Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Iran’s Nuclear Program: History and Eight Questions

by Micah Zenko
January 3, 2012

A view of the Bushehr main nuclear reactor south of Tehran, Iran on August 21, 2010 (Courtesy Reuters/Raheb Homavandi).

A view of the Bushehr main nuclear reactor south of Tehran, Iran on August 21, 2010 (Courtesy Reuters/Raheb Homavandi).

The April 24, 1984, edition of the British defense magazine, Jane’s Defence Weekly, contained an unexpected and alarmist sentence: “Iran is engaged in the production of an atomic bomb, likely to be ready within two years, according to press reports in the Persian Gulf last week.” The article based their estimate on the minimum time for West German engineering firms to complete one of two unfinished 1300-megawatt nuclear reactors—almost a decade in the making—at the Iranian coastal city of Bushehr.

In response to the Jane’s article, Georges Delcoigne, then the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) spokesperson, declared: “Claims of an imminent Iranian nuclear bomb are without foundation.” The State Department released its own statement: “We believe it would take at least two to three years to complete construction of the reactors at Bushehr,” which ”are not particularly well-suited for a weapons program.” However, the State Department further warned that “previous actions of the Government of Iran do not provide us with great assurance that it will always abide by its international commitments.”

Like every other estimated timetable—so far—speculating when Iran will achieve nuclear weapons capability, the Jane’s two-year claim was (apparently) wrong. The nuclear reactor at Bushehr would not be fully completed until March 2009, did not receive its final shipment of fuel from Russia until August 2010, and did not achieve criticality until May 2011. During the last two reported IAEA visits to Bushehr—in August and October of last year—the reactor was shut down for “technical reasons” and “routine maintenance.” Moreover, because Bushehr is subject to routine “physical inventory verifications,” it is virtually impossible that Iran could covertly make, divert, and reprocess spent fuel to make eight kilograms of plutonium, or the “special quantity” amount that the IAEA contends is required for one nuclear weapon.

The U.S.-led effort to prevent the civilian nuclear reactor at Bushehr from being repurposed to produce nuclear weapons-grade plutonium is an ongoing nonproliferation success story. However, the State Department’s warning in 1984 turned out to be wholly accurate in another sense: Iran did not abide by its international commitments, namely the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) Safeguards Agreement signed in May 1974.  As an IAEA report in November 2007 clarifies: “Iran was not able to acquire other nuclear fuel cycle facilities or technology from abroad. As a result, according to Iran, a decision was made in the mid-1980s to acquire uranium enrichment technology on the black market.”

The very same month that Jane’s printed its erroneous two-year atomic bomb estimate, Iran also made the strategic decision to pursue a covert uranium enrichment program. According to an IAEA internal working document, in April 1984, then president Ali Hoseyai Khamenei told senior Iranian political and military official that the supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had decided to restart the country’s nuclear program in order to defend the Islamic Revolution from external threats. Iran would only acknowledge its NPT violations after it was exposed by the sometimes-reliable National Council of Resistance of Iran, an opposition group, in August 2002.

Despite serial exaggerations by the Iranian government about its nuclear program, conventional military power, ballistic missile capabilities, and repeated claims by U.S. policymakers and policy analysts that an Iranian bomb is really no-kidding imminent, the core of the nuclear crisis with Iran is encapsulated by one sentence in the IAEA’s latest Iran report:

“As Iran is not providing the necessary cooperation, including by not implementing its Additional Protocol, the Agency is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”

If the Obama administration decides to follow the advice of a growing chorus of hawks and authorizes a preventive attack against Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons facilities, eight questions must be addressed beforehand:

  1. Are its violations of the NPT, UN Security Council resolutions, and ongoing inadequate cooperation with the IAEA sufficient grounds for suspecting that Iran will soon achieve nuclear weapons capability?
  2. Last February, the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before Congress, stating, “We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.” But, “we do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.” What new information has emerged that now confirms senior leaders in Iran have decided to pursue the bomb?
  3. It is unlikely that Iran would needlessly test a nuclear weapon, since it would not be required to verify that it worked, and would only rally further international opposition against them. What sort of credible information will the Obama administration declassify and make public that would justify a preventive attack on Iran?
  4. Does the Obama administration truly believe what Senator John McCain first said six years ago?: “There’s only one thing worse than the United States exercising a military option. That is a nuclear-armed Iran.”
  5. Iranian nuclear ambitions extend back thirty-five years. According to a CIA estimate in 1974: “If other countries have proceeded with [nuclear] weapons development, we have no doubt that Iran will follow suit.” Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta conceded in December that an attack “might postpone [Iran’s nuclear program] maybe one, possibly two years.” Are the costs of a preventive attack worth twelve to twenty-four months of peace of mind?
  6. What is the expected air and ground requirements, scope of targets, duration, and financial costs of an attack against Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons facilities?  What percentage of this burden would be met by partners and allies?
  7. What is the expected collateral damage and civilian casualties within Iran to such an attack?
  8. What is the desired endgame of attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities? What is the plausible diplomatic and military plan for how this happens?

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Clint Sharpe

    Does the intelligentsia at CFR understand that the Additional Protocol is VOLUNTARY and that Iran is in compliance with the NPT?

    See FAS Scientists view:


  • Posted by Cyrus

    Micah Zenko accuses Iran of “covertly” engaging in enrichment without explaining why. It was due to illegal US pressure that prevented Iran from acquiring the technology that it was entitled to have, under the NPT. Furthermore, the enrchment program was hardly covert considering the fact that Iran had announced plans to enrich uranium on national radio, and had even invited IAEA officials to visit Iran’s uranium mines.

    Furthermore, the assertion in IAEA report that the IAEA cannot verify the absence of undeclared nuclear material in Iran is not as significant as Zenko makes out. In fact, the IAEA does not verify the absence of undeclared nuclear material in ANY country – no Iran, not Egypt, not Brazil, not Argentina – unless the Additional Protocol is in force. However, quite unlike those countries, Iran voluntarily implemented the Additional Protocol for 3 years (with no nuclear weapons program found) and has offered to permanently ratify the treaty if its right to enrich is also recognized – something the US refuses to acknowledge.

  • Posted by saliah

    inshallah iran nuclar power bny ga. ksi ki jort nh esy rok saky

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