Sunday, November 11, 2007


Nuclear crisis in Iran: From presumptuous credos to Post-sanctions scenarios

Djamshid Assadi
Groupe E.S.C. Dijon - Bourgogne

The Islamic republic of Iran affirms that Iran's nuclear program is solely for civilian purposes and denies any interest in nuclear bombs. So, why does the international community suspect the Iranian nuclear program?

The reason is that the Islamic republic of Iran first hided its nuclear program from 1985 to 2003 and since then defied the international community constantly. The suspicion has been growing since then.

The international community has imposed different economic sanctions to change the Islamic republic of Iran’s behavior relative to the uranium enrichment and the clarification of its opaque nuclear activities.

This article explores the alternative possible outcomes which might result from those sanctions and suggests actions for efficiently puzzle out the Islamic republic’s nuclear crisis.

The resurrection of the Iranian nuclear program

Several years before the triumph of the Islamic revolution, the monarchic regime of Iran acceded in 1974 to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) which allows transfers of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes to non-nuclear weapon states, and initiated in 1975-76 with the Siemens Power Generation Group (KWU) as contractor two nuclear reactors comprising the Bushehr power station on the Persian Gulf.

The Islamic revolution of 1979 withheld payment to the contractor and ended consequently nuclear programs. At the date, one unit was substantially complete. Islamic regime revived in 1984 the Shah’s nuclear power program. During this period, the country is believed to have acquired advanced centrifuges from the network run by Abdul Qadeer Khan, founder of Pakistan's nuclear program and an international nuclear trafficker.

In 1994 Russia became a partner for completing unit 1 at Bushehr. The Russian contractor, Atomstroyexport, accomplished major changes, including fabrication of all the reactor components in Russia according to the design “VVER-1000”, based on the requirements of a new Soviet nuclear standard, developed between 1975 and 1985, that incorporated some international practices, particularly in the area of plant safety.

The reactor was due to start up in late in 2007 with commercial operation in 2008. Output from this reactor, the 6-7 TWh per year (One Terra Watt-hour is one billion kilowatt hours, also the approximate annual amount of electricity consumed by 45,000 households) is supposed to free up about 1.6 million tons (11 million barrels) of oil per year for export (or c 1800 million m3 of gas). The contract is currently behind the schedule after the Russian government told Iran in March 2007 that it would indefinitely withhold fuel for the Bushehr nuclear reactor unless Iran suspended its uranium enrichment program. Some Russian staff working on the project returned home; even if Russia has officially expressed its intention to complete the deal.

Divulgation of the secret nuclear programs

The international community discovered in 2002 that the Islamic republic of Iran had deceived since 1985 IAEA inspectors about its enrichment of uranium and its experiments to provide plutonium, both potential bombs ingredients. It has also been said in 1991 that Iran imported 1.8 tons of natural uranium from China without declaring any amount of it to IAEA inspectors until 2002. Some was converted to metallic form - not required for any part of Iran's declared program.

Later in February 2003, an IAEA delegation visited the pilot-scale gas centrifuge enrichment plant at Natanz, located between Isfahan and Kashan in central Iran. During the IAEA's visit, Iranian officials indicated that Iran would honor its safeguards agreement, but reports in the Western media in March 2003 charged that Iran may have violated Iran's IAEA safeguards obligations and introduced nuclear material into the Natanz plant, without informing the IAEA. An IAEA report released in November 2003 showed that Iran had, in a series of contraventions of its safeguards agreement over 22 years, systematically concealed its development of key techniques, in particular, uranium enrichment and plutonium separation from spent fuel which are capable of use for nuclear weapons. Iran admitted to the activities but said they were trivial.
An Iranian initiative, under the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami, to normalize relations was communicated to the United States in May 2003. The objective was to address concerns on nuclear weapons in exchange of lifting sanctions and eventual normalization of relations. The then overconfident and suspicious Bush administration did not even respond to the offer and added pressure on Iran to prove it had no secret atomic weapons program. In late 2003, Iran committed to a suspension of uranium enrichment activities, under an agreement forged with the European troika of the UK, France and Germany.

In March 2004, the Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani acknowledged for the first time that the Iranian military had produced centrifuges to enrich uranium. However, Iran continued to assert that its nuclear program is for the generation of electricity alone, and even in April 2004, vowed to step up cooperation with the IAEA, to a mid-May 2004 deadline for the submission of complete details regarding its nuclear program and goals.

