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The Road to Perdition: Iran’s Nuclear Program

Saturday, October 22, 2016 14:22
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The Road to Perdition: Iran’s Nuclear Program
Although Iran has been complying with its commitments according to the
nuclear agreement for the time being, its current conduct suggests that it
retains the option of renewing the military nuclear program
Rafael Ofek | 20/10/2016

A year has passed since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)
between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security
Council plus Germany), the European Union and IAEA (the International Atomic
Energy Agency) was signed in Vienna on July 14, 2015. This action plan was
intended to delay the realization of the military elements of Iran’s nuclear
program. The plan became effective on January 16, 2016 (hereinafter “The
Implementation Day”) as IAEA began verifying and monitoring the actual
implementation of Iran’s nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA. At
this point it is indeed appropriate to examine how Iran has thus far
implemented the agreement signed in Vienna, not only through the narrow
perspective of the nuclear issues but also through the wider perspective of
Iran’s conduct since the agreement was signed.

By May 2016, according to the latest reports by IAEA, since the
Implementation Day Iran has been implementing the additional protocol to its
safeguards agreement vis-à-vis IAEA, demonstrating transparency opposite
IAEA’s supervision of its nuclear facilities and complying, for the time
being, with its commitments in accordance with the Vienna Agreement. Iran
has reduced its inventory of UF6 enriched to 3.67% to 300 kilograms, the
number of centrifuges at Natanz to 5,060 active units, the number of
centrifuges at Fordo to 1,044 inactive units, and has completely stopped the
enrichment of uranium at Fordo. Additionally, it has completely stopped the
activities associated with the heavy water reactor at Arak, removed the
reactor core vessel (scientific code Calandria) from the reactor building
and filled the vessel openings with concrete.

However, contrary to all of the above, Iran may still be concealing from
IAEA information that pertains to its past activities in fields associated
with the development of nuclear weapons, referred to in IAEA’s reports under
Possible Military Dimensions (PMD). In this context it should be noted that
only on September 20, 2015 were IAEA inspectors allowed to visit the Parchin
facility and collect soil samples. This inspection was initiated pursuant to
intelligence information available to IAEA, according to which Iran had
built a facility in Parchin back in 2002, where a very large vessel was
installed, whose characteristics indicated that it had been designed for
hydrodynamic testing of explosives. Accordingly, that vessel could be used
for conducting “cold experiments” of symmetrically imploding high explosive
hemispherical shells surrounding natural uranium metal hemispheres in
scaled-down experiments of implosion packages. Additionally, it could be
used to test the neutron trigger of a U-D-D (uranium deuteride) type nuclear
bomb. The Iranians claimed that the Parchin facility was used for storing
chemicals and manufacturing explosives, but soil samples collected at the
site refuted those claims. On the other hand, soil samples collected on
September 20, 2015 contained two particulates of natural uranium that
originated from some kind of uranium processing. However, owing to the
minute amount of uranium found at the site, the source of the material could
not be identified. In conclusion, the information available to IAEA, along
with the satellite images and the soil samples, refuted the Iranians’ claims
regarding the function of the Parchin facility. However, the intensive
changes the Iranians made at the facility denied IAEA the ability to verify
that hydrodynamic tests associated with the development of nuclear weapons
had, indeed, been conducted at the facility.

Breakout Time

However, as stated as far back as a year ago, the problematic nature of the
nuclear agreement with Iran involves the ability to cope with the “breakout
time” – the time that Iran would require in order to manufacture a nuclear
weapon, if at some point Iran decided to break the rules and break out of
the agreement. According to President Obama, who addressed this issue just
before the signature of the Vienna Agreement, the “breakout time” would be
one year – long enough to enable the superpowers to uncover Iran’s military
nuclear effort and stop it. Conversely, various experts claimed that the
“breakout time” might be reduced to just a few months, so stopping Iran
would not be possible. In this context, as we know today, Obama had been
determined from the outset to finalize a deal with Iran at any cost, and all
of his efforts to present the agreement as a good agreement were intended to
enable him to ‘sell’ it to the US Congress as well as to the allies of the
USA in the Middle East.

Moreover, the Vienna Agreement enables Iran to continue the development and
conduct – even at this time – experiments on the advanced centrifuge models
it had developed, which possess an enrichment capacity 10 times as high (or
even more) as the centrifuges Iran has been operating until now. These
experiments include the actual enrichment of uranium, although Iran was
banned from storing the enriched uranium and is bound to have it depleted at
the end of the enrichment process. This restriction was imposed on Iran for
a period of 10 years, starting on the Implementation Day (January 16, 2016).
Another restriction imposed on Iran for a period of 15 years involves the
centrifuge trials, which Iran can only conduct at the testbed facility
adjacent to the uranium enrichment facility in Natanz as well as at the
Tehran nuclear research center. As a result, even if Iran does not violate
the Vienna Agreement, when that agreement comes to an end, Iran will be able
to promptly develop an advanced uranium enrichment capability, at which time
it would be able to easily store a massive amount of enriched uranium for
nuclear weapons.

Additionally, Iran has thus far developed a significant capability in fields
of activity associated with the parallel route of producing plutonium as a
fissile material for the manufacture of nuclear weapons. As stated
previously, Iran was compelled by the Vienna Agreement to dismantle the core
vessel of the heavy water reactor in Arak for the purpose of converting it
into a reactor possessing no military potential, to be used exclusively for
research and for the manufacture of radio-isotopes for medical and
industrial applications. However, the extensive experience and knowledge
Iran had acquired in the field of nuclear reactors may enable it to
re-establish a plutonium-producing reactor in the future. Iran also gained
experience in the manufacture of nuclear fuel for such reactors, and the
facility it had established to manufacture heavy water for the reactor is
still active. Moreover, the Iranian scientists gained considerable knowledge
and experience, at the laboratory level, in the separation of plutonium from
the spent fuel of nuclear reactors, so they are capable of upgrading the
experience they had gained into a pilot plant for the separation of
plutonium and possibly even more than that.

