The Road to Perdition: Iran's Nuclear Program

Although Iran has been complying with its commitments according to the nuclear agreement for the time being, its current conduct suggests that it retains the option of renewing the military nuclear program

The reactor of Bushehr nuclear plant, Iran (Photo: AP)

A year has passed since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany), the European Union and IAEA (the International Atomic Energy Agency) was signed in Vienna on July 14, 2015. This action plan was intended to delay the realization of the military elements of Iran's nuclear program. The plan became effective on January 16, 2016 (hereinafter "The Implementation Day") as IAEA began verifying and monitoring the actual implementation of Iran's nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA. At this point it is indeed appropriate to examine how Iran has thus far implemented the agreement signed in Vienna, not only through the narrow perspective of the nuclear issues but also through the wider perspective of Iran's conduct since the agreement was signed.

By May 2016, according to the latest reports by IAEA, since the Implementation Day Iran has been implementing the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement vis-à-vis IAEA, demonstrating transparency opposite IAEA's supervision of its nuclear facilities and complying, for the time being, with its commitments in accordance with the Vienna Agreement. Iran has reduced its inventory of UF6 enriched to 3.67% to 300 kilograms, the number of centrifuges at Natanz to 5,060 active units, the number of centrifuges at Fordo to 1,044 inactive units, and has completely stopped the enrichment of uranium at Fordo. Additionally, it has completely stopped the activities associated with the heavy water reactor at Arak, removed the reactor core vessel (scientific code Calandria) from the reactor building and filled the vessel openings with concrete.

However, contrary to all of the above, Iran may still be concealing from IAEA information that pertains to its past activities in fields associated with the development of nuclear weapons, referred to in IAEA's reports under Possible Military Dimensions (PMD). In this context it should be noted that only on September 20, 2015 were IAEA inspectors allowed to visit the Parchin facility and collect soil samples. This inspection was initiated pursuant to intelligence information available to IAEA, according to which Iran had built a facility in Parchin back in 2002, where a very large vessel was installed, whose characteristics indicated that it had been designed for hydrodynamic testing of explosives. Accordingly, that vessel could be used for conducting "cold experiments" of symmetrically imploding high explosive hemispherical shells surrounding natural uranium metal hemispheres in scaled-down experiments of implosion packages. Additionally, it could be used to test the neutron trigger of a U-D-D (uranium deuteride) type nuclear bomb. The Iranians claimed that the Parchin facility was used for storing chemicals and manufacturing explosives, but soil samples collected at the site refuted those claims. On the other hand, soil samples collected on September 20, 2015 contained two particulates of natural uranium that originated from some kind of uranium processing. However, owing to the minute amount of uranium found at the site, the source of the material could not be identified. In conclusion, the information available to IAEA, along with the satellite images and the soil samples, refuted the Iranians' claims regarding the function of the Parchin facility. However, the intensive changes the Iranians made at the facility denied IAEA the ability to verify that hydrodynamic tests associated with the development of nuclear weapons had, indeed, been conducted at the facility.

Breakout Time

However, as stated as far back as a year ago, the problematic nature of the nuclear agreement with Iran involves the ability to cope with the "breakout time" – the time that Iran would require in order to manufacture a nuclear weapon, if at some point Iran decided to break the rules and break out of the agreement. According to President Obama, who addressed this issue just before the signature of the Vienna Agreement, the "breakout time" would be one year – long enough to enable the superpowers to uncover Iran's military nuclear effort and stop it. Conversely, various experts claimed that the "breakout time" might be reduced to just a few months, so stopping Iran would not be possible. In this context, as we know today, Obama had been determined from the outset to finalize a deal with Iran at any cost, and all of his efforts to present the agreement as a good agreement were intended to enable him to 'sell' it to the US Congress as well as to the allies of the USA in the Middle East.

Moreover, the Vienna Agreement enables Iran to continue the development and conduct – even at this time – experiments on the advanced centrifuge models it had developed, which possess an enrichment capacity 10 times as high (or even more) as the centrifuges Iran has been operating until now. These experiments include the actual enrichment of uranium, although Iran was banned from storing the enriched uranium and is bound to have it depleted at the end of the enrichment process. This restriction was imposed on Iran for a period of 10 years, starting on the Implementation Day (January 16, 2016). Another restriction imposed on Iran for a period of 15 years involves the centrifuge trials, which Iran can only conduct at the testbed facility adjacent to the uranium enrichment facility in Natanz as well as at the Tehran nuclear research center. As a result, even if Iran does not violate the Vienna Agreement, when that agreement comes to an end, Iran will be able to promptly develop an advanced uranium enrichment capability, at which time it would be able to easily store a massive amount of enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

Additionally, Iran has thus far developed a significant capability in fields of activity associated with the parallel route of producing plutonium as a fissile material for the manufacture of nuclear weapons. As stated previously, Iran was compelled by the Vienna Agreement to dismantle the core vessel of the heavy water reactor in Arak for the purpose of converting it into a reactor possessing no military potential, to be used exclusively for research and for the manufacture of radio-isotopes for medical and industrial applications. However, the extensive experience and knowledge Iran had acquired in the field of nuclear reactors may enable it to re-establish a plutonium-producing reactor in the future. Iran also gained experience in the manufacture of nuclear fuel for such reactors, and the facility it had established to manufacture heavy water for the reactor is still active. Moreover, the Iranian scientists gained considerable knowledge and experience, at the laboratory level, in the separation of plutonium from the spent fuel of nuclear reactors, so they are capable of upgrading the experience they had gained into a pilot plant for the separation of plutonium and possibly even more than that.

