Article in Politics / International / Middle East
Overshadowing tensions between Iran and the west is, on the one side, the belief that Iran intends to develop nuclear weapons and, on the other side, Iran’s belief that the US and Israel are planning a military attack on it.
<p>On 8 November 2011, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) published a report, entitled Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran, which states that it ha</p>

Tensions between Iran and the west are escalating, with the recent report of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) saying that Iran is failing to comply with IAEA requirements and UN Security Council Resolutions followed by the attack on, and the closing of, the British Embassy in Teheran and the tit-for-tat expulsion of Iranian diplomats from London. Overshadowing these events is, on the one side, the belief that Iran intends to develop nuclear weapons and, on the other side, Iran’s belief that the US and Israel are planning a military attack on it.

The IAEA Report on Iran’s Nuclear Activities

On 8 November 2011, the IAEA, which inspects and monitors the nuclear facilities of the Parties to the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), published a report, entitled Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran (1), that states that it has evidence that Iran has conducted research is areas which are only relevant to the fabrication of a nuclear weapon. These include work on a device to trigger a nuclear weapon, work on the design of a nuclear warhead, and the conduct of secret non-nuclear explosions and computer simulations.

However, there is virtually no new information in the IAEA report; nevertheless, it is a very useful assembly of what the IAEA has discovered so far. It clearly states that Iran’s nuclear activities violate the NPT. Some of the information in the report refers to past activities that the Agency has been trying unsuccessfully to obtain information about for a number of years.

Most experts believe that Iran has not yet taken the political decision to acquire nuclear weapons and there is no reliable evidence that Iran has a nuclear-weapons program. It is, however, probable that the more influential political leaders in Iran would like the option to acquire such weapons if the political decision to do so is taken at some time in the future.

The technical studies described in the IAEA report have, however, probably been undertaken with the approval of only a limited number of people within the leadership. This may be an element in the on-going power struggle between ultra-conservatives in Iran’s parliament and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government. Be this as it may, American White House officials seem convinced that Iran is intent on pursuing a nuclear-weapons program.

The IAEA report states that Iran has violated Article III of the NPT which requires Parties to submit to IAEA safeguards procedures on all nuclear material. The Article states that: “Each non-NWS party undertakes to conclude an agreement with the IAEA for the application of its safeguards to all nuclear material in all of the state's peaceful nuclear activities and to prevent diversion of such material to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices” (2).

Iran may also have violated Article II of the Treaty which commits Parties not to pursue nuclear weapons. The Article states that: “Each non-NWS party undertakes not to receive, from any source, nuclear weapons, or other nuclear explosive devices; not to manufacture or acquire such weapons or devices; and not to receive any assistance in their manufacture”. Iran’s apparent weaponization activities are still being investigated by the IAEA.

The main concern relates to Iran’s enrichment of uranium. The question is how far will Iran go down this path? Iran is adamant that it is enriching uranium only for use as a nuclear fuel in nuclear-power reactors (enriched to about 5 per cent of uranium-235) and will not enrich uranium for use in nuclear weapons (enriched to 90 per cent in uranium-235). Iran maintains that it is legally entitled to enrich uranium for civil purposes.

Sanctions Against Iran

A number of countries and multinational entities, concerned about Iran’s alleged nuclear-weapons program, impose sanctions against Iran under United Nations Security Council Resolutions. Sanctions typically prohibit nuclear and missile exports to Iran, and prohibit certain investments in oil, gas and petrochemicals as well as banking and insurance transactions. But are they effective?

Anne Penketh, Program Director of the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), wrote, on 7 November 2011, “The bottom line is that Iran has remained adamant in the face of economic hardship and has refused to yield to the UN Security Council’s demands to halt its uranium enrichment program which has become a source of national pride. It seems that, sooner or later, the world will have to accept Iran’s enrichment program which has produced a stockpile of sufficient fuel for at least four nuclear bombs if enriched to weapons grade”.

Iran, she said, should “accept international controls aimed at guaranteeing the program’s civilian nature. The Obama administration should continue to work through its international coalition, using all the tools at its disposal short of military action which would be a ‘cure’ far worse than the disease” (3).

Relations Between Iran and Western Countries

Relations between Iran and Western countries, already strained, dramatically worsened on 29 November 2011 when the British Embassy in Tehran was attacked and ransacked; the British flag was torn down and burned. This seriously set back further diplomatic efforts to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. Iranian security forces, which should have protected the Embassy, were reluctant to intervene, indicating official approval of the event. The incident seems to have been triggered off by the British decision to isolate Iran by cutting off financial links to the Iranian Central Bank.

British diplomats were pulled out of Iran and their counterparts in London were expelled. The Iranian Foreign Ministry expressed regret over the “unacceptable behaviour by a few demonstrators” and announced a thorough investigation.

The United Nations condemned the attack on the Embassy, with the notable support of China and Russia. But, with the American and Israeli Embassies closed, the absence of a British Embassy will make it that much more difficult to know what is going on in Iran.

Iran’s Nuclear-Weapon Design

The IAEA report describes the Agency’s current knowledge about Iran’s efforts to build or buy the technologies needed to fabricate a nuclear weapon. It suggests that Iran’s may have the ambition to fabricate a nuclear weapon that could be carried by a medium-range surface-to-surface ballistic missile, presumably its Shahab-3 missile. The Shahab-3 is a solid-fuelled missile with a range of nearly 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles). It was added to Iran’s military arsenal in July 2003.