The North Korean Connection

One worrisome aspect of the Vienna Agreement involves the close links
between Iran and North Korea, which still aligns itself, to this day, with
the ‘Axis of Evil’. These links were reflected in the past mainly through
the cooperation in the field of ballistic missiles. However, the broad basis
for nuclear cooperation between Iran and North Korea may also include the
military aspect, in particular the enrichment of uranium using the
centrifuge method and nuclear weapon trials. A key Iranian figure in the
context of this issue is, apparently, Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, a
senior officer of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution and a
professor of physics at the Imam Hossein Comprehensive University (of the
Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution), regarded as ‘the father of
the Iranian nuclear bomb’. IAEA reports of previous years indicated that
Iran had refused to allow IAEA inspectors to question him. Fakhrizadeh has
gone underground some time ago, not just for fearing for his life, but also
because of Iran’s refusal to fully divulge all of the elements of its
nuclear weapons program. It should be noted that several newspaper reports
alleged that Fakhrizadeh attended, at least as an observer, the nuclear
trial North Korea conducted on February 12, 2013. Against this background,
there is cause for concern that in view of the restrictions the Vienna
Agreement now imposes on Iran, it might use North Korea as a testbed for
subsequent activities associated with the Iranian military nuclear program.

It should be stressed that one element is conspicuously absent from the
Vienna nuclear deal: a reference to the Iranian effort to develop ballistic
missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Admittedly, Wendy Sherman, US
Undersecretary of State, assured in her testimony before the US Congress on
February 4, 2014, that the matter of the ballistic missiles, included as an
element in the resolutions of the UN Security Council “has to be addressed
as part of a comprehensive agreement” of the Iranian nuclear issue.
Additionally, on July 20, 2015, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted
Resolution 2231, which imposes restrictions on Iran for the next 8 years
regarding its continued activities in the field of nuclear-capable ballistic
missiles, including missile launching trials. Iran, however, just as it had
done before, blatantly ignores the resolutions of the UN Security Council,
claiming that the ballistic missiles were intended for the legitimate
purpose of defending its territory – not as weapons of mass destruction.

Iran’s Advanced Missiles

Iran continues to develop ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear
warheads and has recently conducted several launching trials. The first
trial was conducted on October 10, 2015 and involved the launching of an
Emad missile – an upgraded version of the Shihab-3 missile. The Emad missile
is powered by liquid fuel, has a range of about 1,700 km and a CEP of about
half a kilometer and can carry a warhead weighing up to 750 kg. On the day
following the trial, the missile was presented to the media by the Iranian
Minister of Defense, Brigadier-General Hossein Dehghan.

Another missile Iran has been developing is the Sejjil-2 – a more advanced
missile powered by solid fuel. It has a range of 1,900 to 2,000 km and can
also carry a warhead weighing up to 750 kg. The ability to develop a solid
fuel engine is an important milestone in the evolution of Iranian missile
technology. A trial of the Sejjil-1 missile was conducted in 2008 and the
flight tests of the Sejjil-2 missile began in 2009. According to
Brigadier-General Abdollah Araghi, Deputy Commander of the Army of the
Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, the missile can “Target any place that
threatens Iran”. The flight tests of the Sejjil-2 missile were discontinued
in 2011, but were renewed with the flight test conducted recently, on
November 21, 2015. It should be noted that based on the technologies of the
Sejjil missile, Iran also aspires to develop a 3-stage missile to a range of
3,700 kilometers, the Sejjil-3, but it is estimated that this project would
not begin before 2017.

According to the Iranian media, Iran fired, on March 9, 2016, two Ghader
missiles, one Ghader-F and one Ghader-H, from a launching site in the Alborz
Mountain region, at targets located about 1,400 km away in the south-eastern
part of the country. The nominal range of the Ghader-F missile is 2,000 km
and that of the Ghader-H is 1,700 km (Ghader-H is probably just a different
designation for the Emad missile).

However, Tehran went even further by defying the UN and the West when it
ignored UN Security Council Resolution 2231. According to Fox News (July 15,
2016), based on intelligence sources, between July 11 and July 12, two days
before the first anniversary of the Vienna Agreement, Iran conducted yet
another trial by launching a ballistic missile based on North Korean
technology. In any case, this trial failed.

Moreover, the statements made by Brigadier-General Amir Ali Hajizadeh,
commander of the Air & Space Arm of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic
Revolution, spilled the beans. He said: “The reason we designed our missiles
with a range of 2,000 km is to be able to hit our enemy, the Zionist regime,
from a safe distance.” Additionally, according to Fars News, the Iranian
news agency, the missiles carry the following inscription in Hebrew: “Israel
should be wiped off the pages of history.”

Indeed, the shrill rhetoric of the ‘Supreme Leader’ and the choir of the
Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, chanting ‘Death to America’
or ‘Death to Israel’ reflect the continued aggressive conduct of the
government in Tehran, and increase the concerns that at some point in time
that the Iranians consider appropriate, the Iranian regime might decide to
violate the Vienna Agreement and break out afresh in the direction of
nuclear arms.


Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Rafael Ofek is an expert in the physics and technology
of nuclear power. He had served in the Israeli intelligence community as a
senior researcher and analyst


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