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10 Things You Need to Know About Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Program

The deadline for the P5+1 nations and Iran to reach a deal to keep Iran from ever having nuclear weapons arrives next month, and negotiators are working overtime to reach a deal that would supposedly stop their nuclear program. Yet critics have suggested that the impending deal would do the exact opposite—preserve Iran’s technology and hardware to make it entirely possible to build a bomb in the future. As a service to our readers, we offer the following 10 things you need to know when evaluating the deal that may or may not be signed in the coming weeks.

1. There Have Been Six United Nations Security Council Resolutions Addressing Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Program

Due to its ongoing refusal to abide by the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty that it signed, or come clean about the extent of its nuclear program, Iran has been subject to six UN security Council resolutions demanding that it come into compliance with its obligations. The first, Resolution 1696, was passed in July 2006 by a vote of 14-1, with only Qatar voting against it. It “called on Iran to comply with the requirements set forth by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and suspend all of its enrichment and reprocessing activities.” Resolution 1696 was passed under Article 40 of the UN Charter, meaning that Iran faces no binding threat in the case of non-compliance. However, Resolution 1696 proscribed that any future resolutions governing Iran’s nuclear program be passed under Article 41, which would “permit the ‘complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations'” in order to force the country into compliance. The subsequent five resolutions were Resolution 1737 (passed in December 2005), Resolution 1747 (March 2007), Resolution 1803 (March 2008), Resolution 1835 (September 2008), and Resolution 1929 (June 2010). Resolution 1737 imposed economic sanctions on “Iranian companies and individuals involved in Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” and ordered Iran to give up enrichment within sixty days. Resolution 1747 added the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to the list of sanctioned organizations. The other resolutions generally strengthened the existing sanctions. Resolution 1929 banned “the regime from pursuing ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” The contentious relations between the West and Iran was not an “unnecessary crisis,” as Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called it when the P5+1 talks started last fall, but rather an international response to a rogue state that has a record of deceit, flouting both international law and its own commitments.

2. Iran Does Not Possess a “Right” to Enrich Uranium Under International Law

The initial Security Council Resolution passed in 2006, Resolution 1696, “demanded that Iran suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development, and gave it one month to do so or face the possibility of economic and diplomatic sanctions to give effect to its decision.”

Despite this, Iran has an estimated 19,000 centrifuges installed. The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a non-partisan watchdog group, calculates that Iran must remove 15,000 centrifuges, otherwise it will maintain the capacity to enrich enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear bomb undetected.

3. Before his Election as President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani Boasted of Duping the West — Twice

Prior to his election as president of Iran last year, Hassan Rouhani answered a hostile interviewer — who claimed that Rouhani was too “moderate” — by boasting of secretly advancing the Iranian nuclear program while he served as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 – 2005:

Far from honoring the commitment, in which Iran said “it has decided voluntarily to suspend all uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities,” Rouhani told the interviewer that all Iran did was merely suspend “ten centrifuges” in the Natanz enrichment facility. “And not a total suspension. Just reduced the yield.” …

Incredulous at the notion that Iran had bowed to international pressure and halted nuclear activities in that period, Rouhani asked the interviewer, “We halted the nuclear program? We were the ones to complete it! We completed the technology.”

In 2006, The Telegraph published a similar boast. Again, in reaction to charges that he had been too soft in the Iranian nuclear negotiations with the West, Rouhani claimed that he advanced Iran’s nuclear research when he claimed that no advances were being made:

 He boasted that while talks were taking place in Teheran, Iran was able to complete the installation of equipment for conversion of yellowcake – a key stage in the nuclear fuel process – at its Isfahan plant but at the same time convince European diplomats that nothing was afoot.

“From the outset, the Americans kept telling the Europeans, ‘The Iranians are lying and deceiving you and they have not told you everything.’ The Europeans used to respond, ‘We trust them’,” he said.

After his election last year, The Guardian wrote, “On his watch, Iran agreed for the first time to stop enriching uranium.” Yes Iran agreed to stop enriching. But according Rouhani’s boasts, it never did.

4. Illegal Ballistic Missile Development is a Central Part of Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Program

Iranian officials have frequently asserted that the P5+1 negotiations as spelled out in the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) agreed to last November only concern Iran’s nuclear program, precluding discussions of Iran’s ballistic missile research. As with nuclear enrichment, the Security Council resolutions tell a different story. Provision 5 of Resolution 1696 states explicitly, “Calls upon all States, in accordance with their national legal authorities and legislation and consistent with international law, to exercise vigilance and prevent the transfer of any items, materials, goods and technology that could contribute to Iran’s enrichment-related and reprocessing activities and ballistic missile programmes…”

According to a report appearing on the United States Institute of Peace’s (USIP) Iran Primer website, “Iran has the largest and most diverse ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East.” Though they vary in range and accuracy, some of them are capable of carrying nuclear payloads. According to former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, quoted in 2008, “Iran continues to deploy and improve ballistic missiles inherently capable of delivering nuclear weapons,” notably the Shahab III. In addition to other advancements, Iran has reportedly developed a solid fuel missile, which “launch quicker than liquid fuel missiles,” making them harder to intercept. The Shahab III is capable of reaching “Israel, Turkey, and portions of southeastern Europe.” While Iran is not believed to have a missile capable of reaching the United States yet, it is believed to be capable of developing that ability in the near future, possibly as soon as 2015.

