New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Iran Prepares Excuses for Bomb-Grade Uranium Outside Safeguards

For those who have been following the slow-motion train wreck of the international community’s reactions to Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, there were understandable cries of outrage last month at Tehran’s recent announcement that it intends to build a nuclear-powered submarine.   Because naval nuclear reactors for such submarines commonly – though not invariably – run not just on high-enriched uranium (HEU) but on uranium enriched to extremely high levels of purity comparable to what one would find in a nuclear weapon, this claim was quickly denounced by foreign diplomats as a transparent excuse for the production of weapons-grade uranium.  These criticism are well-taken, and the submarine claim is indeed a shamefully obvious ploy.

It is worth recalling, however, just how predictable the “nuclear submarine” gambit should have been – and how foolishly Western and other governments, led in recent years by the Obama Administration, have encouraged Iran in attempting such ploys.  It is no exaggeration to depict the entire Iranian enrichment effort as having been wrapped for years in a series of transparent excuses, like layers of an onion, each designed to rationalize the next step in the country’s pursuit of a weapons capability.  At each juncture, moreover, foreign governments have, eventually, accepted and validated each of these successive claims – thus all but guaranteeing that Iran will roll out more as it gets closer and closer to a weapon.

This process began when Iran’s previously-secret enrichment complex at Natanz was publicly revealed to the world in August 2002.  Though it was quickly shown to have been pursuing uranium enrichment by various means since the mid-1980s, Tehran’s immediate excuse was that this ongoing secret effort had nothing to do with nuclear weaponry.  Instead, Iranian officials claimed, they wanted to develop a civilian nuclear power program and wished to use Natanz to enrich to the low enriched uranium (LEU) level of 3-5 percent for electricity generation.

The nuclear reactor at Bushehr that Russia was building for the Iranians, however, was being constructed under arrangements calling for Moscow to supply it with uranium fuel, so Iran had to claim that what it really had in mind was to build lots of nuclear power plants.  Accordingly, Iranian projections for their nuclear program became increasingly ambitious.  Initial Western efforts to get the Russians to stop building Bushehr in order to keep this project from providing “cover” for weapons development – and Moscow’s willingness to drag its feet on some aspects of the project – were then cited as additional justification for more Iranian enrichment.

Perhaps to help undercut these excuses, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush ultimately came to accept the continuation of Russo-Iranian cooperation on Bushehr.  We had no intention, it was said, to deny Iran the ability to generate electricity by means of nuclear power; we merely wished to preclude Tehran’s development of a fissile material production capability that it would have little difficulty later turning to bomb-making purposes.  Bushehr, on a fuel-provision and fuel-return basis, was felt to be an acceptable proliferation risk.  (One could debate this last point, of course, and wonder about oil-rich Iran’s “need” for nuclear power generation at all, but such was the thinking at the time.)

That reactor was accepted as a fait accompli, but great effort was made not to validate the Iranian pretense of needing a uranium enrichment architecture to support a large nuclear power industry.  To the contrary, Bush officials poured scorn on Iran’s claims in this regard, questioning the need for and economic rationality of such alleged plans, and promoting the development of an international nuclear “fuel bank” that would obviate any Iranian need for domestic enrichment in any event.

For all of its hard-nosed nonproliferation intentions, of course, the Bush Administration had no success in stopping Iran’s progress toward nuclear weaponry.  After much stalling by international partners and successful European efforts to delay U.N. Security Council action for several years, sanctions were eventually imposed and gradually tightened upon the clerical regime in Tehran.  Thanks to the reluctance of our international partners to bear real burdens in support of nonproliferation policies, however, these pressures were never imposed to any extent likely to elicit a change of course in Iran.  Bush’s Iran policy was to this extent, therefore, a failure.  But at least the Bush Administration carefully avoided validating Iran’s self-exonerating justifications for fissile material production.

This cannot be said, however, for the Obama Administration, which in its eagerness to seek a “diplomatic” solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis – which took a dramatic turn for the worse in 2009 with public revelations of work on another previously secret enrichment complex, this time buried deep in tunnels in a mountainside in the general vicinity of the holy city of Qom – did not waste much time in heading down the path of validation.

