Iran’s Nuclear Threat: Real or Fiction? (Part I)

Those who have been following the events in the Middle East, particularly in the last few years, could not have missed the constant barrage of literature dealing with the supposed Iranian nuclear threat to the rest of the world. We are expected to believe that Iran, a country with no violent history in the last two centuries, possessing nether the intent nor the means (both weapon and delivery technology) somehow is a threat to global peace and security. Only few people have given this issue the attention that it deserves, the rest either know very little or nothing at all about how Iran has come to be in its current position.

In the following few postings, it is my intention to unpack the issue as much as possible so that people who come to confer on this, will base their discussion on facts rather than emotion. Let us begin by a brief review of the history of Iranian Nuclear activity: [1]

Middle Eastern historians have asserted that the history of Iran’s nuclear research and development begins with the bilateral agreements between Iran and the US in the mid 1960. Tehran Nuclear Research Center (TNRC), founded in 1967, housed at Tehran University, and run by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) was probably the first important nuclear facility built by the Shah. This center, has a 5-megawatt nuclear research reactor, supplied by the US in 1967.

Iran signed the NPT on July 1, 1968 and after ratification of the Treaty by the Iranian parliament (Majlis), the Treaty went into effect on March 5, 1970. The Shah, encouraged by the US to expand Iran’s non-oil energy base and supported by a study by the influential Stanford Research Institute that concluded that Iran would need, by the year 1990, an electrical capacity of about 20,000-megawatt, asked for and received assurances from the US that he would be given help and assistance to build as many as twenty nuclear reactors. The Shah’s government awarded a contract to Kraftwerk Union (a subsidiary of Siemens) of (West) Germany at the time, to construct two Siemens 1,200-megawatt nuclear reactors at Bushehr and the work began in 1974. In 1975, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology signed a contract with the AEOI for providing training for the first cadre of Iranian nuclear engineers. In the mid-1970s with the French assistance, the Nuclear Technology Center at Isfahan was founded in order to provide training for the personnel that would be working with the Bushehr reactors. The Isfahan Center currently operates four small nuclear research reactors, all supplied by China.

In 1974, Iranian government singed a contract with the French company Framatome to build two 950 megawatt pressurized reactors close to the Iraqi boarder near Ahwaz. As the construction had not yet started, the government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan cancelled the contract after the Islamic revolution in 1979. In 1992, Iran signed an agreement with China for building the same reactors, but the terms of the agreement have not yet been carried out by China.

In an address to the symposium, “The US and Iran, An Increasing Partnership,” held in October 1977, Mr. Sydney Sober, a representative of the US State Department, declared that the Shah’s government was going to purchase EIGHT nuclear reactors from the US for generating electricity. On July 10, 1978, only seven months before the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the final draft of the US-Iran Nuclear Energy Agreement was signed. The agreement was supposed to facilitate cooperation in the field of nuclear energy and to govern the export and transfer of equipment and material to Iran’s nuclear energy program. Iran was also to receive American technology and help in searching for uranium deposits.

According to Dr. Akbar E’temad, who was the founder and first President of the AEOI from 1974 to 1978, the TNRC carried out experiments in which plutonium was extracted from spent fuel using chemical agents. [2] In February 1979, when the Islamic Revolution toppled the Shah’s government, the Bushehr-1 was 90% complete and 60% of its equipment had been installed, while Bushehr-2 was 50% complete. Had the 1979 Revolution not happened, in all likelihood, the Kraftwerk Union would have continued its work with the cooperation of the Bechtel Power (US Company), which was its joint-venture partner in many power plant projects around the world.

After the German firm left Iran, the government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan decided that Iran at that particular time could do without nuclear energy, and therefore the work at Bushehr came to a halt.  During its war with Iran, Iraq bombed the Bushehr site six times (in March 1984, February 1985, March 1985, July 1986, and twice in November 1987), which destroyed the entire core area of both reactors.

