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Default Iran's Nuclear Program.

Iran's Nuclear Program.

By Mohammad Sahimi

Its History

On February 9, 2003, Iran's program and efforts for building sophisticated facilities at Natanz and and several other cities that would eventually produce enriched uranium were revealed. President Mohammad Khatami announced the existence of the Natanz (and other) facilities on Iran's television and invited the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit them. Then, in late February, Dr. Mohammad El Baradei, the head of IAEA, accompanied by a team of inspectors, visited Iran. Since then, the IAEA's experts and inspectors have visited Iran several more times. A preliminary report was published in July, with a follow up report on August 26. On September 12, 2003, the IAEA gave Iran an ultimatum to reveal all the details of its nuclear activities by October 31, 2003.

Iran's nuclear program and activities, though discussed for many years, have come into sharp focus since the February announcement. The information and data that have been obtained by the IAEA, after visiting the Natanz facility and a few other locations, have surprised the United States, the European Union, Russia, and Japan. Similar to the Clinton administration, the Bush administrtation has been suspicious of Iran's nuclear program, arguing that, having vast oil and natural gas reserves, Iran hardly needs nuclear energy. Hence, the Bush administration argues that the primary purpose of Iran's nuclear program is developing nuclear weapons. The EU, which is negotiating with Iran extensive economic and cultural agreements; Russia, which is completing construction of nuclear reactors in Bushehr and hoping to build many more reactors in Iran, and Japan, which is hoping to sign a lucrative oil agreement with Iran for developing Iran's huge Azaadegaan oil field (the largest oil field in the Middle East), have all pressed Iran hard, demanding that it reveal all the secret details of its nuclear program and facilities.

Note that, according to the original IAEA safeguard agreements, Iran did not have to declare the start of construction of the Natanz facility. These agreements stipulate that, only 180 days before introducing any nuclear material, does Iran have to declare the existence of the facility. Therefore, construction of the undeclared Natanz facility was NOT illegal. In addition, the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) allows Iran to legally build any nuclear facility, including one for uranium enrichment, so long as it is intended for peaceful purposes. Moreover, the NPT allows the member states to withdraw from the agreement, subject to giving a 90 days notice to the IAEA, if they believe that abiding by the terms of the NPT threatens their national security (in the language of the NPT, if it is in their "Supreme Interest").

Aside from the political confrontation that the revelations about Iran's nuclear program have created between Iran on one hand, and the US and her allies on the other hand, the questions that I believe we Iranians must ask and debate, are: Does Iran need nuclear energy, and is acquiring it in its national interests? Before starting to debate these all-important questions, however, we must first decouple Iran's need for nuclear energy from its alleged or real intentions for producing nuclear weapons.

This article represents the first of a three-part series in which these two important questions are discussed, and Iran's nuclear program is described and analyzed in detail. In the present article, the history of Iran's program for nuclear research and development is reviewed. The significance of this review is twofold. (1) History shows that the US and her allies were in fact the driving force behind the birth of Iran's nuclear program in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (2) It is also particularly important to recognize that since the late 1980s, when Iran restarted its nuclear program, the US and her allies have been given every opportunity to participate in the development and construction of nuclear reactors in Iran, which would have provided them with significant control on the reactors and their products, but that they have always refused to do so.

Although various portions of Part I (the present article) have been published before, it may be useful to put all the pieces together in order to present a cohesive and brief review of the historty of Iran's nuclear program, and to make it available through an easily-accesible web site. In this author's opinion, this may be particularly useful for the young generation of Iranians who may be interested in this history, and the important role that the US played in the birth of Iran's nuclear program.

Part II will discuss why Iran must stop relying almost exclusively on oil and gas as her sole sources of energy, and start developing alternative sources, the most advanced of which are nuclear reactors. There are compelling economical, social, and environmental reasons for seeking alternative sources of energy for Iran, which will be described in detail in Part II.

Part III will describe, in simple terms, how violations of the NPT are detected, and what the major issues are at the center of the dispute between Iran and the IAEA. The dispute - some call it a crisis - is in fact mostly between Iran on one hand, and the US and some of her allies on the other hand, with the IAEA being used as a tool in a political battle.

Before embarking on this task, we must recognize that the development of adequate energy resources is a highly important part of the national interests of every nation which, by their very definition, transcend the political system that governs a nation. Both Democratic and Replublican administrations in the US, and their allies, such as Britain, have waged wars, invaded and occupied oil-producing countries, and engineered coups to overthrow the legal, often democratically-elected, governments of oil-producing countries in order to control the world's oil reserves. They have always justified their deed solely based on protecting their national interests and national security. We only need to recall what happened in Iran in 1953, after Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh nationalized Iran's oil industry, and the recent invasion and occupation of Iraq by the US and Britain, to understand this. The same principles are also applicable to Iran, namely, that she has a fundamental right for securing adequate energy resources - the engine for her development and advancement.

Iran's foray into nuclear research and development began in the mid 1960s under the auspices of the US within the framework of bilateral agreements between the two countries. The first significant nuclear facility built by the Shah was the Tehran Nuclear Research Center (TNRC), founded in 1967, housed at Tehran University, and run by Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI). This Center has always been one of Iran's primary open nuclear research facilities. It has a safeguarded 5-megawatt nuclear research reactor that was supplied by the US in 1967. The reactor can produce up to 600 grams of plutonium per year in its spent fuel.

Iran signed the NPT on July 1, 1968. After the Treaty was ratified by the Majles, it went into effect on March 5, 1970. In the language of Article IV of the Treaty, the NPT recognized Iran's "inalienable right to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful proposes without discrimination, and acquire equipment, materials, and scientific and technological information." The events of the early 1970s were, however, instrumental in shaping and accelerating the development of Iran's nuclear program. The 1973 war between the Arab countries and Israel, and the subsequent huge increase in the price of oil, provided the Shah's government with considerable resources for Iran's development. At that time, a study by the influential Stanford Research Institute concluded that Iran would need, by the year 1990, an electrical capacity of about 20,000-megawatt.