Apparently pleased with the degree to which the international community had accepted its “need” for a nuclear power program – visible in the growing diplomatic support there seemed to be for permitting a “limited enrichment” option in Iran devoted to LEU production, particularly after LEU enrichment had actually begun at Natanz (by then seemingly another fait accompli) – Iranian officials announced that they actually needed uranium enriched to about the 20 percent level, which is the customary dividing line between LEU and HEU.  Why?  Well, they said, their old, HEU-fueled research reactor in Tehran would soon need to be refueled.  This involved only a small amount of HEU, but this was excuse Iranian authorities then cited in announcing that they intended to start enriching to the 20 percent level in support of this refueling effort.

Many international observers denounced this as a transparent excuse to move closer to weapons-grade enrichment.  And it was.  Because of the peculiarities of the enrichment process, the vast majority of the work done in separating U-235 from other isotopes of uranium is done at lower levels of enrichment.  By the time you’ve reached reactor-usable LEU, most of the work needed to get to ideal bomb-grade levels of 90 percent has already been done.  By the time you reach the 20 percent HEU threshold, the great majority of the work has been accomplished.  (The relationship is not linear: what is needed in order to reach weapons grade becomes not arithmetically but instead somewhat more like exponentially easier as the enrichment percentage rises.  At the 50 percent level, for instance, one is very much more than halfway done.)   By articulating a “need” for 20 percent enriched HEU and beginning production of such material, therefore, Iran was pre-positioning itself for a future final “sprint” to weapons-grade levels.

While the Obama Administration did not endorse Iranian enrichment to about 20 percent levels, however, it did prove willing to validate Iran’s purported “need” for such HEU by accepting Iran’s argument that it was necessary for Tehran to have such material in order to produce medical isotopes with the HEU-fueled research reactor.  The White House lent its support to an October 2009 fuel-supply proposal whereby Russia would enrich uranium to the requisite level for Iran, and France would use this material to fabricate fuel rods for the research reactor.

This was a better idea than having Iran enrich to HEU levels itself, of course, but Washington’s validation of the “need” for HEU was unnecessary.  (It is possible to produce medical isotopes by other means, for instance, or simply to supply them through some analogue to the “fuel bank” program.  The dangers of validating an Iranian “need” for HEU far outweighed the potential challenges of providing medical isotopes by other means.)  In the event, having seen its HEU “requirement” get a U.S. nod of approval, Iran announced that the HEU-supply proposal was unacceptable and that domestic HEU enrichment would begin as planned – and in the new underground facility near Qom, no less!  Today, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), enrichment up to 20 percent proceeds apace.

It is important to remember this backstory when considering Iran’s recent “nuclear submarine” claims.  To be sure, I doubt that anyone in Washington will be so foolish as to validate Iran’s “need” for that capability.  (It’s hard to imagine there being much international support for an analogous “nuclear submarine bank” designed to obviate any need for indigenous production – though Russia did recently lease a nuclear-powered attack submarine to India – or a fuel bank for naval reactor fuel at levels of 90 percent or higher HEU.)   Nor is there much likelihood that Iran would be able to build a nuclear submarine if it actually tries.  But of course a submarine isn’t the point, and it is easy to see why Tehran considers the submarine gambit so attractive.  Notwithstanding the weapons-acquisitive transparency of the “submarine” plan, moreover, the clerical regime has had no small amount of success with such excusemanship in the past.

In light of their success in winning so much support for LEU enrichment and now also establishing a “need” for HEU – not to mention the international community’s seeming acceptance of the purported nuclear-powered submarine project that the Brazilian government announced in 2007 that it intended to undertake with help from France, even as Brazil prepared to begin uranium enrichment at its new plant at Resende under only partial IAEA safeguards, and not long before Brazilian Vice President Jose Alencar told the press that he favors developing nuclear weaponry – it is easy to see why the “submarine” gambit sounds like a winning strategy to Iran.  Enriching to the 90 percent HEU levels that such a program would purportedly justify would put Iran in possession of uranium already at the optimal weapons-grade level, with no final “sprint” needed to prepare for weaponization at all.  (The previous time Brazil claimed to be interested in a “nuclear submarine,” by the way, was under a military junta that for a time pursued nuclear weapons in part by constructing naval nuclear reactors outside of IAEA safeguards.  This path, in other words, is well-trodden.)

