Monday, October 31, 2005

Nuclear Iran: Race Against Time

Ryan Mauro, The Global Politican:
"If one day, the world of Islam comes to possess the weapons currently in Israel's possession-on that day this method of global arrogance would come to an end. This is because the use of a nuclear bomb in Israel will leave nothing on the ground, whereas it will only damage the world of Islam."
-Former Iranian President Rafsanjani on December 14, 2001.

During the Presidential campaign, Iran became one of the major foreign policy crisis issues, with both candidates agreeing it's the world's greatest threat today. While North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, and the Administration has failed to find any "actual" weapons in Iraq, Iran is fast at work on its own nuclear arsenal. The world's most active state sponsor of terrorism will have it's own nuclear bomb in one or two years. And worse, the actual creation of the fissile material needed for the bomb is set to begin within months. From this point, sanctions or bombing raids will be unable to adequately delay the nuclear program.

Some even claim Iran already has nuclear weapons. READ MORE

The former director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, Yossef Bodansky, has claimed just that in his book, "The High Cost of Peace". Before I quote from that book, please take note that I lack the ability to confirm these claims (although I have seen these same details in the overseas press reports over the years). It is possible that Iran obtained nuclear devices in the late 1980s or early 1990s, but that these devices are unable to be used-the book does not say if the status of the weapons is known. The book's statements on Iran's nuclear program are as follows:

"Even before the final Soviet breakup, and while Tehran was beginning its talks with Beijing, Iranian intelligence operatives were scouring Soviet Central Asia for weapons, technologies, and nuclear material, in search of a shortcut to operational nuclear capabilities. In summer 1991, one of these operatives was offered access to nuclear weapons in Kazakhstan. Tehran dispatched a delegation of senior officials, including US-educated physicists, who returned convinced that the offer was genuine. In early September, the Iranian delegation returned to Kazakhstan to renew negotiations. Their Kazakh interlocutor told them he was speaking for a group of about twenty-five security, scientific, and government officials who were willing to obtain the 'atomic bombs' for Iran. The weapons would come in separate pieces from different sites throughout Central Asia, but the group would assemble these pieces into operational weapons. At the same time, the Iranians and their allies initiated a comprehensive effort to acquire delivery capabilities-both ballistic missiles and strike aircraft.

These developments boosted Tehran's confidence in its ability to implement its grand strategic design. As Hashemi-Rafsanjani would put it later in the year, it had fallen to Iran to acquire nuclear weapons for the entire region, if only because the Arabs had proved incapable of doing so. Such weapons would be the key to a rejuvenated and vibrant Islamic unity. With them, Hashemi-Rafsanjani concluded, it would be possible to eliminate the Western presence in the Middle East and liberate Jerusalem....

...In December, the Kazakh deal came to fruitition, and Iran made its first purchase of nuclear weapons. The deal included two 40-kiloton warheads for a SCUD-type surface-to-surface ballistic missile; one aerial bomb of the type carried by a MiG-27; and one 152-mm nuclear artillery shell. These weapons reached initial operational status in late January 1992 and full operational status a few months later."[1]

"On October 10, Khameini made an inspection tour of the special facilities of the Air Force's Eighty Shahid Babai Base in Isfahan, where Iran's aerial nuclear bomb was stored. Iran intended to use this bomb in a kamikaze-style attack against a US Navy carrier in the Persian Gulf. Iran had several North Korean-trained pilots willing to undertake the mission, all of them with extensive operational experience, qualified on the latest Soviet aircraft.

Iran's two nuclear warheads were fitted to their ballistic missiles at Isfahan, although the warheads themselves were usually stored in Lavizan, in the Tehran area. Khameini also visited these facilities and discussed the shift of emphasis from indigenous development of missiles to massive purchases abroad. He emphasized the long-range importance of developing and producing strategic weapons in Iran; however, he explained, under certain emergency conditions foreign weapons could be acquired 'with our pride intact'.

While all this was going on, Tehran was not neglecting its nuclear arsenal. In the fall of 1992, Iran signed a new deal with officials in Kazakhstan for the purchase of four 50-kiloton nuclear warheads, upgraded and adapted to fit on the SSMs purchased from North Korea...Rahmani confirmed that four warheads had indeed been purchased but added that their delivery was postponed due to 'a technical problem'-ensuring clandestine support. The warheads were eventually shipped to North Korea, where they were optimized for the soon-to-be-delivered Nodong-1 SSMs."[2]

In October 2002, Debkafile, which apparently has close ties to Israeli intelligence, reported that they believed that Iran had a "basic" nuclear bomb do to the assistance of scientists and technicians from Pakistan, Russia, China and North Korea.[3] Of course, I cannot confirm if this is true, and there has been little corroboration to support the claim. However, there is evidence that Iran is discussing the purchase of North Korean nuclear weapons.