According to declassified confidential US Government documents posted on the Digital National Security Archive (see the article, "The US-Iran Nuclear Dispute: Dr Mohamed El Baradei's Mission Possible to Iran," by Drs. A. Etemad and N. Meshkati, published on July 13, 2003, in the Iran News), in the mid-1970s, the US encouraged Iran to expand her non-oil energy base, suggested to the Shah that Iran needed not one but SEVERAL nuclear reactors to acquire the electrical capacity that the Stanford Research Institute had proposed, and expressed interest in the US companies participating in Iran's nuclear energy projects. Building these reactors, and selling the weapons that the Shah was procuring from the US in the 1970s, were, of course, a good way for the US to recover the cost of the oil that she was buying from Iran.

Since the Shah never read or heard an American proposal that he did not like, he started an ambitious program for building many (presumably as many as TWENTY THREE) nuclear reactors. Hence, his government awarded a contract to Kraftwerk Union (a subsidiary of Siemens) of (West) Germany to construct two Siemens 1,200-megawatt nuclear reactors at Bushehr. The work for doing so began in 1974. In 1975, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology signed a contract with the AEOI for providing training for the first cadre of Iranian nuclear engineers, and the Iranian-Indian nuclear cooperation treaty was also signed (India is now a nuclear power). In addition, the Nuclear Technology Center at Esfahan (Isfahan) was founded in the mid-1970s with the French assistance in order to provide training for the personnel that would be working with the Bushehr reactors. The Esfahan Center currently operates four small nuclear research reactors, all supplied by China.

According to the same declassified document mentioned above, in an address to the symposium, "The US and Iran, An Increasing Partnership," held in October 1977, Mr. Sydney Sober, a representative of the US State Department, declared that the Shah's government was going to purchase EIGHT nuclear reactors from the US for generating electricity. On July 10, 1978, only seven months before the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the final draft of the US-Iran Nuclear Energy Agreement was signed. The agreement was supposed to facilitate cooperation in the field of nuclear energy and to govern the export and transfer of equipment and material to Iran's nuclear energy program. Iran was also to receive American technology and help in searching for uranium deposits.

The Shah's government had also envisioned building two nuclear reactors and a power plant in Darkhovin, on the Karoon River, south of the city of Ahvaz. Iran signed, in 1974, a contract with the French company Framatome to build two 950 megawatt pressurized reactors at that site. Framatome did survey the area and began site preparation. However, construction had not yet started when the government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan cancelled the contract after the Islamic revolution in 1979. In 1992, Iran signed an agreement with China for building the reactors in Darkhovin, but the terms of the agreement have not yet been carried out by China. Given the proximity of the site to the border with Iraq, it is probably not prudent to proceed with that project at that particular site.

The Shah's government also obtained uranium materials from South Africa in the 1970s. According to Dr. Akbar Etemad, who was the founder and first President of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran from 1974 to 1978, the TNRC carried out experiments in which plutonium was extracted from spent fuel using chemical agents (see, A. Etemad, "Iran," in, "European Non-Proliferation Policy," edited by H. Mueller, Oxford University Press, 1987, page 9). Note that the only use for plutonium is in a nuclear bomb. It is also believed that the Shah assembled at the TNRC a nuclear weapon design team. Asadollah Alam, the long-time Imperial Court Minister and the Shah's close confidant, wrote in his memoires that the Shah had envisioned Iran having nuclear weapons.

In February 1979, when the Islamic Revolution toppled the Shah's government, the Bushehr-1 (that is, reactor 1) was 90% complete and 60% of its equipment had been installed, while Bushehr-2 was 50% complete. Had the 1979 Revolution not happened, the Kraftwerk Union would have continued its work in all likelihood with the cooperation of the US corporation Bechtel Power, which was its joint-venture partner in many power plant projects around the world. The government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan then decided that Iran did not need nuclear energy, and therefore the work at Bushehr was halted after the victory of the Revolution in February 1979. The German firm had left Iran earlier, anyway.

During its war with Iran, Iraq bombed the Bushehr site six times (in March 1984, February 1985, March 1985, July 1986, and twice in November 1987), which destroyed the entire core area of both reactors. According to officials of Technischer Ueberwachungsverein, Germany's National Reactor Inspectorate, before the bombings, Bushehr-1 could have been completed in about three years. Note, however, that, at the time of the bombings, none of the main equipments had been installed, and in fact two steam generators (that use the heat from the reactors to produce steam to be used in power generators) were stored in Italy, while the pressure vessel for Bushehr-1 was stored in Germany.

The Revolution and its aftermath, and the eight-year war with Iraq which resulted in colossal damage to Iran's infrastructure, reduced temporarily Iran's thirst for electricity. After the war with Iraq ended, however, Iran began to rethink her position regarding nuclear energy and technology, although it would not be unreasonable to believe that Iraq's savage bombing of Iran's main population and industrial centers, and the missile attacks that it carried out against Tehran during 1986-1987, also motivated Iran's leaders to think about nuclear technology. The first reconstruction and development plan proposed and carried out by President Hashemi Rafsanjani's government, coupled with Iran's chronic shortage of electricity that went back to the early 1970s, and the rapid growth of her population, were three major reasons for Iran to restart her neclear program for obtaining electricity.

Rafsanjani's government first approached Kraftwerk Union to complete the Bushehr project. However, under the US pressure, Kraftwerk Union refused. Iran then asked Germany to allow Kraftwerk to ship the reactor components and technical documentation that it had paid for, citing a 1982 International Commerce Commission (ICC) ruling under which Siemens was obligated to deliver all plant materials and components stored outside Iran, but the German government still refused to do so. In response, Iran filed a lawsuit in August 1996 with the ICC, asking for $5.4 billion in compensation for Germany's failure to comply with the 1982 ruling. The issue is still unsettled.