And there’s a final wrinkle that makes the “submarine” gambit seem all the more absurdly unacceptable, and Iran’s intentions all the more obvious.  A “nuclear submarine” program does not just provide an excuse for uranium enrichment to weapons-grade levels.  It also offers an excuse to conduct such enrichment outside IAEA nuclear safeguards – giving Iran a supposed justification not only to prepare for extremely rapid weaponization with ready-prepared bomb-grade material but also to ensure that any such step, should it occur, could be done entirely in secret.

It may seem incredible, but in fact there is some basis for this argument, in a loophole in the IAEA safeguards system that was established years ago in order to protect naval nuclear propulsion programs from IAEA inspections.  The problem lies with Paragraph 14 of the standard Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements (CSA) that non-nuclear weapon states sign with the IAEA.  As set forth in 1972 in the IAEA’s “INFCIRC/153” document, the standard model CSA provides procedures for verifying that materials are not diverted to non-peaceful uses in all circumstances except where a state chooses to “exercise its discretion to use nuclear material which is [otherwise] required to be safeguarded” in a “non-proscribed military activity.”  Paragraph 14 refers to this exception as “non-application of safeguards to nuclear material to be used in non-peaceful activities,” and indeed it does seem to provide for a certain “period or circumstances during which safeguards will not be applied” to material being used in military program of some sort.

Paragraph 14 thus creates an exception to safeguards rules for what are in effect sensitive military uses for fissile material that are not related to nuclear explosives.  (Non-nuclear weapons states are prohibited by Article II of the NPT from engaging in work on nuclear explosives, and Paragraph 14 of INFCIRC/153 does not authorize an exception there.)  Though this provision in INFCIRC/153 is not phrased in such a way as to restrict itself to naval nuclear propulsion, it does cover nuclear submarine propulsion and was presumably intended to do so.  In practice, such submarine work – and indeed nuclear propulsion for other naval vessels – has sheltered behind Paragraph 14 for decades.

When the only nuclear submarine programs in the world were those belonging to states that already possessed nuclear weaponry, this Paragraph 14 loophole did not matter much.  Such states did not fall under the usual IAEA safeguards rules in the first place, and in any event there was little need to preclude clandestine weapons work under cover of a purported “nuclear submarine” program in countries that were already overtly engaged in the nuclear weapons development.

The advent of “nuclear submarine” work in non-nuclear weapons states, however, presents a very different situation, for this “non-peaceful activities” loophole has the potential to drive a truck right through the nonproliferation framework of the safeguards system.  Permitting a non-weapons state to engage in the development of naval nuclear propulsion systems fueled by weapons-grade HEU, and to do so outside IAEA scrutiny, is nonproliferation madness; it would create an enormous potential breach in the nonproliferation regime.

This, however, is what the international community has more or less accepted in dealing with Brazil, and with the blessing of the IAEA and the rest of the international community.  (Even while IAEA Director-General Mohammed ElBaradei was working his hardest to protect Iran from U.S.-led sanctions, his IAEA agreed in 2004 that Brazil could operate the initial gas centrifuge cascades of its Resende enrichment plant under procedures that partially obscured the machines there from IAEA inspection.  After this, the international community went on to permit a Brazilian diplomat, Sergio Duarte, to serve as the president of the 2005 Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference.  In July 2007, about the same time that the Brazilian government announced its own plan to develop a nuclear submarine, Duarte was named to be the United Nations’ most senior disarmament official, a position he held until earlier this year.  Brazil, one might be tempted to conclude, is considered a model nonproliferation citizen.)  And this is also precisely what Iran now claims the right to do itself.

And so we see perhaps the makings of the “perfect storm.”  Iran, having been taught by Washington and its diplomatic partners that shameless excuse-making can pay, and seeing what must indeed seem like a brilliant excuse for weapons-grade uranium production grounded in a long-understood weakness of the nonproliferation regime, now proclaims itself to be in the nuclear submarine business.

Iran’s excuse-making is certainly tiresomely transparent, but the failure of Tehran’s gamesmanship in this regard is far from preordained.  (Indeed, it may not fail at all.)  When the history of this period is written, of course, the shallowness of Tehran’s excuses will surely be only more obvious still.

But what will our excuses then be for overseeing a nonproliferation regime that did so much to facilitate such deceit, and that failed to find within itself the will or capacity to prevent continued movement along these grimly predictable paths?

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford served from January 2018 until January 2021 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. For the last 15 months of this period, he additionally performed the duties of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Before this service at the State Department, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, in or out of government.
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