehran is willing to take the necessary steps to convince the international community that its nuclear program is peaceful, as it declares.

During his visit, El Baradei will meet with President Mohammad Khatami, Majlis Speaker Mehdi Karroubi, and Chairman of the Expediency Council Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. In addition, on Friday, El Baradei is visiting a secret nuclear site at Natanz near Kashan, which is a uranium enrichment plant that appears several years from being completed. Members of his team will remain in Iran until late next week, and they want to visit several other facilities. Just as important, IAEA officials also expect to receive during their visit substantial information about Iran's nuclear facilities and activities.

The Natanz site was unknown to the IAEA until the summer of 2002 when an Iranian opposition group revealed its existence. It also revealed the existence of another site at Arak that contains a heavy water plant that is nearing completion.

Using commercial satellite information and information from IAEA member states, the IAEA was able to determine the purpose of these sites during the fall of 2002. Although the opposition group called the Natanz site a fuel fabrication plant, the IAEA was able to determine that the site actually was a uranium enrichment plant, a far more sensitive nuclear site than a fuel fabrication plant. Even if the plant was built to make only low enriched uranium for reactor fuel, it could be rapidly converted to the production of weapon-grade uranium for nuclear weapons. The public saw these sites for the first time in December 2002 in commercial satellite images released by ISIS. Click here to see the latest assessment of one of the sites in the satellite images. To see all of the images, see the Iran index page.

On February 9, 2003, President Khatami revealed in an extensive television speech that Iran was operating or constructing a large number of facilities to produce fuel for nuclear reactors. In addition to acknowledging the existence of the enrichment plant at Natanz, he said that Iran was operating or building uranium mines, uranium concentration and conversion facilities, and fuel fabrication plants. The next day, the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, said that the uranium conversion facility that is slated to open soon at Isfahan will transform yellowcake into uranium oxide, uranium hexafluoride, and uranium metal. He added that natural uranium oxide could be used directly as fuel in reactors that do not require enriched uranium. This statement could explain the purpose of the Arak heavy water plant, namely that Iran plans to operate a heavy water reactor that uses natural uranium fuel. He did not explain the purpose of uranium metal, raising eyebrows because uranium metal has few civil uses, but it is a key ingredient in nuclear weapons.

As welcome as these statements are, they raise more questions than they answer. Why does Iran need a uranium enrichment plant, given that Russia will provide low enriched uranium fuel to the Bushehr power reactor and any follow-on reactor orders? When will Natanz facility be finished? Why has Iran been building this facility in secret? Why are several of the buildings at Natanz being constructed underground? Are there laboratory-scale or pilot plants located elsewhere that have already enriched uranium?

Heavy water is not needed for the Bushehr light water power reactor that Iran is building with Russian assistance. Where is the reactor that would use this material? Why does Iran need heavy water reactors, which can be considerably easier to use to make weapon-grade plutonium than light water power reactors?

Answers to these questions are long overdue. If Iran operates these facilities, it can also use them to make weapon-grade uranium, or possibly separated plutonium, the necessary ingredients for nuclear weapons. Once Iran acquires these materials, it would not take long for Iran to fabricate the material into nuclear weapons deliverable on ballistic missiles. Thus, Iranian progress on operating its fuel cycle plants has increased tensions in the region.

Khatemi again pledged in his February statement that Iran's nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes. But the international needs convincing.

Iran should provide the IAEA detailed information about its nuclear facilities and activities. Iran needs to submit to the IAEA a new, formal declaration under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and its accompanying safeguards agreement. This declaration should include information about all its nuclear facilities, its research and development facilities, and their related manufacturing facilities. The declaration should also include a history of Iran's nuclear program, the current status of that effort, and future plans.

Iran needs to provide the IAEA with detailed design information about all its nuclear facilities as soon as it decides to authorize construction. Other countries do so regularly, but Iran has so far refused to accept this request by the IAEA.

Equally important, this visit should not be a one-shot occurrence. It should be the start of an on-going transparency process. Inspectors should continue visiting these sites and others in the future, and Iran should answer any questions posed by the inspectors. Iran should grant the IAEA the right to visit sites "anywhere, anytime, within reason," a commitment made by South Africa.

Iran could also take additional steps to increase transparency. It sould sign and ratify the advanced inspection protocol that the member states of the IAEA negotiated in the 1990s to make it harder for countries to hide clandestine nuclear sites.

What should Iran expect in return? At least part of the answer lies in Khatami's television speech. He stressed that Iran needs science and technology assistance, particularly "high tech" assistance. Iran is unlikely to receive such assistance if questions about Iran's nuclear intentions remain. Iran has a unique opportunity to come clean about its long-secret nuclear program and subject its entire nuclear program to rigorous inspections. Thereby, it would dramatically reduce suspicions that the real purpose of its nuclear facilities is to make nuclear weapons.

However, inspections are not going to remove suspicions that Iran may produce nuclear explosive material in its uranium enrichment facilities. These facilities, and any plutonium separation facilities, are bound to provoke deep concern and suspicion among its neighbors and in the international community. If Iran truly wants the fruits of international assistance, it should also halt construction of any uranium enrichment or plutonium separation plants.