In the late 1980s, a consortium of companies from Argentina, Germany and Spain submitted a proposal to Iran to complete the Bushehr-1 reactor, but huge pressure by the US stopped the deal. The US pressure also stopped in 1990 Spain's National Institute of Industry and Nuclear Equipment to complete the Bushehr project. Iran also tried, unsuccessfully, to procure components for the Bushehr reactors, but her attempts were blunted by the US. For example, in 1993, Iran tried to acquire eight steam condensers, built by the Italian firm Ansaldo under the Kraftwerk Union contract, but they were seized by the Italian government. The Czech firm Skoda Plzen also discussed supplying reactor components to Iran, but, under the US pressure, negotiations were cancelled in 1994. Iran was also not successful in her attempt to buy nuclear power reactor components from an unfinished reactor of Polland.

After years of searching in the West for a supplier to complete her first nuclear power plant, Iran turned to the Soviet Union and then Russia. She signed, in March 1990, her first protocol on the Bushehr project with the Soviet Union. The agreement called on Moscow to complete the Bushehr project and build additional two reactors in Iran, but financial problems delayed the deal.

China, in 1991, provided Iran with uranium hexafluoride (a uranium compound, which is gaseous state, and used for enriching uranium; see Part III) which is, however, under the IAEA safeguard. In addition, Iran recently acknowleged that she also received (again in 1991) from China 1,000 kgr of natural uranium hexafluoride, 400 kgr of uranium tetrafluoride, and 400 kgr of uranium dioxide, without reporting them to the IAEA. Although the amount of the (until-recently undeclared) uranium compounds is small, what has been done with them is more indicative of the real intentions behind obtaining the materials. In 1993, the AEOI and the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy signed an agreement for the construction of two Russian reactors at Bushehr, but the contract was never carried out as Iran was facing major financial problems.

Finally, Iran signed, in January 1995, a contract with the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy to finish the reactors at Bushehr. These reactors will be under the IAEA safeguards, and will be capable of producing up to 180 kgr/year of plutonium in their spent fuel. The agreement called for Russia to complete the first reactor at Bushehr within four years, although it is still unfinished; to provide a 30-50 megawatt thermal light-water research reactor, 2,000 tons of natural uranium, and training for about 15 Iranian nuclear scientists per year. Iran and Russia also agreed to discuss the construction of a gas centrifuge uranium-enrichment facility in Iran. However, in May 1995, the US announced that it had convinced Russia to cancel the centrifuge agreement, although Russia later denied that the agreement with Iran ever existed! The light-water research reactor deal has also been cancelled.

After the 1995 agreement was signed by Iran and Russia, the Clinton administration tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Russia to cancel the agreement, but its entreaties were rebuffed by Russia which saw the Bushehr project as an openning for her ailing nuclear industry to get itself into the international market. Having failed in its attempts, the Clinton administration then began charging that the plutonium that the reactors would produce would be used by Iran for making nuclear weapons. However, this issue is also being addressed by Iran and Russia, since they are negotiating an agreement by which the nuclear wastes from the Bushehr reactors would be returned to Russia which has a large facility for storing the wastes in southern Siberia (although Russian environmental laws appear to forbid storing nuclear wastes of another country in Russia), but no agreement has been reached yet. It was reported recently that Iran has demanded payments for returning the spent fuel to Russia, contending that she pays to buy the fuel from Russia in the first place, and therefore she should also be paid for the spent fuel. If ture, this would be an absurd demand, because if Russia is to pay for Iran's nuclear wastes, she should also be paid for keeping Iran's nuclear wastes! The issue of who should pay whom appears to be the only obstacle to reaching an agreement between Iran and Russia concerning the nuclear wastes.

After it appeared that the plutonium issue would be addressed by Russia, the US, under huge pressure by Israel, began claiming that, while the Bushehr reactors cannot be directly used for making nuclear weapons, they will train a generation of Iranian scientists and engineers for operating the reactor, which in turn will prepare Iran for making nuclear weapons. Is there any merit to this charge? Having a nuclear reactor is NOT necessary for obtaining the necessary know-how for developing a nuclear bomb (although it certainly helps). The best example is provided by Iraq. Israel bombed and destroyed Iraq's only nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981, before it started operating, yet when its nuclear weapon program was discovered after the 1991 Gulf war, Iraq was only months away from making a nuclear bomb!

Most experts believe that the completion of the Bushehr project by Russia is a highly complex task: As mentioned earlier, the Kraftwerk Union has not provided any technical documents to either Iran or Russia. Since Russia plans to install a reactor, her engineers must modify what Kraftwerk Union had left behind to accomodate the Russian reactor and its support system, which differ in many significant ways from the German reactor. For example, the structure of the steam generators in the Russian reactors is significantly different from the original German reactors. The reactor is supposed to start operating in early 2004.

In addition to the what has been described so far, Iran does have a few other nuclear facilities. One is the Bonaab Atomic Energy Research Center (which is south of city of Tabriz), which is a research center for applications of nuclear technology in agriculture. In addition, Center for Agricultural Research and Nuclear Medicine at Karaj (near Tehran) was inaugurated on in May 1991, and is run by the AEOI. None of these is, however, considered to be for military applications.

This concludes the review of the history of Iran's nuclear program. The review reveals three important facts:

(1) Nuclear research, facilities, and reactors, and even the vision for Iran having nuclear weapons, were all conceived and initiated by the Shah and his government, with the direct assistance and encouragement by the US and her allies. This is very much similar to what happened in Israel, which developed her arsenal of nuclear weapons with the direct help of the US and France. They were not conceived or initiated after the Revolution. In fact, for the first few years after the Revolution, Iran rejected nuclear reactors!

(2) It is clear that the US and her allies have had many opportunities to complete the Bushehr project, or to participate in the construction of other nuclear reactors, and, hence, to have significant control on the reactors, but they have always refused to take part.