Iran is enriching uranium by gas centrifuges in three known enrichment plants – the Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) at Natanz; the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) at Natanz; and the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) near Qom. The gas centrifuges enrich (concentrate) the fissile isotope uranium-235 (which makes up about 0.7 per cent of natural uranium). The PFEP enriches uranium to 19.7 per cent in uranium-235; the other two plants enrich it to 3.5 per cent in uranium-235.

Given Iran’s capability of enriching uranium, it is reasonable to assume that if Iran decides to acquire nuclear weapons it will use, as the fissile material, uranium enriched to more than 90 per cent in uranium-235 (called highly-enriched uranium or HEU) rather than plutonium-239.

The IAEA report suggests that Iran is working on an implosion design for a nuclear weapon in which a hollow sphere of HEU is surrounded with high explosives. The IAEA report tells us that Iran has developed, or is developing, a method of shaping uranium metal into accurately machined components.

The high explosive would be detonated by a number of detonators, fired in precise unison so that HEU is crushed with a very uniform shock wave. The amount of HEU in the core of the weapon would be somewhat larger than the critical mass, the minimum amount needed to support a fission chain reaction. The aim of the nuclear-weapon designer is to create a weapon that will not be blown apart until it has assembled enough HEU to produce the size of explosion the designer wants. In other words, the aim is to keep the fission process going long enough to produce the required amount of energy.

The HEU would be surrounded by an outer shell, or tamper, of natural uranium, or some other very heavy material, to hold the weapon together for a little longer to increase its explosive yield. A neutron initiator, which could be made from uranium and deuterium (a hydrogen isotope) or from polonium and beryllium, would be placed at the centre of the HEU sphere which, at the precise moment at which the HEU is compressed to the maximum extent, would emit a burst of neutrons to trigger the nuclear explosion. The IAEA report suggests that Iranian researchers have tested an implosion device on a dense material – such as natural uranium or tungsten – that can serve as a substitute for HEU.

The IAEA report states that there are “strong indications that the development by Iran of the high explosives initiation system, and its development of the high speed diagnostic configuration used to monitor related experiments, were assisted by the work of a foreign expert who was not only knowledgeable in these technologies, but who, a Member State has informed the Agency, worked for much of his career with this technology in the nuclear weapon programme of the country of his origin.” This expert was apparently Vycheslav V. Danilenko, who worked for about 30 years in the Soviet/Russian nuclear-weapon complex at Chelyabinsk, Russia.

In an effective nuclear weapon, all the detonators in the high explosive would fire at exactly the same moment and the neutron initiator would inject a burst of neutrons at the precise moment of maximum criticality. Timing is the key to success. If these timings are accurate a nuclear weapon of this design could explode with an explosive power equivalent to that of about 20 tonnes of TNT (20 kilotons) - the yield of the nuclear weapon that destroyed Nagasaki, Japan on 9 August 1945, which used the implosion design.

How Much HEU Could Iran Produce If It Chose To Do So?

According to Gregory S. Jones, in a paper prepared for the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (4), as of 1 November 2011, Iran had a stockpile of 2,810 kilograms of 3.5 per cent enriched uranium plus 517 kilograms of 19.7 per cent enriched uranium. If this material was further enriched, by recycling it through an enrichment plant, Iran could produce about 220 kilograms of 90 per cent enriched uranium.

Using an effective tamper in an efficient implosion design, the Iranians would probably need a total of about 20 kilograms of HEU for each nuclear weapon. Iran could, therefore, in theory, fabricate a maximum up to 10 or so nuclear weapons if it took the political decision to do so.

It must be emphasized, though, that the IAEA has stated that it has no evidence that Iran has diverted any nuclear material to use in nuclear weapons.


Iran may well feel under threat from the West and Israel and this may be increasing its resolve to acquire the option to fabricate nuclear weapons. Examples of US/Israel provocative acts against Iran include: the assassination of two important Iranian senior scientists; cyberwarfare attacks (using the Stuxnet virus, for example) made on Iran’s key nuclear facilities, such as the enrichment plant at Natanz; the killing of an Iranian general; the allegation of an Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the US; and the flying of American spy-planes over Iran (one of which was shot down early in December).

These acts may be aimed at destabilizing the Iranian regime. But escalation or miscalculation could well lead to full-scale military action against Iran by the US and Israel. This is likely to trigger a devastating war in the Middle East. It would have disastrous global economic consequences if, as is probable, Iran closed the Straits of Hormuz through which at least 40 per cent of the world’s oil passes.

Hopefully, good sense will prevail and negotiations without preconditions will be used to persuade Iran to comply with the provisions of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions rather than military action.


1. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Vienna, 8 November 2011.

2. The text of the NPT is available at

3. Anne Penketh, Iran on the Brink, 7 November 2011,%20%20program%20director

4. Gregory S. Jones, Iran’s Efforts to Develop Nuclear Weapons Explicated, paper prepared for the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, 6 December 2011.

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About the Author 

Charles F Barnaby
Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist, worked at the: Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Aldermaston (1951-57); University College, London

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