5. Iran Has a Huge Global Network of Terrorists Who Could Deliver Nuclear and “Dirty” Bombs 

Iran, through terrorist proxies, most notably Hezbollah, has a global reach. Hezbollah operates in Africa, Europe, and South America. Hezbollah expert Matthew Levitt even documented Hezbollah activity in the United States in his recent book. If Iran decided to attack a target with a “dirty” bomb, it has the means to deliver it anywhere in the world, even without ballistic missiles.

6. There is no Iranian Fatwa Prohibiting the Development and Use of Nuclear Weapons

A common argument advanced by Iranian officials is that the country would never develop nuclear weapons because Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa, or religious edict, prohibiting the development and use of nuclear weapons. However, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) searched for evidence of this fatwa and found none, declaring the claim to be “a propaganda ruse.” In the introduction to a publication (.pdf) produced by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy about the implications of the fatwa, Patrick Clawson wrote, “Past proclamations about the matter, like all fatwas issued by Shiite clerics, can be revised under new circumstances.” In a speech given approximately ten years ago (.pdf), Hassan Rouhani asserted, “Having fuel cycle capability almost means that the country that possesses this capability is able to produce nuclear weapons, should that country have the political will to do so.” Nowhere in the speech did Rouhani make any reference to religious considerations.

7. Iran Refuses to Come Clean About its Detonator Research 

Iran has been conducting negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in parallel to its P5+1 negotiations. Since the IAEA is an arm of the UN, it is seeking to ensure that Iran is in compliance with UN Security Council resolutions. One area that Iran hasn’t sufficiently explained is its research into exploding bridge wires (EBW), which have a number of applications, including as a trigger for a nuclear weapon. In February, Iran agreed to provide more data into this research. In May, it was reported that the IAEA “also said Iran has cooperated for the first time on a probe into its suspected past bomb research program.” However Iran still has not allowed the IAEA to inspect the Parchin site, which shows signs of having EBW explosions tested there. Iran again refused the IAEA access to Parchin this past summer. Even an inspection of Parchin might not rule out a possible military dimension to Iran’s research, as Iran has asphalted the site in a way that could hide incriminating evidence.

8. Iran Refuses to Halt its Plutonium Development

Iran is building a heavy water reactor in the city of Arak. One byproduct of a heavy water reactor is plutonium, which can be processed into fuel for a nuclear bomb. If Iran can produce plutonium, it would provides a shortcut to an atomic bomb by not requiring uranium enrichment. Though Iran claims that the Arak facility is for producing medical isotopes for research, a light water reactor could do the same without producing plutonium. Jeremy Bernstein wrote in the New York Review of Books last November:

It is hard to imagine any legitimate reason for not converting the Arak reactor into a light water reactor. The Iranians have enough enriched uranium fuel to power such a reactor, and surely it would be worth the while of the countries that are now negotiating with Iran to offer to help in this endeavor. If the IR-40 became a light water reactor, this would end all the suspicions about it.

However, Iran still insists on keeping Arak configured as a heavy water reactor and only reducing its yield of plutonium.

9. Iran Likely Has Secret Nuclear Sites

After the JPA was signed in November, The New York Times reported:

True rollback would mean dismantling many of those centrifuges, shipping much of the fuel out of the country or converting it into a state that could not be easily adapted to bomb use, and allowing inspections of many underground sites where the C.I.A., Europe and Israel believe hidden enrichment facilities may exist. There is no evidence of those facilities now, but, as a former senior Obama administration official said recently, speaking anonymously to discuss intelligence, “there has never been a time in the past 15 years or so when Iran didn’t have a hidden facility in construction.”

To date, few significant revelations about Iran’s nuclear program came from information volunteered by the regime. Concern over the Iranian nuclear program grew in 2002after an Iranian dissident group revealed a secret uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and a heavy water facility at Arak.” Iran had hidden its enrichment program for 18 years. In September 2009, Western countries, led by the United States, announced the discovery of the Fordow enrichment facility based on intelligence and satellite photography. According to then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the discovery pointed to a “serial deception of many years.”

Any permanent agreement that would prevent Iran from a nuclear breakout would require an intrusive inspection regime to ensure the effectiveness of the agreement. But inspections can’t be effective unless all of Iran’s nuclear facilities are known. Iran’s pattern of deception regarding its nuclear program means that there is no way to be certain that every nuclear site is known.

10. Iran has Rejected or Withdrawn from a Number of Previous Agreements

In 2003, Iran agreed to “to cooperate with the IAEA, sign the Additional Protocol, and temporarily suspend conversion and enrichment activities.” But it “exploited ambiguities in the definition of ‘suspension’ to continue to produce centrifuge components and carry out small-scale conversion experiments.” In order to avoid a referral to the Security Council, Iran agreed to the Paris Agreement with Britain, France, and Germany in November 2004. This agreement included a suspension of enrichment activities. In August 2005, Iran restarted its enrichment program. In June 2006 the West offered Iran a deal (including light water reactors and a number of economic incentives) if it would stop enrichment and recommit to the Additional Protocol. Iran refused to stop enrichment and didn’t respond to the offer. In light of Iran’s continued defiance, the Security Council passed its first sanctions resolution (1696) at the end of July 2006.

[Photo: PBS NewsHour / YouTube ]