(3) In addition, the US and her allies could have participated in the Bushehr project by helping Iran improve the safety of the reactors there and, hence, have influence on their operations. As pointed out by Drs. Etemad and Meshkati (see their article cited earlier), there is good precedence for this: The Temelin nuclear power plant in the Czech Republic, the construction of which began during the Soviet Union, when the former communist government was in power in Czechoslovakia, but was halted in 1992. In 1994, with a $317 million loan guarantee from the United States Export-Import Bank, an American company, Westinghouse Electric Corporation, participated in completing the Temelin's reactors.

Hence, there is no way of avoiding the conclusion that the real goal of the United States is dismantling Iran's nuclear infrastructure, regardless of its orientation, and to despatch Iran to the era of nuclear, scientific and technological illiteracy, which is in violation of the letter and spirit of the NPT.

Iran's Nuclear Program. Part II: Are Nuclear Reactors Necessary?
By Mohammad Sahimi
In the present article, Part II of a three-part series, the need for building nuclear reactors in Iran is analyzed. As was pointed out in Part I, in the opinion of this author, the questions that we Iranians must ask and debate, are: Does Iran need nuclear energy, and is acquiring it in her national interests? It was also pointed out that one must decouple Iran's need for nuclear energy which, as argued in this article, is completely legitimate on economical, social, and environmental grounds, from her alleged or real intentions for producing nuclear weapons.

Recall that the main argument of the United States against nuclear energy for Iran is that, Iran has vast oil and gas reserves, and hence she needs no nuclear reactor. This argument is, in general, not necessarily valid. Many countries that are rich in fossil energy resources, including Britain and Russia (both oil exporters), rely on nuclear power for a significant portion of their energy needs, while Germany, France, Japan, and many other countries, which have no oil or natural gas reserves, have not abandoned nuclear power in favor of more imported oil and gas, even though they can certainly afford this. There are currently 1118 nuclear reactors in the world of which 280 are for nuclear research, while another 400 are used in ships and submarines for producing power. The remaining 438 nuclear reactors are used for generating electricity, of which 104 are in the US, 59 in France, 53 in Japan, 29 in Russia, and 19 are in Germany. Between 1974, when Iran signed her first agreement for building nuclear reactors, and 2000, use of nuclear reactors for generating electricity has increased by a factor of 12!

In the particular case of Iran, the US argument that Iran needs no nuclear energy has no validity at all. While it is true that Iran does have vast oil and gas reserves, she also needs alternative energy sources. I argue that Iran's needs for such alternatives are glaring and indisputable, and I base my arguments on economical, social, and environmental considerations.

We first, however, consider the case for alternative sources of energy on general grounds:

Most of the world's major oil exporters, such as Iran, are developing nations. Thus, these countries must confront the challenge of their demographic explosion without possessing many of the necessary tools, which are strong state structures, rapidly-growing economies, large amounts of investment capitals, numerous entrepreneurs, engineers and inventors, and infrastructres that are reasonably advanced. In fact, we live in a world in which technology and capital are in the countries that are energy-hungry - those that have no major oil reserves of their own (for example, Germany, France, and Japan) or have at best indeaquate sources (for example, the US) - whereas the population growth and social and political turbulence are in the developing countries that are major oil producers (such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Iraq, etc.).

At the same time, oil is a non-renewable national wealth of Iran (and other oil exporters). Once it is produced and exported, it can never be regenerated. One cannot expect Iran (and other oil-exporting countries) to deplete her non-renewable national wealth recklessly, without receiving any lasting products or benefits in return, but this will happen if Iran's sources for energy are not diversified, and she continues to rely almost exclusively on oil and gas for everything from the only source of energy to her annual budget. Except for Norway, every major oil exporter (including Russia) relies heavily on its revenue from oil sales, so much so that if the oil price stays too low for too long, we may have social instability and even revolution in these countries. What would happen to these countries if all of their recoverable oil and gas are rapidly depleted over a few decades, which would be the case if they rely on oil and gas for everything from their annual budget to energy sources?

In addition, a set of practical issues, which are important to the industrialized nations (notably in the Western hemisphere), must be addressed: What would happen to the West's huge chemical industry that uses oil- and gas-derived materials for its production and is an important source of jobs, if the world's oil and gas reserves are depleted too quickly? What would be the fate of the German plastic factories and the US polymer producers (plastics and polymers are some of the most heavily used materials in the world) that get their raw materials from the same source, and to the enormous petrochemical complexes around the world, if oil and gas resources are quickly depleted? Is it not better to develop alternative sources of energy, and use oil and gas more slowly and in more useful ways, by producing oil- and gas-derived materials and products that have much added values? If the answer to this question is yes, then why can Iran not use this argument?

Next, consider the case for alternative energy sources from an economical view point:

Iran's 60 major oil fields are mostly old, with some being depleted altogether. From 1979 until 1997 no major investment was made in Iran's oil industry. A study in 1998 concluded that, out of the 60 oil fields, 57 of them need major technical studies, repairs, upgrading, and repressurizing which would require, over a 15 year period, $40 billion! Although, since 1997, Iran has had considerable success in attracting foreign capital for its offshore oil and gas reserves, it is still far behind other oil exporting countries of the Middle East in terms of developing her fossil energy resources. Iran has not even been able to increase her oil production to the pre-Revolution level of 5.5 million barrels/day. If Iran cannot upgrade her oil facilities and industry on a timely manner, it will lose her market share. While there is no doubt that the solution to the urgent problem of upgrading Iran's oil industry is partly political, lack of any solution will have deep implications for Iran's future, which are discussed shortly.

At the same time, since early 1990s, Iran's consumption of oil has been increasing at an alarming rate of 8% per year, and her total energy consumption has increased from 1.6 quadrillion Btu (quads) in 1980 to more than 5.5 quads at present - an increase of more than 280%. If this trend continues, Iran will become a net oil importer by 2010, a gigantic catastrophe for a country which relies on oil for 80% of her foreign currency and 45% of her total annual budget. If that happens, how will Iran be able to feed her population, estimated to reach 100 million by 2025, and also spend on her development and national security? The fact is that, despite considerable efforts over the past 30 years, Iran's industrial output, aside from her oil industry, accounts for only 15% of her gross domestic product.