In March 2005, the US finally agreed to drop its objection to Iran’s accession to the WTO (World Trade Organization) and allow Iran to purchase spare parts for use in its civil aviation industry. But the American initiative came too late because the Islamic republic, now under a new conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, dismissed the “incentives” as contrary to its sovereign rights. The new president also rejected any concession to the IAEA’s, and consequently the agency referred the Iran dossier to the Security Council in February 2006. The Islamic regime reacted and reduced drastically the access of the international inspectors to the country’s atomic sites, and defied the international community in April 2006, by announceing that it had successfully enriched uranium.

The IAEA reported Iran’s noncompliance with its safeguards obligations to the UN Security Council on April 28, 2006. The Security Council fitfully negotiated Resolution 1696 (31 July 2006), which gave Iran until August 31, 2006, to “suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development.” The International Atomic Energy Agency reported on August 31 that inspectors had discovered new traces of highly enriched uranium at an Iranian facility. The Islamic regime has already failed to meet latest U.N. deadline for suspending its enrichment of uranium, paving the way to possible sanctions.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continued to defy the international community and provocatively rejected to suspend the Islamic Republic’s nuclear-fuel program “even for one day”. The Security Council resolution 1737 (December 23, 2006) for economic sanctions and stopping IAEA aid to Iran did not change his defiant determination, neither did the stronger resolution 1747, adopted in March 2007.

In September 2007, in a rebellious 40-minute speech to the opening session of the General Assembly, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that he considered the dispute over his country's nuclear program "closed" and that Iran would disregard the resolutions of the Security Council, which he said was dominated by "arrogant powers.

The UN Security Council, facing deadlock with Russia and China, agreed finally in late December to give Iran until November 2007 to answer questions from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about its nuclear program.

The Nuclear Industry in Iran

Who is afraid of the economic sanctions in Iran?

These sanctions, imposed on Iran by the Security Council’s resolutions 1737 (23 December 2006) and 1747 (24 March 2007), hurt considerably the Iranian economy. The regime struggles to attract international contractors to build up oil refineries and infrastructure, but many of them do not seem to be willing run the risk. Almost all major European have reduced their presence in Iran. Even the friend countries such as China, India and Russia have reduced their investments and activities in Iran. Inflation and unemployment are the sole economic factors which develop. Sanctions hurt the national economy, but do not seem to alter the radicals and conservatives’ behavior who believe in atomic power as a survival guarantee.

This belief does not mean necessarily that the radical fraction will use the atomic bomb against any country or even against Israel its most “ideological” enemy. When president Ahmadinejad says that the atomic bomb does not have any place in the Iranian defense strategy, he does not lie. But, rightly or wrongly, he and the other hard-liners believe that the atomic power dissuades the foreign and domestic “enemies” to take any hostile action against the regime. That is why radicals in the Islamic regime try to buy time with ambiguous answers and request of more “constructive” negotiation. They would never accept the suspending of the enrichment.

What can be done next if sanctions cannot stop the Islamic republic from uranium enrichment? Four scenarios can then be considered: Accepting a nuclear Islamic Republic, waging war against the atomic installations, waiting for and/or helping a regime change in Iran, or engaging more result generating dialogue.

Scenario 1: The international community tolerates a nuclear Islamic republic of Iran

Accepting a nuclear Islamic Republic of Iran means the end of non proliferation, especially in the explosive region of the Middle-East. In present circumstances where radicals in Iran appear to be determinant to build nuclear weapons, it would be the height of naivety to believe that a nuclear armed Islamic republic would not be dangerous. It would be most dangerous not only because it gives a fatal weapon to an ideologist president, but also because it would provoke regrettable reactions: some Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, would most likely reclaim their nuclear weapons. The remaining of the international non-proliferation will certainly agonize. This is not a good perceptive for the Middle-East.

The development of the nuclear technology by the Islamic republic runs not only a military risk, but also a non less considerable safety one. If Iran endeavors to complete its nuclear program in isolation, the result would most likely be a piecemeal assemblage of potentially incompatible parts of dubious reliability in an untested reactor of questionable designed technology with obsolete safety systems.

The containment vessel of the Bushehr reactor, the most advanced reactor in Iran, was designed more than 20 years ago for a completely different reactor. The Russian engineering company contracted by Iran in the 1990s had to fit a Russian-designed reactor into a German-designed containment structure. With the threat of earthquakes in southern Iran four times greater than in Russia, it is not yet clear how this reactor is equipped to account for the risk which might have irreversible cross-border fallouts. The Czech Republic which possess the same reactor model in Temelin, hired in the 1990s the US firm Westinghouse to carry out required improvements to it. The Islamic republic did not and cannot do the same because of the economic sanctions and the U.S. boycott.