After the war with Iraq ended, however, Iran began to rethink her position regarding nuclear energy. President Hashemi Rafsanjani’s government proposed the reconstruction and development of Iranian nuclear program for obtaining electricity, driven especially by the rapid growth in Iranian population and the chronic shortage of electricity that went back to the 1970s.

Rafsanjani’s government first approached Kraftwerk Union to complete the Bushehr project. However, under the US pressure, Kraftwerk Union refused. Iran then asked Germany to allow Kraftwerk to ship the reactor components and technical documentation that it had paid for, citing a 1982 International Commerce Commission (ICC) ruling under which Siemens was obligated to deliver all plant materials and components stored outside Iran, but the German government still refused to do so. In response, Iran filed a lawsuit in August 1996 with the ICC, asking for $5.4 billion in compensation for Germany’s failure to comply with the 1982 ruling. The issue is still unsettled.

In the late 1980s, a consortium of companies from Argentina, Germany and Spain submitted a proposal to Iran to complete the Bushehr-1 reactor, but huge pressure by the US stopped the deal. The US pressure also stopped in 1990 Spain’s National Institute of Industry and Nuclear Equipment to complete the Bushehr project. Iran also tried, unsuccessfully, to procure components for the Bushehr reactors, but her attempts were blunted by the US. For example, in 1993, Iran tried to acquire eight steam condensers, built by the Italian firm Ansaldo under the Kraftwerk Union contract, but they were seized by the Italian government. The Czech firm Skoda Plzen also discussed supplying reactor components to Iran, but, under the US pressure, negotiations were cancelled in 1994. Iran was also not successful in her attempt to buy nuclear power reactor components from an unfinished Polish reactor.

After years of searching in the West for a supplier to complete her first nuclear power plant, Iran turned to the Soviet Union and then Russia. She signed, in March 1990, her first protocol on the Bushehr project with the Soviet Union. The agreement called on Moscow to complete the Bushehr project and build additional two reactors in Iran, but financial problems delayed the deal. In 1993, the AEOI and the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy signed an agreement for the construction of two Russian reactors at Bushehr, but the contract was never carried out as Iran was facing major financial problems.

Finally, Iran signed, in January 1995, a contract with the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy to finish the reactors at Bushehr. These reactors will be under the IAEA safeguards, and will be capable of producing up to 180 kgr/year of plutonium in their spent fuel. Iran and Russia also agreed to discuss the construction of a gas centrifuge uranium-enrichment facility in Iran. However, in May 1995, the US announced that it had convinced Russia to cancel the centrifuge agreement, although Russia later denied that the agreement with Iran ever existed! The light-water research reactor deal has also been cancelled.

After the 1995 agreement was signed by Iran and Russia, the Clinton administration tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Russia to cancel the agreement, but its entreaties were rebuffed by Russia which saw the Bushehr project as an opening for her ailing nuclear industry to get itself into the international market. Having failed in its attempts, the Clinton administration then began charging that the plutonium that the reactors would produce would be used by Iran for making nuclear weapons. However, this issue is also being addressed by Iran and Russia, since they are negotiating an agreement by which the nuclear wastes from the Bushehr reactors would be returned to Russia which has a large facility for storing the wastes in southern Siberia, but no agreement has yet been reached.

After it appeared that the plutonium issue would be addressed by Russia, the US, under huge pressure by Israel, began claiming that, while the Bushehr reactors cannot be directly used for making nuclear weapons, they will train a generation of Iranian scientists and engineers for operating the reactor, which in turn will prepare Iran for making nuclear weapons. And the notion of THREAT is born.

(To be continued…)


[1] For in-depth analysis of Iran’s Nuclear Program, see articles by Dr. Muhammad Sahimi

[2] (Mueller, H. (editor), A. E’temad, “Iran,” in, “European Non-Proliferation Policy,” Oxford University Press, 1987, p 9)

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One Response to Iran’s Nuclear Threat: Real or Fiction? (Part I)

  1. Pingback: Once More, The Specter of a US and/or Israeli Military Strike Against Iran Loom « Rob Prince's Blog

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