In one of the rare occasions that he said something profound, the Shah once stated that a barrel of oil is too precious (he used the word "sharif" in Persian to describe oil) to be used for generating electricity. Paraphrasing him, I would say that a million cubic feet of gas is too precious to burn; natural gas should be used for generating huge amounts of petrochemical products with much added values, which is precisely what Iran has been trying to do: Iran curently produces about $2.7 billion/year worth of petrochemical products. At the same time, in 40-50 years, when oil will no longer be the major source of energy and will be replaced by gas, Iran (the gas reserves of which will last for at least 200 years) will be in an excellent position to be the main supplier to Asia and Europe. Therefore, why should Iran use her hard-earned oil and gas for generating electricity, if she can develop alternative sources of energy?

Looking at this issue from another angle, it is estimated that Iran's known uranium ore reserves can produce as much electricity as 45 BILLION barrels of oil. This is a huge amount by any criterion, but particularly so if we only recall that Iran's known oil reserves are currently estimated to be about 96 billion barrels. In other words, if we can extract all of Iran's known oil reserves (a remote possibility!) and use about half of them just for producing electricity, we will generate as much electricity as what Iran's presently-known uranium deposits can produce! It would therefore be absolutely foolish not to do this!

Consider this problem from a third angle: Iran's present installed electrical capacity is more than the 20,000 megawatt that had been predicted for 1990. However, Iran's annual growth in demand for electricity is 5-8%. Hence, it is estimated that, by the year 2010, Iran will need another 7,000-megawatt of electricity which, ignoring all other factors (see above and below), and even under the best possible circumstances, namely, immediate lifting of the US sanctions against Iran and flow of vast investment capital into Iran's oil and gas industry, cannot be produced by oil and gas alone. Therefore, the question is: What is Iran supposed to do?

One of the main arguments that some of the experts on nuclear weapons present against Iran having nuclear energy is that, it is not economical for Iran to generate electricity using nuclear reactors, because she has vast gas reserves which can be used for producing electricity. To support their arguments, these experts usually cite studies that estimate that the cost to finish the Bushehr nuclear reactors will be $1,000 per installed kilowatt, while the electricity from natural gas-fired power plants costs $600-800 per kilowatt. However, such arguments are not valid. In addition to the necessity of,

(1) using the gas for producing petrochemical products with much added values (see above);

(2) preserving much of Iran's gas reserves for her future generations and to position Iran in 40-50 years as the main supplier of energy to Europe and Asia, and

(3) avoiding the severe adverse effect of burning gas and the resulting carbon emission which is the major culprit in global warming and the greenhouse effect (see below),

the above estimates are simply wrong, because they do not take into account the huge costs of the medical care for people who suffer from the diseases caused by pollution of the environment by oil and gas, as well as the damage to nature caused by carbon emission and the resulting global warming.

In 1990, in a seminar at Gustave E. von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies of the University of California in Los Angeles (the complete content of that seminar was published later; see, M. Sahimi, "How Much do We Pay for a Barrel of Oil?" in, "Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Non-Renewable Energy Sources," Tehran, Iran, December 1993; see also, M. Sahimi, "Factors Affecting the Development of Fossil Energy Resources of Developing Countries," in, "United States-Third World Relations in the New World Order," edited by A.P. Grammy and C.K. Bragg, Nova Science Publishers, New York, 1996, page 361), this author stated that:

"Typical estimates for the cost of producing electricity and other forms of energy using oil and gas are only based on their market prices. However, these prices reflect only the cost of producing oil and gas (including the costs of of labor and materials used for their extraction from underground reservoirs) and of transporting them to the consumer. But some of the costs of consuming oil and gas are not directly included in our energy bill, nor are they paid for by the companies that sell us energy. These are the hidden costs of oil and gas that we pay indirectly for the health problems caused by air, water and soil pollution resulting from using oil and gas, environmental degradation caused by carbon emission and global warming, and acid rains. Since the producers and consumers do not pay directly for such costs, society as a whole must pay for them. Thus, although such costs are hidden, they are real. For example, according to the American Lung Association, health costs, including, for example, lost potential income, of air pollution alone are estimated to be about $50 billion a year, and the main culprit for air pollution is the fossil fuels, mainly oil and gas, our primary source of energy. Estimating the possible cost of the damage inflicted on Earth by global warming, caused by carbon emission that is the direct result of burning oil AND gas, is currently impossible."

If we take into account such costs, then the cost of producing electricity from gas (and oil) will be much larger than the commercial estimates usually quoted, and very much comparable with what it costs to generate it using nuclear reactors. A recent study by Professors John Deutch and Ernest Moniz of, respectively, the chemistry and physics departments of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reached a similiar conclusion (see, the New York Times, the Op-Ed page, Thursday August 14, 2003).

Consider now the case for alternative sources of energy in terms of Iran's population growth and her social dynamics:

Since the 1979 Revolution, Iran's population has more than doubled, from 32 to nearly 70 million, while her oil production is only 70% of the pre-Revolution level. This then begs the following question: Why is it that the US and her allies believed, in the 1970s, that Iran needed nuclear reactors and nuclear energy, when Iran's population was less than half of the present and her oil production was much more than now, but they now argue that Iran does not need nuclear energy? How do the US and her allies suggest Iran should feed, house and educate her population, create jobs for her army of educated people, and develop the country, all with oil and gas alone, while she has very significant uranium deposits that can be used for generating electricity?

Consider the case for alternative energy sources from an environmental view point:

Iran is beset by huge environmental problems that have been caused by oil and gas consumption, problems that are reaching catastrophic scales. Although Iran established a Department of Environment in 1971, and even though Article 50 of her current Constitution states that, "In the Islamic Republic of Iran protection of the environment, in which present and future generations should enjoy a transcendent social life, is regarded as a public duty," 8 years of war with Iraq, economic sanctions, careless (with respect to the environment) development after the War, and the 120% increase in the population, have kept the goal of cleaning the environment and maintaining it that way on the back-burner. However, the environment and its health can no longer be neglected.