In isolation, that Iran's nuclear industry could end up like the country's troubled aviation industry, based on an ageing fleet of Boeings and Russian aircraft, which is plagued by accidents and emergency landings and struggles to secure spare parts due to a US trade embargo.

Scenario 2: A war is waged against a defiant nuclear Islamic republic of Iran

If sanctions do not dissuade president Ahmadinejad, and if a nuclear Islamic Republic is unacceptable, can a war against Iran be an efficient solution? War has been fatally thought-out to solve the nuclear crisis in Iran. The use of military force against Iran would be most likely a sustained air campaign by US and/or Israeli bombers because international coalition, within the Security Council, mainly because of the opposion of China and Russia, or among states is hardly plausible. Such an attack can never definitely destroy all of the 1500 known and several more unknown installations which are spread out in the country.

Plus, an attack would strengthen the present Iranian radical leadership by galvanizing popular support for it, alter the pro-western attitude of the majority of Iranian and most likely, provoke uncontrollable mobs and chaos all over the region. Such a strike which would lead to a cut off of Iran’s 2.6 million barrels of daily oil exports might send prices into the stratospheres. Other drawbacks are: terrorism and oil transportation sabotage such as mining the striate of Hormuz. An attack might delay the day Iran actually builds the bomb, but it gives to the Islamic regime an irrefutable reason to have a bomb for survival.

Scenario 3: Changing the Islamic regime in Iran

What about a regime change in Iran? A democratic transition in Iran is plausible, but not prompts enough to be considered as solution to the nuclear crisis. The international community should support the democratic force, but officially avoids deploying any plan for regime change in Iran. The like plan will encourage the Islamic republic to own nuclear weapons as an effective way to guarantee its sovereignty and security. The examples of Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea come immediately to mind. History suggests that isolation reinforces hardliners.

Scenario 4: More dialogue with the Islamic regime of Iran?

But if sanctions, war and out-of-Iran-commanded regime change cannot stop the Islamic republic nuclear republic from enriching the uranium, should we get back to the staring box and engage direct talk with an administration which defies the United Nations’ resolutions, denies Holocaust and represses its own citizens be more fruitful?

The answer is: Certainly. In fact, the Islamic regime is a state divided between competing centers of power. Rivaling fractions struggle on different issues including the nuclear question. If the international community recognizes the differences and resists treating Iran as a unitary totalitarian entity, then the dialogue (negotiation) can be productive. Pro-democracy reformists and pro-survival pragmatists do not want more tensions with the international community, and prefer a genuine peaceful nuclear program. Under the former reformist president Mohammad Khatami, Iran agreed with the European troika, France, United-Kingdom and Germany, representing the security council of the UN in 2003 and again in 2004 to adopt the measures of the IAEA Additional Protocol which formalizes voluntary suspension of all enrichment activities. Knowing these fractions, the international community can effectively prepare negotiation with the Islamic regime over the uranium enrichment.

The objective of halting the enrichment of uranium and taming the radical fraction will not be attained without a direct negotiation between the US and Iran. For this, staunch and skillful diplomatic support from others will be required. The US can offer the Islamic a mix of political and economic benefits and demand in exchange behavior change with regard to Iran’s support for the Lebanese shia paramilitary group, Hizbullah and the Palestinian Islamic fraction, Hamas, Iraq stability, and the most important dispute, nuclear enrichment program.

The international community, via the UN, and the European Union, should urge and encourage the real protagonists, the US and the Islamic regime to talk directly. Without US involvement, any talks with Iran will fail as they have done previously. With US involvement, the reformist attitude, within the camp of hardliners and, by all means, among reformists, will prevail. This will end up with a pacific nuclear program in Iran.

The dialogue should concede to Iran the transfer of technologies for oil and peaceful nuclear industries. In return, the international community might require from Iran refraining uranium enrichment and domestic Human rights abuse. As it has done several times, the United States might finally recognize officially Iran’s legal right to peaceful nuclear use as any reading of the article IV of the NPT treaty will show. It was set up by the nuclear-armed states to deliver technology and nuclear fuel to NPT signatories who forswore nuclear weapons themselves and accept an intrusive regime of international IAEA verification.

Dialogue with the Islamic republic seems to be necessary not only for detecting illicit trafficking, but also for protecting nuclear power plants, research reactors, accelerators, and the array of nuclear and other radioactive materials that support these and other nuclear applications.
In addition, negotiation with a chance to resume diplomatic and economic relations especially with the United States would undoubtedly help the pragmatists in Tehran sideline the radicals and tip Iran's internal balance of power in their favor. At the same time, the US-Iran dialogue will automatically support the Iranian democratic movement which aspires democracy in the country and peace with the international community. One might remember that what overcame the socialist dictatorship in the Eastern Europe was not the war against them, but supporting the democratic movements within them! This solution can work for Iran too.

