There is great controversy about Iran’s possession or lack thereof on nuclear weapons. However, according to my connections in the science community within Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East, while not stating so explicitly, have implicitly alluded that nukes are already present. So much for HUMINT via Western intelligence agencies.
Let’s look at the backdrop of this contention. There has been over a decade of continued growth and expansion of the program, Iran steadily worked through diplomacy (seemingly) with the West to slow down and or halt their nuclear program, or so the West believed. The West has been gullible! First, Iran does not negotiate in a way the West perceives – you cannot mirror your thought processes onto them and believe they think the same way you do – they do not. Second, Iran officials use the art of Taqiyya and the 5 Doctrines of Islamic Faith. In short, their negotiations always favor them, whether you believe that to be the case or not.
As early as 1984, West German intelligence reports suggested that Iran could potentially have a nuclear bomb within two years with uranium from Pakistan – this puts that possession in summer 1986. The Germans leaked this news in an intelligence report of a post-revolutionary nuclear weapons program in Iran. During the same year, Senator Alan Cranston (Senate Minority Whip) claimed that the Islamic Republic of Iran was 7 years away from being able to build its own nuclear weapon – this puts possession of a nuke potentially in summer 1993 – 14 years ago. Further, at the direction of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Iran launched a series of ambitious nuclear projects relying on assistance from the U.S. and Europe and, from 1974 – 1978, Iran performed nuclear research and education at the University of Tehran when the NPT (non-proliferation of nuclear weapons treaty) was enforce on March 5, 1970. The work centered on a 5-megawatt research reactor supplied by the United States; it began operation in 1967.
Some other facts
During the Iran–Iraq War, two Bushehr reactors were damaged by multiple Iraqi air strikes halting work on the nuclear program. Iran complained about international inaction, but it is not known how long the work was stopped and whether other sites continued operating. However, connections suggest the setback was not nearly as detrimental to the program as outsiders believed.
Also, by the mid-1970s, Iran had launched an extensive nuclear energy program. In 1974, the Shah set the goal of producing roughly 23,000 megawatts of electrical power from a series of nuclear power stations by the mid-1990s. A host of contracts between Iran and nuclear suppliers in Europe and the United States followed. Iran agreed with Kraftwerk Union (KWU, a Siemens subsidiary) of West Germany to build two, 1,200 megawatt reactors at Bushehr (the same ones damaged in the Iran-Iraq war, and negotiated with the French company Framatome for two additional 900 megawatt reactors. Then, in 1974, Iran invested $1 billion in a French uranium enrichment plant. Now mind you, in perspective, this was almost 43 years ago. Also about this time, Iran developed plans for a new nuclear research center at Isfahan and the exploration of uranium mining and ore processing. Bear in mind also that Iran’s scientists were trained directly by the U.S. during the time of the Shah and that a great many others were educated in the U.S. and Europe.
During the 1979 revolution, the program was halted for about 8 years, but was revived by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s beginning in the late 1980s. The program steadily recovered during the next decade and was assisted by China, Pakistan, and Russia. Iran signed two nuclear cooperation protocols with China in 1985 and 1990. In 1995, Iran concluded a protocol of cooperation with Russia for completion of the construction of the reactor at Bushehr and possibly supply a uranium enrichment plant. Although some items considered in these deals, such as the enrichment plant were not delivered due to outside pressure from the U.S. On the other hand Bushehr likely served as a screen behind which Iran obtained nuclear-sensitive equipment that they could not normally procure because of nuclear-weapon making potential.
Throughout the 1990s, groups in Russia and China continued to help Iran and it is believed Iran received uranium enrichment technology through the black-market network run by Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan. This helped Iran make significant progress in its nuclear effort. By the time the world at large became aware, Iran had already made significant nuclear progress. All the while, Iran pursued a two-pronged approach to nuclear weapon development (fuel): spent fuel reprocessing from their reactors to recover plutonium and uranium enrichment. Pundits claim that Iran has not succeeded because regardless of process, it’s a difficult task. What they are saying is that 46 years is not long enough to succeed, which is very short-sighted thinking that demonstrates a complete lack of logic.