As a close ally of the Communist regime, and the regime's top customer, such negotiations can be assumed to be occurring. It is understood by the experts that North Korea first seeks to secure its future by creating a nuclear deterrent-but once that deterrent is achieved, it is likely entire nuclear bombs or critical components will be sold for large amounts of money. The cash-strapped regime's most likely customer for this is of course, Iran. Should sanctions delay Iran's nuclear ambitions, or should an attack by Israel or America become imminent, it is likely that Iran will opt to buy a nuclear weapon. It appears that the Iranians feel that obtaining such a bomb before the West can take action will secure the regime from such action.

Both Debkafile and terrorism expert, Michael Ledeen (author of War Against the Terror Masters) have written articles confirming that negotiations have been taking place since the first quarter of 2003. Unfortunately, there is no reporting to confirm or deny if a deal has been reached. The only thing that can be confirmed is that at the very least, North Korea is helping Iran in its quest for an Islamic bomb.

Over the summer, the government of South Korea confirmed that teams of North Korean and Iranian nuclear scientists had several meetings.[4] The meetings began producing results in August, if the media reports are to be trusted. Negotiations for the purchase of a Taepo-Dong-2 ballistic missile by Iran were reported to be in their "advanced stages", probably to be finished in mid-October.[5] The missile gives Iran the ability to strike mostly anywhere in Europe and Asia. This caused a media frenzy, and soon reports began filtering out about the cooperation between the two rogue states.

The mainstream press, particularly in Japan, began finding out the details of the duo's talks. Among the revelations were that: Korean military scientists were recently spotted entering suspected nuclear sites in Iran, possibly to test a nuclear warhead; so many Koreans are in Iran that a special Caspian Sea resort was made for them; negotiations for an agreement on the joint development of nuclear warheads are set to be finished in October; and Iranian nuclear experts had visited North Korea in March, April and May, possibly to learn how to keep the program alive despite inspections and internal pressure.[6]

The Bush Administration and Israel apparently believes Iran is not yet a nuclear power, but will be around 2005. We cannot know the status of their nuclear weapons capabilities. There are several possibilities:

A: The reports are untrue, and Iran has no nuclear weapon. The main concern truly is about Iran's plans to produce a nuke on its own.

B: The reports are true, and Iran has nuclear weapons bought abroad.

C: The reports are true, and Iran has bought nukes abroad, but they are inoperable.

It is anybody's guess which of the possibilities is accurate.

Ever since members of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, an Iranian opposition group labeled as a terrorist organization (some members are militant, most are now just attached to the opposition's efforts) disarmed in Iraq in late May, 2003 and gave intelligence to the US, the pressure on Iran has built up. The political branch of MEK reported on May 26th that Iran had two uranium-enrichment facilities west of Tehran, which operate as "satellite plants" to the larger facility centered at Natanz. The Iranians reportedly had already installed several centrifuges at one of the sites. The purpose of the sites, besides to assist in the nuclear program, is to take over the work of the Natanz site should it be bombed. The dissidents explained that there were small, dispersed sites around Iran to prepare for an Israeli or American air campaign, and they listed 8 businesses used as front companies to obtain components for the program.[7] They confirmed that the goal set by Iran was to become a nuclear power in 2005.[8]

It didn't take long for the IAEA to report that Iran was suspected of violating international treaty, by concealing the import of nuclear materials and not reporting the construction of sites to process uranium.[9] From the wealth of information provided by the dissidents, the United States and Israel agreed that they're window of opportunity amounted to less than a year, because at the earliest, Iran could begin producing nukes in the end of the fall of 2004. By the summer of 2004, the uranium enrichment program will be finished, and therefore, unstoppable by anything short of regime change. At the end of 2007, the infrastructure will be large enough and advanced enough to allow for the production of up to 15 nuclear weapons a year.[10] Eventually, no air raid would be able to destroy their plans. The facilities were large in number, were disguised, and dispersed. Some were even hardened to protect against explosions.[11]

By the beginning of July, the pressure had an impact on the IAEA to express concern about Iran.

Inspectors stated that they were "puzzled" by Iran's uranium program, and said they were receiving unsatisfactory answers to their questions about the activity related to converting imported uranium to enriched uranium metal. Nevertheless, the IAEA refused to cite Iran as in direct violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.[12] The IAEA revelations revealed several things:

- In 1991, Iran imported 1.8 kilograms of uranium, and did not declare it.

