- Iran has not stopped its civilian nuclear programme, which is a front for manufacturing weapons-grade nuclear material.
- That is evident from its refusal to allow nuclear inspectors free and ready access to all of its nuclear facilities.
- Tehran claims that it can indeed manufacture weapons-grade nuclear material for defence purposes.
- That is, however, another front for enhancing its missile programme.
It’s time to stop the masquerade. There is no doubt that Iran’s nuclear programme is aimed at nothing other than military capabilities. Various experts – from the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and the New York Times, to name just a few – have spent the last two years combing through the thousands of documents from Iran’s secret nuclear archive which were snatched by Israeli Mossad agents from the heart of Tehran in January 2018. Their investigations prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that, at least until 2003, Tehran was in the midst of a state-sanctioned multi-sited effort – the Amad Project – to produce five nuclear warheads.
More importantly, there are lots of clues and cues strongly suggesting that this effort to achieve an atomic bomb never stopped and pushes on, even today. There is virtually no significant evidence indicating the opposite. Where there is radioactive smoke, there is nuclear fire.
The first clue can be found in Tehran’s usual policy of deceit and evasion vis-à-vis the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation into “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear activities. The agency has recently reopened its examination of the true nature and scope of these forbidden activities. At the same time, IAEA inspections on known nuclear sites in Iran seem to be successfully overcoming difficult circumstances created by the major outbreak of COVID-19 in that country – one of the epicentres of the pandemic in the region.
Almost two decades since the agency opened its nuclear file on Iran, inspectors are still apparently unable to get conclusive, or truthful, responses from the Iranians, as recent IAEA reports clearly indicate. Instead, caught with its hands inside the radioactive cookie jar, Tehran has been blocking IAEA access to sites related to the Amad project; for example, to the “atomic warehouse” in the Turquzabad suburb of Tehran, where refined uranium particles were detected by the IAEA last year.
Another indicator is economic. Despite consistently insisting publicly that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes, the Iranian regime’s civilian atomic industry cannot now, and will not in the foreseeable future, be able to justify cultivating indigenous uranium enrichment capabilities on economically sensible grounds. Producing nuclear fuel domestically for the Russian built nuclear power plant at Bushier, the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) or the currently semi-dismantled Arak heavy water reactor is significantly more expensive than purchasing it from reliable sources, including from Russia and the US.
Moreover, the Iranian enrichment programme suffers from severe efficiency issues, including a shockingly high rate of centrifuge breakdown: 20 per cent per year, as opposed to the one per cent required for a financially viable enrichment programme.
Understanding it cannot continue to peddle the idea that its nuclear project has strictly civilian purposes, Tehran has begun talking about “legitimate” and “defensive” military applications of nuclear technology. That is why, in 2018, the regime notified the IAEA of its intention to develop nuclear-powered submarines.
Publicly announcing on 18 April that a nuclear submarine project is now on Iran’s agenda, the commander of the Iranian Navy, Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, claimed that ‘None of the international pacts ban using peaceful nuclear energy, but the peace we are talking about doesn’t mean without maintaining defence readiness.’
Moreover, nuclear submarine reactors typically use very highly enriched uranium, much higher than used in civilian reactors. Nuclear submarines thus potentially give Iran a valid reason to enrich uranium to near-military grade without obviously being involved in a breakout to a nuclear bomb.
There is, however, only one small problem with Iran’s claims about this programme – they are complete nonsense. As marine expert Caleb Larson explains, Iran does not possess the technology and industrial capacity required to build such an advanced war machine as a nuclear submarine: ‘Iran has a long history of bombastic announcements and is not likely to produce a nuclear-powered submarine anytime in the near future.’
The same rationale motivates Iran’s satellite programme, which is used to test and perfect long-range missiles that could carry a nuclear payload. Until a few weeks ago, Tehran tried – and mostly failed – to launch several “civil” satellites into the Earth’s orbit. On 24 April, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the élite force engaged in terror export and the protection of the Ayatollahs, successfully launched the Noor-1 military satellite into space. According to the IRGC, the mission of the small satellite is military reconnaissance, ‘navigation and military communications’.
No one, however, believes the Iranian cover story. ‘Iran’s space programme is clearly a cover for its intercontinental ballistic missile [ICBM] aspirations’, said Brian Hook, US special representative for Iran, who went on to say that ‘Any claims that Iran’s space programme is peaceful are pure propaganda.’ Indeed, Noor-1 was launched from a military Scud missile launcher, heavily based on North Korean technology. It was carried into orbit by the Qassed (Messenger) rocket, which exhibits a 2000 kilometre range, typical of Iran’s existing Shehab intermediate range ballistic missiles. Moreover, the small satellite itself has very little practical value, and was described by US General Jay Raymond, the Chief of Staff of Space Operations, as ‘a tumbling webcam in space’, which is unlikely to be providing any useful intelligence.
In other words, both the nuclear submarine and the satellites are fairy tales meant to conceal the ultimate aim of the nuclear work: atomic weapons, with ballistic missiles to deliver them.
Meanwhile, Iran’s latest series of breaches of the 2015 nuclear deal (JCPOA) commitments also point in the direction of bomb building. They include, among other things, trying to produce and deploy advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges; amassing increasing amounts of fissile material; re-opening the Fordow enrichment plant which originally could only be used for military purposes; only partially neutralising the Arak heavy water reactor – the list goes on and on.
A new analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), which took into account these latest developments, tries to estimate Tehran’s “breakout time”, defined as ‘the time Iran would need to produce 25 kilograms of weapon-grade uranium (WGU), enough for a nuclear weapon’, should it decide to race to do so. The report is the product of a collaboration between ISIS and experts from the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia (UVA), which is ‘engaged in a multi-year programme to quantify, via sophisticated computer simulations’, Iran’s nuclear trajectory. The analysis is based on the Iranian nuclear stockpiles, facilities and capabilities as recorded by the IAEA in late February 2020. It also considers a scenario that Iran is running a covert nuclear plant operating a few thousand advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges (type IR-2m), on top of its known facilities.
The conclusion of the analysis is alarming: Iran’s nuclear breakout time is now only between three and five months.
Moreover, since February, Tehran has produced more enriched uranium and is in possession of a bigger fissile material stock. Today, it has amassed more than one ton of enriched uranium, kept in various forms and at various enrichment levels (two to 4.5 per cent). This means that the breakout time is almost certainly getting shorter and shorter.
It is time to stop pretending – everybody knows that Tehran is lying. There is an urgent need to take effective action to stop or reverse Iran’s breakout timelines. Australia can play a role by diplomatically supporting US efforts to increase and sustain economic sanctions and pressure on Tehran, even amid the COVID-19 global crisis.