Other facts along this trail of bread crumbs require production of a concentrated amount of uranium 235-the fissile form needed to fuel a nuclear weapon. Natural uranium deposits contain about 0.7 percent of this isotope. Thus, one needs to progress in a series of steps from the mine to the laboratory and Iran has mastered this process. Combined with the fact that in February 2003, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami declared that his government intended to extract uranium from a mine at Saghand, in the province of Yazd, which is a key part of Iran’s plan to produce nuclear fuel. Time perspective is 13 years ago. The Saghand mine site, assisted by China with its mining technology, has a combined reserve of 1,580,000 tons of uranium ore and an average grade of 553 g/ton, with an annual production capacity of 50 tons of uranium. However, there is another mine called the Gchine mine, located in the south of Iran that has an annual production capacity of 21 tons of uranium. Both mines began production in 2003 and 2004 respectively. These mines are combined with a yellowcake processing plant in Ardakan that was approved by the AEOI in 1994 and constructed by an Iranian firm in 1999 – 18 years ago. Further, its capacity nicely matches the capacity of the Saghand mine – 50 tons of uranium annually.
I will spare the details of converting concentrated yellowcake uranium into gas, but the process is done at a plant in Esfahan, at Iran’s nuclear technology center. Suffice it to say that both China and Pakistan has been of great assistance to Iran in its endeavors to create nuclear weapons. Although the U.S. put pressure on China to cancel the conversion plant process and technology assistance, it appears it was too little too late as the China had already provided Iran with a blueprint for the plant and, had provided uranium compounds to Iran in 1991.
A further step in the uranium process is enrichment, which can be done by centrifuges, which Iran has obtained from France and others. They were negotiating with France on the procurement of this equipment – once they received it, negotiations ended. Imagine that. Iran currently has 19,000 centrifuges, but only 10,000 are operational according to the UN. This comes despite the fact no one can inspect them. Ironically, the centrifuge program began 32 years ago. In 2007, almost a decade ago, Iran began feeding uranium hexafluoride gas into approximately 3,000 centrifuges it had installed at its site at Natanz. According to the UN, Iran has about8.3 tons of 3.5 percent U-235, which could make about 7 nuclear weapons if enriched further.
In addition to using uranium to manufacture nuclear weapons, Iran has also pursued the plutonium route, which can be produced in a nuclear reactor byu bombarding U-238 reactor fuel with slow neutrons; it captures an electron and presto, the U-239 isotope is produced, which decays into plutonium 239. Although complex, once the pathway is designed and practiced, it is steady and efficient. Iran has been doing this for some time. And who gave them this technology? The U.S gave it to them when it provided the 5-megawatt research reactor with 93 percent enriched uranium reactor fuel in the 1960s – about 50 years ago! Ironically, Iran admitted to conducting plutonium separation experiments between 1988-1992; do you believe they have stopped?
The bread crumb trail continues
Russia has constructed a 1,000 megawatt pressurized light-water reactor at the Iranian port of Bushehr and took over the project in 1995. The facility is capable of providing Iran with enough weapon-grade plutonium to construct 35 nuclear weapons annually (assessment is based on estimate of the plutonium output from a typical 1,000 megawatt pressurized light-water power reactor). Although another plant needs to be constructed to extract plutonium, HUMINT rumors ascertain this has been done. Iran took over the Bushehr reactor from Russia in fall 2013. But, during Russian control, preliminary testing began in early 2009 along with delivery of the reactor fuel needed for start-up; about 80 tons. The reactor was connected to Iran’s national grid in September 2011.
Iran has not returned spent fuel but, has made purchasing attempts indicating intent to reprocess and manipulate spent fuel.