The western media which broadcast to Iran should recognize clearly Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear and give a bigger share of voice to the reformist opposition. The usual hardliner opponents who are too often invited to comment news and advocate military attack exacerbate the crises, alienate people and harden the official position.
The US and the international community do not lose in this deal, whatever the Iranian reaction would be. If negotiations do not end to a peaceful solution of the nuclear crisis, it certainly finishes to dividing the governing fractions in power, isolating the hardliners even more and finally deepening the gap between the latter and the Iranian citizens. Still one point should be remembered: if the direct dialogue with Iran is to be a substitute to war, it should not be less severe on the respect of the human rights in Iran. If after each deadline on dialogues, a new round of dialogues is to be scheduled, then it would not be difficult to foresee the issue: the Islamic republic would have its bomb!

What is the nuclear fuel cycle?

Like coal, oil and natural gas, uranium, as it is mined from the earth's crust, is not directly useable for power generation. It should undergo a cycle of steps such as mining and milling, conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication. This cycle is called nuclear fuel cycle.

Mining and milling- Uranium, a slickly radioactive material, is usually mined by either surface or underground mining techniques, depending on the depth at which the ore body is found.

The mined uranium ore is sent to a mill where the ore is crushed and ground in order to separate uranium from the rock and produce a solid uranium concentrate, called yellowcake (uranium oxide, U308), containing more than 60% of uranium. About 200 tons is required to keep a nuclear power reactor generating 1000 MWe electricity for one year. We is an abbreviation for Watt electrical power produced as electricity, and MWe is equal to one million (106) watts.

The waste from the mill is 99% of the weight of the original ore.

Conversion- The uranium concentrate (U308) needs to be in the form of a gas to undergo enrichment. U308 is converted into hexafluoride gas (UF6) at relatively low temperatures. The hexafluoride gas contains both the isotopes U-235 and U-238 in the ratio of 0.7 to 99.3.
Enrichment- The hexafluoride gas is enriched in plants with the centrifuge process which increases the concentration of U-235 to about 3.5% or slightly more. The other part is depleted in U-235 and is called “tails”.

Fuel fabrication- Enriched UF6 is transported to a fuel fabrication plant where it is converted to uranium dioxide (UO2) powder and pressed into small pellets which are then put into metal tubes, forming fuel rods. These fuel rods are put together to form a fuel assembly for use in the core of the nuclear reactor.

Nuclear reactor- In the reactor core the U-235 isotope fissions or splits, producing heat. Water carries the heat away from the core and makes steam. The steam turns the turbines that generate the electricity. To maintain efficient reactor performance, about one-third of the spent fuel is removed every year or 18 months, to be replaced with fresh fuel.
Waste management- All human activities create waste that needs to be managed carefully. Radioactive waste is managed under strict rules and guidelines. When the spent fuel is removed from the reactor, it is hot and very radioactive. It must be cooled and shielded from people. It is put into storage ponds at the reactor site. The storage ponds are steel-lined concrete tanks, about 8 meters deep and filled with water. The water cools the spent fuel rods and acts as a shield. The heat and radioactivity decrease over time - after about 40 years they are down to about 1/1000 of what they were when taken from the reactor. The longer they are stored, the easier they are to deal with. After long storage in the ponds it can be put into a waste repository in a geologically stable area.

Mining and milling- The country has very small uranium reserves, apparently insufficient for any nuclear power program. One Iranian uranium mining is situated in Saghand, Yazd.
Conversion- There are mainly three uranium conversion facility and heavy water reactors in Iran: Esfahan, Arak, Natanz

Enrichment- Natanz uranium enrichment plant (facility) is known as the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP). There is also a large underground Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) at Natanz, and another facility in Tehran, the Kalaye Electric Co., which is connected with Natanz.
Nuclear reactor- Besides the Nuclear Power Plant in Bushehr, Iran has a 5 MW pool-type research reactor in Tehran.

There are another reactor under construction in Ahvaz/Darkhovin. There are also research reactors in Tehran, Isfahan and a 40 MW heavy water-moderated research reactor in Arak.
In April 2007 the Nuclear Power production & Development Company of Iran (NPPD) invited bids to construct two large third-generation PWR nuclear reactors - 1000 to 1600 MWe each - near Bushehr.

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