The North Korean Connection

One worrisome aspect of the Vienna Agreement involves the close links between Iran and North Korea, which still aligns itself, to this day, with the 'Axis of Evil'. These links were reflected in the past mainly through the cooperation in the field of ballistic missiles. However, the broad basis for nuclear cooperation between Iran and North Korea may also include the military aspect, in particular the enrichment of uranium using the centrifuge method and nuclear weapon trials. A key Iranian figure in the context of this issue is, apparently, Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, a senior officer of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution and a professor of physics at the Imam Hossein Comprehensive University (of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution), regarded as 'the father of the Iranian nuclear bomb'. IAEA reports of previous years indicated that Iran had refused to allow IAEA inspectors to question him. Fakhrizadeh has gone underground some time ago, not just for fearing for his life, but also because of Iran's refusal to fully divulge all of the elements of its nuclear weapons program. It should be noted that several newspaper reports alleged that Fakhrizadeh attended, at least as an observer, the nuclear trial North Korea conducted on February 12, 2013. Against this background, there is cause for concern that in view of the restrictions the Vienna Agreement now imposes on Iran, it might use North Korea as a testbed for subsequent activities associated with the Iranian military nuclear program.

It should be stressed that one element is conspicuously absent from the Vienna nuclear deal: a reference to the Iranian effort to develop ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Admittedly, Wendy Sherman, US Undersecretary of State, assured in her testimony before the US Congress on February 4, 2014, that the matter of the ballistic missiles, included as an element in the resolutions of the UN Security Council "has to be addressed as part of a comprehensive agreement" of the Iranian nuclear issue. Additionally, on July 20, 2015, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2231, which imposes restrictions on Iran for the next 8 years regarding its continued activities in the field of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, including missile launching trials. Iran, however, just as it had done before, blatantly ignores the resolutions of the UN Security Council, claiming that the ballistic missiles were intended for the legitimate purpose of defending its territory – not as weapons of mass destruction.

Iran's Advanced Missiles

Iran continues to develop ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads and has recently conducted several launching trials. The first trial was conducted on October 10, 2015 and involved the launching of an Emad missile – an upgraded version of the Shihab-3 missile. The Emad missile is powered by liquid fuel, has a range of about 1,700 km and a CEP of about half a kilometer and can carry a warhead weighing up to 750 kg. On the day following the trial, the missile was presented to the media by the Iranian Minister of Defense, Brigadier-General Hossein Dehghan.

Another missile Iran has been developing is the Sejjil-2 – a more advanced missile powered by solid fuel. It has a range of 1,900 to 2,000 km and can also carry a warhead weighing up to 750 kg. The ability to develop a solid fuel engine is an important milestone in the evolution of Iranian missile technology. A trial of the Sejjil-1 missile was conducted in 2008 and the flight tests of the Sejjil-2 missile began in 2009. According to Brigadier-General Abdollah Araghi, Deputy Commander of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, the missile can "Target any place that threatens Iran". The flight tests of the Sejjil-2 missile were discontinued in 2011, but were renewed with the flight test conducted recently, on November 21, 2015. It should be noted that based on the technologies of the Sejjil missile, Iran also aspires to develop a 3-stage missile to a range of 3,700 kilometers, the Sejjil-3, but it is estimated that this project would not begin before 2017.

According to the Iranian media, Iran fired, on March 9, 2016, two Ghader missiles, one Ghader-F and one Ghader-H, from a launching site in the Alborz Mountain region, at targets located about 1,400 km away in the south-eastern part of the country. The nominal range of the Ghader-F missile is 2,000 km and that of the Ghader-H is 1,700 km (Ghader-H is probably just a different designation for the Emad missile).

However, Tehran went even further by defying the UN and the West when it ignored UN Security Council Resolution 2231. According to Fox News (July 15, 2016), based on intelligence sources, between July 11 and July 12, two days before the first anniversary of the Vienna Agreement, Iran conducted yet another trial by launching a ballistic missile based on North Korean technology. In any case, this trial failed.

Moreover, the statements made by Brigadier-General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Air & Space Arm of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, spilled the beans. He said: "The reason we designed our missiles with a range of 2,000 km is to be able to hit our enemy, the Zionist regime, from a safe distance." Additionally, according to Fars News, the Iranian news agency, the missiles carry the following inscription in Hebrew: "Israel should be wiped off the pages of history."

Indeed, the shrill rhetoric of the 'Supreme Leader' and the choir of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, chanting 'Death to America' or 'Death to Israel' reflect the continued aggressive conduct of the government in Tehran, and increase the concerns that at some point in time that the Iranians consider appropriate, the Iranian regime might decide to violate the Vienna Agreement and break out afresh in the direction of nuclear arms.

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Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Rafael Ofek is an expert in the physics and technology of nuclear power. He had served in the Israeli intelligence community as a senior researcher and analyst

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