Iran has mastered heavy water technology, developing a heavy water production plant and heavy water research reactor at a site in the Khondab, producing about 16 tons of heavy water annually.
In 2003, Iran announced plans to build a 40 megawatt thermal heavy water research reactor at the same site. The reactor, fueled by natural UO2, was designed to use heavy water as both coolant and moderator. It is likely Russia assisted Iran.
In a nutshell, to make a nuclear weapon, Iran needs to produce a critical mass of fissile material-U-235 or plutonium-the metals needed to fuel a first-generation bomb. They also need produce a device that could cause the uranium or plutonium to explode in a nuclear chain reaction (weaponization). We know that Iran has produced a number polonium radioisotopes, has obtained deuterium gas (boosts yield of fission bombs) from contractors in Russia, and sought equipment and other items needed for nuclear testing and simulation.
The total timeline – preparing for more than 50 years – along with negotiation tactics, plant and mine capabilities, assistance from Pakistan and Russia, as well as China and continued persistence along with contacts in Iran, suggests that Iran has already developed a nuclear device as far back as 3-5 years ago. Further, testing of a delivery system usually suggests the payload is already designed for the tool at hand. Iran’s latest ballistic missile test was in late summer 2015. There are also other indications as follows:
• Continued refusal to cooperate with IAEA
• Development of a program to integrate a new spherical payload onto Iran’s Shahab-3 missile;
• The computer modeling of implosion, compression, and nuclear yield (recent as 2009);
• High-explosive tests simulating a nuclear explosion but using non-nuclear material to determine whether an implosion device would work;
• Manufacture of a neutron initiator, which is placed in the core of an implosion device that when compressed, generates neutrons to start a nuclear chain reaction, along with validation studies since 2006;
• Studies on detonation of high explosive charges to ensure uniform compression in an implosion device (performed a large scale experiment in 2003 – research since;
• Support from, reportedly, a former Soviet weapon scientist Vyacheslav Danilenko, in developing a detonation system suitable for nuclear weapons and a diagnostic system needed to monitor detonation experiments;
• Testing of high voltage firing equipment to ensure that it could fire EBWs over long distance needed for nuclear weapon testing;
• Construction of at least one containment vessel at a military site, in which to conduct such high explosive tests;
• Development of exploding bridge-wire detonators (EBWs) used in simultaneous detonation that are required to initiate an implosive shock wave in fission bombs;
• Development of high-voltage firing equipment that would enable detonation in the air, above a target, which is somewhat typical for a nuclear payload; and
• Many other violations such as import and procurement of uranium compounds, centrifuges, conversion of UF4 to UF6, production of UF4, irradiation of UO2, . . .
Just days after the last ballistic-missile test, Iran agreed with six major world powers on July 14, 2015; known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that potentially and substantially reduced Iran’s known nuclear capability in return for sanctions relief. Under auspices of the accord, Iran has dismantled thousands of uranium-enriching centrifuges, shipped tons of low-enriched uranium to Russia, and so forth. However, it is likely that Iran could have produced fuel for a nuclear weapon in a few months prior.
While Iran has promised not to expand its capability beyond its present limit for at least ten years, evidence suggests a lack of trust in this area. Although the IAEA has the responsibility of monitoring and verifying the nuclear-related provisions of the JCPOA, Iran has not been overly compliant to their inspectors and has always maintained that its nuclear program is benign, as well as legal and authorized by its membership as a non-nuclear weapon state in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which guarantees its members the right “to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The U.S. is at odds with this and has contended that Iran has no need for nuclear energy since its civilian energy program serves only to camouflage a nuclear weapon effort. However, the JCPOA agreement will allow Iran to develop a commercial-scale uranium enrichment program after the first 10 years of the accord.
Thus, does Iran already have nuclear weapons of some type and size? The smart bet is, yes they do, which my connections and the bread crumb trail support. But, you be the judge given the U.S. lack of HUMINT in this country.