- Traces of UF6 were found in soil samples at Natanz, which indicated the centrifuges may have already been used.

- Iran was developing sophisticated laser technology that can be used to enrich uranium. Iran has already converted 400 kg of UF4 into uranium metal (done in 2000) at the Jabr Ibn Hayan Multipurpose Labs at the Tehran Nuclear Research Center. UF4, or, uranium tetraflouride, is a compound that comes from uranium processing. UF6, or uranium hexafluoride, is another compound that indicates the process of uranium enrichment. The fact that UF6 was found, and that UF4 can be confirmed to be converted into metal, is a clear sign of an ongoing nuclear program.[13]

- The report acknowledged that there were signs that Iran had used UF6 gas bought from China (and not declared) and used it to test four centrifuges, as part of the plan to make a centrifuge production facility at Natanz. Inspectors noticed that 1.9 kilograms was missing from the containers, and may have been used. Iran claims that over the many years they had the containers, the sealing caps became loose and the gas evaporated. Further inspection however showed that the caps fitted perfectly, and there was no way for evaporation to occur.[14]

The Los Angeles Times finished their three-month investigation into the matter in the first week of August. They confirmed that Iran was trying to obtain nuclear bombs, had a concealment program to hide it, and was using the scientists and technology of Russia, China, Pakistan and North Korea to pursue it. It concluded that several research labs were hidden, and that one plant was disguised as a watch-making factory in Tehran. It also mentioned that in June, inspectors were denied access to two large rooms and barred from testing soil samples at a factory known as Kalaye Electric Company.[15] The New York Times was also convinced, stating that Iran appeared to be planning to mine uranium, convert it to a gas, and transform it into nuclear fuel using centrifuges. The current array of 1,000 centrifuges was enough to make one nuke a year. They also opined that the reason Iran was focusing mainly on using uranium as a nuclear fuel was because using plutonium requires reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, which requires a reprocessing plant.[16] Such a plant is believed to be in its infant stages of construction today. By the end of the month, Iran was forced to admit that they had foreign assistance in building a uranium enrichment facility south of Tehran, which the UN evidence indicated was Pakistan.[17]

This is certainly what Israeli intelligence indicated. Debkafile reported that in the middle of May, President Musharraf of Pakistan had dispatched a team of nuclear engineers to Iran with blueprints for the construction of gas centrifuges, and the team still is in Iran.[18]

On September 8th, the IAEA issued another warning about Iran. Inspectors had visited an underground uranium enrichment facility at Natanz that contained approximately 1,000 gas centrifuges, accommodations for about 1,000 people, and components for up to 50,000 centrifuges. This is the same facility that traces of weapons-grade uranium was found, which Iran only recently admitted to having once the dissidents revealed it (the site was denied for the past five years). Sophisticated equipment to enrich uranium to the level needed for use in nuclear weapons was found. There were two large halls inside the site that have the features of a facility used to conduct uranium enrichment. The halls were 25 feet underground with a concrete barrier that is eight feet thick, apparently to protect the site from air assault.[19]

Despite denials, Iran was forced to admit they used nuclear materials for research and have made uranium metal. There was also concern about a heavy-water facility at Arak, also kept secret and undeclared until exiles revealed it. If Iran was simply going for an alternate fuel supply, there'd be no purpose for a heavy-water facility! The Bushehr complex is to be run by light-water reactor. But heavy water, with an extra hydrogen atom, is needed to make plutonium for nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, Israeli intelligence was reporting that Russia had secretly sold to Iran an advanced AVRII uranium enrichment processor system installed at Natanz and the super-secret Moallen Kalayeh site.[20] By the end of the month, Israel warned that Iran would "reach the point of no return" on its nuclear quest in 1 year. The head of the IAEA also said that Iran had shopped on black market for components related to a nuclear program.[21] It was leaked that the major suspected nuclear sites are at Arak, Natanz, Esfahan, and Kashan. This does not even include the sites this article has listed.

Due to the failure of Kay's inspection team to find WMD in Iraq, I have heard several people question the claim that Iran does indeed have a nuclear program. However, in this case, the program is much more obviously for weapons, than for an alternative energy source, like Iran claims. Simple logic disproves these claims, as an alternate energy source means that the nuclear power industry lacks fuel. If the industry lacks fuel, why is there a program for a "closed-loop nuclear fuel cycle"? Another point: If Iran produced its own nuclear fuel, it will cost two to four times as much as buying foreign nuclear fuel.