Since 1980, carbon emissions in Iran have risen by 240%, from 33.1 million metric tons emitted in 1980 to more than 85 million metric tons at present. Note that, whether we use oil (which causes severe pollution problems) or gas (which, compared with oil and coal, is considered as a relatively clean source of energy), carbon emission cannot be avoided. This emission is one of the main culprits behind air pollution in Tehran and all other major cities of Iran that has reached catastrophic levels, so much so that the elementary schools must be closed on many days. Long term effects of the polluted air are blamed for causing 17,000 deaths every year in Tehran alone, as well as causing severe problems for people with asthma, heart, and skin conditions. The cost of medical care for such illnesses is reaching astronomical levels.

Polluted air also severely damages soil and groundwater resources by contaminating the rain water. At the same time, Iran's industrial base, using oil and gas for energy, generates wastes that contaminate a large number of rivers and coastal waters and threaten drinking water supplies. These are separate from oil spills in the Persian Gulf and pollution in the Caspian Sea that continue to contaminate the waters. These are all caused by the fact that, Iran's renewable energy consumption, including hydropower, solar, wind, tide, and geothermal, account for only 2% of its total energy consumption, with the rest supplied by oil and gas.

What are, or can be, alternative sources of energy for Iran? Surely, given Iran's vast central desert, solar power can potentially be very useful for generating electricity and energy. However, this technology is not yet well-developed. In certain parts of Iran, geothermal sources can also be used for generating electricity, but Iran has just started exploring this possibility, and it will take at least 15 years to develop this at any significant scale. That leaves nuclear reactors, which will not solve her chronic shortage of electricity, nor will they solve all of Iran's pollution problems, but they do represent the first important step in diversifying Iran's sources for energy.

Nuclear reactors do have their own problems. One is their management which has to be at a very high level so that the chances of accidents, similar to those that happened in Three-Mile Island in the US (in 1979) and in Chernobyl in Russia (in 1986), will be minimal. In addition, one must deal with protecting and storing the nuclear wastes produced by the reactors which would be radioactive for at least tens of thousands of years. But, these problems are generally believed to be manageable.

Iran's Nuclear Program. Part III: The Emerging Crisis
By Mohammad Sahimi
This article is the last of a three-part series on Iran's nuclear program. In this Part, the dispute - many consider it a crisis - between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is described.

Recall that after the February announcement of President Mohammad Khatami regarding the construction of the facilities in Natanz for uranium enrichment, and other associated plants needed for this purpose, Dr. Mohammad El Baradei, the head of IAEA, accompanied by a team of inspectors, visited Iran. Since then, the IAEA's inspectors and experts have visited Iran several more times. A preliminary report was published in July, with a follow-up one on August 26.

Before the revelations about the Natanz facility, there had been reports for years that Iran had sought, albeit unsuccessfully, the uranium enrichment technology, both in the international market and from the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy. Although not definitively established yet, it now appears that the Natanz facility is similar to what Pakistan had built for its nuclear program in the 1980s. Various reports indicate, however, that the Natanz facility is in fact far more sophisticated than both Pakistan's and what was discovered in Iraq after its defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

The process of converting uranium ore to enriched uranium is actually long and very complex. It has been known for many years that Iran has natural uranium reserves, in the form of uranium ore. In 1985, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) located over 5,000 metric tons of uranium ore in the desert in eastern part of Yazd province. This represents one of the largest deposits of uranium ore in the Middle East. The ore must first undergo a semiprocess to be converted to a powder, usually called the yellowcake. Iran is building a facility in Ardakan for this purpose. The yellowcake is then further processed to produce uranium hexafluoride (UF_6) which is in gaseous state. The facility for doing this is being built in Esfahan (Isfahan). Uranium has two important isotopes (that is, two slightly different versions of it with slightly different atomic masses) which are uranium-235 and uranium-238 (the numbers represent the atomic masses). It is uranium-238 that may be used in making nuclear weapons, but also in nuclear reactors. The Esfahan facility will also produce uranium oxide and uranium metal, both of which have civilian as well as military applications.

The Natanz facility is equipped with the instruments for what is currently considered to be the standard uranium-enrichment technique, namely, a large number of centrifuges that spin uranium hexafluoride gas at very high speeds. Under such conditions, centrifugal forces help separate the lighter uranium-235 hexafluoride from the heavier uranium-238 hexafluoride. The facility has a pilot gas centrifuge plant that, by the end of 2003, is supposed to house 1000 centrifuges (at the time of the IAEA visit in February, there were 160 centrifuges in the facility), and a large-scale production plant which will house up to 50,000 centrifuges, the installation of which (which is supposed to begin in 2005) will take up to 10 years. Such a facility would then have the capability for producing enough uranium for annual consumption of a nuclear reactor of the Bushehr-type. Note that only 10 countries have access to the centrifuge technology.

Development of a uranium-enrichment facility is an important step (but not the only one) towards making nuclear weapons. For example, the Natanz facility, when complete and in full operation, could produce 500 kgr/year of weapon-grade uranium. As it typically takes about 20 kgr of enriched uranium to make a single nuclear bomb, the produced uranium would be enough to make about 25 bombs every year. We must, however, keep in mind that a uranium-enrichment facility is also utilized for peaceful purposes it can produce low-grade enriched uranium for use in nuclear reactors.

Since, typically, one first tests whether a single centrifuge with a small quantity of uranium hexafluoride works before installing hundreds (or even thousands) of them, one might suspect that Iran does have at least a small amount of enriched uranium, not declared to the IAEA, which, if true, would imply that Iran is in serious violation of the NPT that it signed in 1968. However, such tests can also be carried out by computer simulations and modelling. Recall that even nuclear explosions are simulated completely realistically, and therefore, in principle, one does not need a physical test to check whether the centrifuges work. Whether this is the case in the present situation is not clear.

