On September 15, 2005, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, in conjunction with Brookings’ Center for the United States and Europe, convened a discussion with an expert on arms control about Iran’s nuclear program. The presentation and discussion took place in advance of meetings in New York at the United Nations and an upcoming board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The event was off the record.
Despite Iran’s insistence that its nuclear program is peaceful and geared towards providing energy for the civilian economy, the United States and the European Union suspect that Iran intends to use this program to acquire a nuclear weapons capability.
In the presentation, the expert argued that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons was not imminent because it was unlikely that it possessed either large stocks of fissile material or the production capacity for fissile material. In addition, unlike police states such as Kim Jong Il’s North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Iran is a more open society interested in avoiding sanctions and isolation. According to the expert, Iran has been very ineffective in concealing secrets about its nuclear program.
Nonetheless, the expert expressed concern that Iran’s nuclear sector could be translated into a weaponization program in the future. He argued that by possessing a large-scale civil enrichment program, Iran could conceal a smaller, covert weaponization capability or it could ‘break out’ by converting the civilian facility to produce weapons grade uranium. In the near term, Iran is likely to resort to “salami” style tactics by resuming uranium conversion, while maintaining the agreed suspension on the manufacture, installation, and operation of centrifuges for the time being. The expert noted that despite Iran’s desire to avoid international sanctions and isolation, it might be difficult in the long run for its leaders to resist the temptation of acquiring nuclear weapons. The expert presented India as such an example, because India had the capability of producing nuclear weapons for about twenty years, and eventually decided to do so.
With respect to Iran’s uranium enrichment capability, the expert argued that it would not materialize in the near future due to the technical problems at the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility that will produce the feed material UF6 and the time required to complete a pilot-scale centrifuge plant and work out normal start up problems. The expert suggested that Iran might be able to produce enough weapons grade uranium for a nuclear bomb if it threw caution to the wind, but it would more likely take more than a decade for Iran to produce the amount of weapons grade uranium necessary to produce a small arsenal of nuclear weapons. Moreover, as presently configured, the Isfahan plant is designed to maximize production of low enriched uranium (LEU), not the high enriched uranium (HEU) required for nuclear weapons. The expert pointed out that the Iran could significantly accelerate the production of HEU, if it began with LEU rather than natural uranium. However, unless Iran has an alternative source of LEU, it would have to produce it domestically which would also lead to delays. In the long run, if Iran completes an industrial-scale enrichment plant, it will be able to acquire substantial military capability.
The expert observed that the prospects of Iran producing plutonium were even more distant, given that Iran’s heavy-water research reactor was in its infancy. In addition, Iran does not have sufficient technical expertise at present to construct a reprocessing facility that would be required to separate plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. The IAEA investigation has not revealed any weaponization research as of yet. The expert observed that even if Russia delivered fresh nuclear fuel for the Bushehr light water nuclear reactor, Iran would still need to construct a facility to re-process the spent fuel.
The expert also discussed the current state of negotiations between Iran and the EU-3 (Britain, France, Germany). The negotiations have not yet produced a final agreement, and Iran is determined not to abandon its desire to close the nuclear fuel cycle program. Despite the fact that Iran had agreed to suspend some aspects of its nuclear program in October 2003 to avoid referral to the UN Security Council, Iran now calculates that it is in a stronger position to resist international pressure. Tight oil market supply renders economic sanctions implausible as these would take Iranian oil off of the market and so drive oil prices even higher. In addition, the Iranian view is that the American commitment to Iraq so ties the United States down that it would not be able to take military action against Iran. However, the expert felt that if Iran were to be confronted with a strong international coalition, then it might agree to some limits on the program, although it would not abandon its ultimate goal of a nuclear weapons capability. The expert argued that the further Iran progresses toward developing a nuclear weapons capability, the more difficult it will be to be to stop Iran acquiring a weapon.
In response to a question about plausible targets for a preemptive military strike against Iran, the expert responded that destruction of the Isfahan facility would set the Iranian nuclear program back several years. Bombing of the more sensitive enrichment facility would be premature. Taking out the main production halls built underground would be difficult for even the US military to achieve.
When asked about the prospects following the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, the expert replied that the UN Security Council would be unlikely to reach an agreement on significant measures against Iran, but would probably create a political context for resuming the Iran-EU-3 negotiations. Asked when the international community would take serious steps, the expert responded that any further delays would weaken the international community’s position. Iran is trying to close the nuclear fuel cycle and the international community must find a way to draw a sharp line to delay that attempt from proceeding. The international community might have a better chance at preventing uranium enrichment than stopping uranium conversion. On the utility of a UN Security Council resolution, the expert commented that getting the UN to turn the current voluntary suspension of enrichment activities into mandatory compliance would be an enormous step from a legal perspective.
When asked about regional implications of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, the expert agreed that the long term political implications of such an outcome would not be encouraging. Iran is unlikely to use nuclear weapons against its neighbors, but nuclear Iran will certainly assert its political dominance in the region, thus increasing the pressure on the Arab states, and particularly on those technically capable of pursuing nuclear program, such as Egypt.
Asked about the effectiveness of inspections—which the questioner pointed out had not produced reliable information on Iraq’s nuclear program—the expert replied that nothing could compete with inspections in getting technically reliable information about nuclear facilities. This is less true with respect to chemical and biological facilities.
Finally, the expert commented that Iran was likely to be more cautious if it were referred to the UN Security Council. From Iran’s perspective, the acquisition of a large civilian enrichment capability, would give Iran a certain useful ambiguity as many would ask if Iran was building secret facilities on the side. That ambiguity could prove to be desirable interim strategy for Iran, as it would give the country a latent capability.