The country also is rich in natural gas and oil. There is enough to take care of its needs for centuries, which is another reason that the claim that the program is for an alternative fuel source is suspicious. Besides, it will cost several more times to produce electricity from uranium than from petroleum.[22]

Iran's nuclear weapons program is huge and complex. The Russian-built and Russian-managed nuclear reactor at Bushehr is the center of the complex, and the most critical aspect of it. The reactor will be activated in late 2004 or 2005, at which time it will be able to provide the electrical power production required to enrich the uranium fuel. In May 2003, Iran and Russia finished plans for the delivery of the first 90 tons of enriched uranium to Iran. Once the uranium is enriched sufficiently, it can become the fuel used to cause a nuclear explosion. Talks are already underway for Russia to help with construction of a second reactor at Bushehr (and up to 6 more by 2018, but there is no telling what will happen before then).

There are uranium deposits in the Jazd province, which even if they are quickly depleted for the weapons program (the deposits only contain 50 grams of uranium per every 100 kilograms of uranium), is enough to produce a few nuclear warheads over the next couple of years. The complexes used to make the actual weapons are also available, and soon will be activated.

In 2005, the uranium-separation facility at Erdekan will be activated. The uranium-concentrate complex around Isfahan will also be activated at that time, most likely in late 2003 or early 2004. Iran also has plans to build a uranium-conversion facility and a uranium-enrichment facility, approximately 150 kilometers from Isfahan, which is believed to be activated within 1-3 years. Parts of the Isfahan complex are scientific laboratories which will produce the fuel necessary for water-cooled reactors, as well as sites to produce the fuel-assembly cases.

The Iranian program is not limited, and is focused on the creation of a "close-looped fuel cycle". This means Iran will be able to create its own fuel for its own nuclear bombs by 2006. Perhaps the scariest thing about the program is that the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is unable to do much about it. It is obvious countries like France, Russia, and China will oppose any meaningful action to stop the program, and most likely will stop any meaningful sanctions (which could only stall the ultimate result). Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran is allowed to produce highly-enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium, as long as they are stockpiled at separate facilities, and the UN can inspect the sites.

At the same time, Iran is permitted to collect the materials and resources needed to produce the weapons from the fissile materials, which takes very little time. When ready, Iran can violate the treaty and kick out inspectors and begin assembling nukes right away (it is unlikely there will be a collective decisive response to the action in time to stop Iran from having nukes). Iran can also abide by the rules, and announce its nuclear plans six months in advance, and count on the slim chance that the world community will be able to do much about it in that time.

The race against time has begun. Time is not on our side, and neither is the international community. Sanctions can extend the time we have to stop this from occurring, but it is unlikely that Russia, France and China will allow such sanctions to be put in place. Bombing raids could extend the time limit, but they are unlikely to succeed in destroying the program. At best, the results of the program can be delayed for months. The race against time has begun. The clock is ticking.


[1] "The High Cost of Peace: How Washington's Middle East Policy Left America Vulnerable to Terrorism" by Yossef Bodansky. 2002. Prima Publishing, Roseville, California. Pages 76-77.

[2] Ibid., pages 84-87.

[3] Debkafile, Sept. 25, 2003.

[4] Al-Zaman, June 12, 2003.

[5] Middle East Newsline, August 7, 2003.

[6] Washington Times, August 7, 2003.

[7] New York Times, May 26, 2003.

[8] New York Post, June 18, 2003.

[9] Middle East Newsline, June 8, 2003.

[10] Debkafile, June 26, 2003.

[11] Middle East Newsline, June 29, 2003.

[12] Middle East Newsline, July 1, 2003.

[13], week of July 8, 2003.

[14] Debkafile, June 26, 2003.

[15] LA Times, August 5, 2003.

[16] New York Times, Aug 3, 2003.

[17] Washington Post, August 27, 2003.

[18] Debkafile, June 26, 2003.

[19] London Sunday Telegraph, September 8, 2003.

[20] Debkafile, August 28, 2003.

[21] Ha'aretz, August 30, 2003.

[22] New York Times, August 3, 2003.

Ryan Mauro is a geopolitical analyst. He began working for Tactical Defense Concepts (, a maritime-associated security company in 2002. In 2003, Mr. Mauro joined the Northeast Intelligence Network (, which specializes in tracking and assessing terrorist threats. He has appeared on over 20 radio shows and had articles published in over a dozen publications. His book "Death to America: The Unreported Battle of Iraq" is scheduled to be published in the coming months. He publishes his own web site called World Threats.