It was reported on July 18 that the IAEA inspectors had detected the trace of enriched uranium in the samples taken at Natanz, but Iran said that the source of the trace is the equipments brought to Natanz from elsewhere and bought on the international market. Subsequently, it was announced on September 25 that a trace amount of enriched uranium has also been detected at Kaalaa-ye (Kalaye is usually used in the english press) Electric Company in the northwest suburb of Tehran, a non-nuclear site (the Company produces watches, as well as certain components for the centrifuges) that the IAEA suspects Iran is using for her nuclear enrichment activities. Since Iran had declared to the IAEA that the instruments at Natanz had been stored at the Kaalaa-ye Electric site before being transported to Natanz, and given that no trace of enriched uranium has been detected anywhere else in Iran, the Kaalaa-ye Electric discovery may actually confirm Iran's contention regarding the origin of the enriched uranium. But, once again, the situation is not clear, unless Iran provides the IAEA a list of suppliers that provided her with the instruments and equipments.

How are nuclear facilities monitored and violations of the NPT discovered? Inspections of nuclear facilities include the use of a powerful technique, called the isotopic detection, which, in essence, is a method for monitoring the environment and anything that might contaminate it. This technique is based on the facts that, (1) extremely small quantities of a material always escape a process or an industrial plant, and (2) that an equipped laboratory can readily identify the isotopic ratio of a sample that contains extremely small, albeit measureable, amounts of a material, even if it is as small as a billionth of a gram.

Nuclear physics predicts that the ratio of uranium-235 to uranium-238 is essentially the same everywhere. Therefore, when the isotopic detection technique is applied to samples containing uranium, those with ratios lower than the theoretically-predicted value would most probably indicate illegal (from the NPT stand) uranium-enrichment activity. The same technique can be used for detecting any amount of plutonium that is in excess of what is (theoretically) expected, which would then suggest the existence of a reprocessing program for nuclear wastes generated by nuclear reactors, from which plutonium is extracted. This technique is used, under the NPT, in the declared nuclear facilities of the NPT signatories.

As a reaction to the discovery of Iraq's program for developing nuclear weapons, that was discovered by the United Nations inspectors in 1991 after Iraq's defeat in the second Gulf war, the IAEA decided to develop and implement additional procedures for enhancing nuclear safeguards. At the time, the IAEA hoped to have these additional procedures or protocols in place two years later, hence the name "93+2" that is sometimes used to refer to this matter. The Additional Protocol was developed in 1996, and has since been signed by 78 countries (out of the 183 countries that have signed the NPT). Thirty three of these countries, mostly small nations, have also ratified the signing of the additional protocol by their national parliaments, and hence implementing it, although these countries cannot really afford to develop nuclear bomb! Most importantly, the Additional Protocol has not been adopted by the US, its most forceful advocate when it comes to OTHER countries!

The Additional Protocol also gives the IAEA the authority to inspect any facility of any nation that has signed the Protocol, even those that, seemingly, have nothing to do with a nuclear program, any time that the IAEA wishes. This is a problematic aspect of the Additional Protocol, as inspection of non-nuclear facilities may be interpreted as an infringement on the national sovereignty of a country under inspection. However, since Iran's facilities have been under inspections for years, this should be a minor issue.

On Friday September 12, 2003, the 35-member governing board of the IAEA gave Iran an ultimatum until October 31 to prove that her nuclear program is strictly for peaceful purposes, by providing all the deatils of her nuclear program. Iran's reaction was mixed: On one hand, she reacted with indignation, calling the ultimatum "premature" and "unfair," while stating, on the other hand, that she will continue working with the IAEA.

It should be pointed out that even Ms. Melissa Fleming, the spokeswoman for the IAEA, conceded that the ultimatum was "highly unusual" in that it was adopted WITHOUT A VOTE. At the same time, the IAEA itself had conceded that Iran had expanded her cooperation with the Agency, even allowing many sites that are not covered by the NPT, such as the Kaalaa-ye Electric Company, to be inspected. Therefore, the ultimatum has much to do with Iran's poor international standing and isolation, which are, of course, justified.

At the same time, the US is once again using an important international organization to advance her agenda, damaging in the process the credibility and effectiveness of the organization, only a few months after doing the same to the United Nations during the debate over invasion of Iraq (and now going back to it asking for help!). France and Germany, at odds with the US over invasion and occupation of Iraq, but eager to mend their relations with the US, also have joined her in calling on Iran to immediately sign the Additional Protocol, and to reveal all of the details of her nuclear program.

Before analyzing the present situation between Iran and the IAEA, we must keep in mind that,

(1) according to the original IAEA safeguard agreements, Iran was not obligated to declare the start of construction of the Natanz facility. These agreements stipulate that, only 180 days before introducing any nuclear material, does Iran have to declare the existence of the facility. Therefore, construction of the undeclared Natanz facility is NOT by itself a vilation of the NPT.

(2) The NPT does allow Iran to legally build any nuclear facility, including one for uranium enrichment, so long as it is declared to, and safeguarded by, the IAEA, and is intended for peaceful purposes.

Keeping these important points in mind, the problematic aspects of Iran's nuclear program, so far as the IAEA is concerned, are as follows.

(a) The origin of the trace amounts of highly-enriched uranium at Natanz and Kaalaa-ye Electric Company near Tehran is not yet clear. This was already described and discussed above.

(b) Iran declared to the IAEA that since approximately seven weeks ago, she has begun some uranium enrichment activities at Natanz using a single centrifuge. Since this was declared to the IAEA, and because the Natanz facility is now monitored by the IAEA, this activity does not represent a violation of the NPT (although, given the current international conditions, some may regard the timing of this as unfortunate). The important point of contention is: How can Iran be so sure that the centrifuges at Natanz work with high levels of reliability, if no prior (undeclared) tests have been carried out? Iran has countered that she has used modelling and simulation, mentioned above, which is plausible, but does not, of course, exclude the possibility of actual physical tests.

(c) The IAEA has demanded that Iran provide it with all the details of the work at Kaalaa-ye Electric Company. Iran has provided some (but presumably not all) of the details, and has allowed the facility to be visited by the IAEA inspectors, even though this inspection is not covered by the NPT, although, at first, Iran refused to grant the IAEA the permission to visit this site. If Iran does sign the Additional Protocol, then she would have to completely open the facility to the IAEA inspectors.

(d) As mentioned in Part I, in 1991, Iran received from China 1,000 kgr of natural uranium hexafluoride, 400 kgr of uranium tetrafluoride (UF_4), and 400 kgr of uranium dioxide (UO_2), without reporting them to the IAEA. The question then is: What happened to these uranium compounds? Iran has declared that some of the compounds have been converted to other uranium compounds, some of which have medical applications, while others may be of dual use. Given that Iranian medical scientists who work in Iran have published the results of their research involving such uranium compounds, Iran's explanation is plausible, but does not provide an explanation for the fate of all the undecalred uranium compounds.

In this author's opinion, none of these problems is intractable, and so far as their scientific and technological aspects are concerned, can be addressed to the satisfaction of the IAEA. The main problem, in this author's opinion, is that much of the dispute with the IAEA is political, rather than scientific or technological. To see this, consider the following indisputable facts:

(1) As recognized by the NPT, peaceful use of nuclear technology, and in particular nuclear energy, is Iran's fundamental right, so long as her nuclear program is completely transparent to the IAEA.

(2) Article 22 of the agreement between Iran and the IAEA allows for an "arbitral tribunal," if there is still any dispute after Iran provides sufficients details of her nuclear program to the IAEA. Therefore, October 31, 2003 is not necessarily a rigid deadline.

(3) The United States has a selective non-proliferation policy. She allows Pakistan, a country that created the Taliban and her population has provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and his terrorisat group; a country whose military is still controlled to a large extent by extremist elements, to develop nuclear weapons. The US has assisted Israel to develop an impressive arsenal of nuclear weapons; has exported nuclear technology to China, and has offered a deal to North Korea regarding her nuclear reactors. The US does not pressure Pakistan, India and Israel to sign the NPT and its Additional Protocol. A little-known fact is that, in early 1995, the German government proposed a plan whereby Kraftwerk Union (a subsidiary of Siemens) would complete construction of the Bushehr reactors (see Part I of this series), subject to Iran's agreeing to extra non-proliferation verification procedures similar to those that the United States negotiated with North Korea, and Iran agreed with the plan. But, once again, immense pressure by the United States scuttled the plan, after which Iran turned to Russia for completion of the Bushehr reactors.

A few other important points must be mentioned here:

(a) In this author's opinion, if acquiring nuclear reactors is in Iran's national interests (see Part II), so is signing the Additional Protocol. However, it is completely reasonable to expect that, in return for signing the Protocol and openning the nation to the IAEA inspections, Iran should obtain access to advanced nuclear technology, which should, however, be monitored and safeguarded by the IAEA. The fact remains that Russian nuclear reactors are inferior to those made in the West. Britain, France, and Germany have already promised to help Iran.

(b) However, in this author's opinion, signing the Additional Protocol, while necessary, may not be sufficient by itself to protect Iran's nuclear assets since this author believes that, unless the US invades and occupies Iran and installs a completely puppet regime in Tehran, she will continue pressuring Iran, using her nuclear program as a pretext, regardless of the future political developments in Iran. Thus, Iran's aim, in this author's opinion, must be addressing the demands of the IAEA with which the European Union also agrees, and to open up all of her facilities to inspections.

(c) The present Iranian leadership, both elected and unelected, must recognize that it has been given no mandate to deprive Iran's furure generations of the most advanced technology, namely, nuclear technology, by acting against Iran's national interests, including resisting stubbornly the legitimate demands by the IAEA. While giving Iran, a sovereign nation, an ultimatum is repugnant, there are many legitimate issues that must be addressed.

(d) It is highly important how Iran responds to the IAEA reasonable demands. She can react by dragging her feet, without having any active, efficient, and logical diplomacy, which will eventually result in agreeing to all the IAEA demands but under highly unfavorable circumstances, hence bringing about severe set backs to Iran's nuclear program, if nothing else (which could include economic sanctions and military threat). Alternatively, Iran can come forward with all the details of her nuclear program, while being firm in demanding assistance for acquiring advanced nuclear technology, in which case the EU, Russia, Japan and the non-aligned countries may help Iran.

(e) Unless Iran addresses the issues that the IAEA has raised, and signs the Additional Protocol on nuclear inspections, she will not only fail in her goal of building a network of nuclear reactors, but will also be under severe international pressure. Iran has already felt this pressure: Japan has slowed down negotiations for development of the Azaadegaan oil field (the largest field in the Middle East with estimated reserves of 26-30 billion barrels of oil), and the Shell Oil Company has withdrawn from negotiations for developing the same field. Under severe international pressure, the task of building a network of nuclear reactors will be set back for many years, if not decades.

With Israel's help, the apartheid regime of South Africa developed extensive nuclear facilities, and even made 16 nuclear bombs. The sixteen nuclear bombs could not, however, prevent the demise of the South African racist regime. While after establishment of a democratic system, the South Arfican government of President Nelson Mandela gave up volunteerly its nuclear bombs, the nuclear technology and know-how, developed during the apartheid regime, now belong to a democratic country and all South Africans.

Nothing protects Iran's national security and interests better than acceptance of her political system and government by Iranian people, which would happen only if a truly democratic system is established in Iran. At the same time, Iran's nuclear infrastructure is part of her national asset, belonging to all Iranians, regardless of their political inclinations. It is ultimately up to Iranian people, like their South African counterparts, to decide the fate of their country's nuclear technology, once such a democratic system is established.

About the author:
Mohammad Sahimi is Professor & Chairman of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Since 1986, he has been a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization devoted to preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and a member of the Union's Partners for Earth Program. In addition to his scientific research that has resulted in over 200 papers, published in scientific journals, and six books, his political articles have also appeared as book chapters, on various web sites, and in the Los Angeles Times.
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