Article in Politics / International / Middle East
The U.S. Senate passed a bill authorizing new sanctions on Iran in light of recent evidence that Iran may be developing a nuclear weapon. Now, as the world decides how best to respond to Iran, it is critical to understand the history, politics and science of how Iran arrived at this point

On December 1, the U.S. Senate passed a bill authorizing sanctions against Iran’s Central Bank, responding to a climate of increased international concern about Iran’s nuclear activity. The Obama administration does not support the measure, arguing that sufficient sanctions are already in place and that new measures could cause steep global increases in the price of oil.

The United Nations nuclear watchdog passed a resolution expressing its “deep and increasing concern” over Iran’s nuclear program on November 18. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) asked Tehran to address pressing questions about its nuclear capabilities. In response to this new evidence, the international community is deciding how to impose new sanctions on Iran’s financial and energy sectors.

In response to the U.N. resolution, the U.S. Press Secretary said that “for years, Iran has sought to defend its growing uranium enrichment program on the pretense that it was solely intended to fuel a civilian nuclear energy program. Yet the Director General’s report and today’s action by the Board of Governors expose once and for all the hollowness of Iran’s claims, and reinforce the world’s demands that Iran come clean and live up to its international obligations.”

In the statement, the Press Secretary called for “broad international coalition to pressure and isolate the Iranian regime, including through an unprecedented sanctions regime” However, Reza Marashi, director of research on the National Iranian-American Council, points out that there is a limit to the number of sanctions that the United States and its allies can implement.

“They cannot really do many more of those sanctions because sanctioning oil and gas or sanctioning Iran’s Central Bank would actually have negative effects on the American own economy and global economy,” Marashi said.

In the face of new questions and new sanctions, Iranian leaders continue to insist on its program’s peaceful purposes. However, Iran failed to report its nuclear plants in different parts of the country to the IAEA, refused to explain it’s ongoing enrichment activity, and denied inspectors access into specific facilities.

The current tension developed from the complicated history of Iran’s nuclear program. Understanding this history, from both a political and technological perspective, provides a much needed context to U.S.-Iranian relations.

From Fossil Fuels to Fission

The British set Iran up as one of their most important enterprises, and they treasured Iran’s oil reserves. They used the oil, at cheap or no cost, to advance their economic programs. The profit they made from Iran’s oil was a one-way street, all pouring inside Britain without ever bothering to consider the people of Iran. With the oil wealth leaving the country, Iranians aimed their disgust and anger toward the government, with street demonstrations in 1950 and 1951.

Iranians turned to Mossadeq, an aristocratic author, lawyer and prominent parliamentarian. His most famous act as the prime minister was to nationalize the oil industry in Iran in 1952 and end the life of the most profitable British business of the day. The British’s exit from Iran’s political and business life paved the way for the United States to climb in.

Due to its rapid industrialization, the U.S. was thirsty for Iran’s oil. In 1953, the CIA arrested Mossadeq, and supported Fazollah Zahedi, a military general and friend of the Shah, to become the prime minister of Iran.

To show its friendship and demonstrate trust with the Shah, the United States agreed to help Iran to build 23 nuclear power stations until the end of 2000. Tehran Nuclear Research Center (TNRC) was established through cooperation from the U.S. and Iran in 1967. Under their agreement, the United States transported nuclear technology, supported Iran’s scientists, and sold Iran nuclear reactor fuel. In return, the US enjoyed buying Iran’s oil at a low price.

During these years, the construction of Iran’s first nuclear station in Bushehr was making a steady progress under US supervision. But Iran’s nuclear program abruptly discontinued due to Iran’s 1979 revolution. The United States failed to take Iran’s revolution seriously, believing that it would not be lengthy or significant. The CIA transported the Shah to a resort in Egypt. Little did it know that the Shah would not return to his country. The Shah died a few months later, and with him, the relationship between Iran and US.

During the political turmoil that followed, Iran was unable to focus on his nuclear program for almost a decade. And then, in the 1980s and 1990s, Argentina, Russia, and China were interested in cooperating with Iran to build nuclear power facilities, under The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. In return, the agency wanted Iran to be transparent and clear about its overall nuclear research and technology.

The U.S. remained suspicious of the Iranian nuclear program even though in 1968, one year after Iranians started building its Bushehr nuclear facility, they signed a Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, a protocol that gives the UN nuclear watchdog the right to inspect of its nuclear facilities. Concerns about Iran developing nuclear weapons capabilities led the United States to intervene and discourage the IAEA from supporting the Iranian program.

Iran decided that they could not depend on foreign sources of nuclear fuel, and began development of their own nuclear program. In 2007, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the former Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in the Journal of International Affairs that Iran felt that the only way to work around U.S. opposition was to avoid disclosing the details of its program.

On December of 2003, Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s outgoing representative to the IAEA signed an additional safeguard on behalf of Tehran. A safeguard sets IAEA standards for meeting international standards not to use nuclear programs to develop weapons. The former IAEA chief, Mohamed Elbradei signed this agreement with Iran on behalf of the UN.

In 2002, a dissident organization in Iran revealed to the world that Iran was constructing nuclear facilities in secret, according to the World Nuclear Association. A vast uranium enrichment facility was started in 2000 in Natanz, approximately 200 miles south of Tehran, made up a six buildings that in total covered around 100,000 square meters. In Arak, construction began on a heavy-water reactor, which could be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium.

In 2003, the international community responded to Iran’s continued enrichment program with sanctions. That summer Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia of the House Committee on International Relations, introduced the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act Enhancement and Compliance Act (ILSA-ECA). The bill limited the ability of foreign oil companies to invest in either Libya or Iran’s petroleum sector.

Despite this, and other restrictions, Iran continued to build its enrichment facilities and purchase the necessary equipment. In 2004, a Pakistani nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan was arrested for running a nuclear equipment trafficking program, notoriously selling to Iran and Libya against international sanctions, according to the Fallout: The True Story of the CIA’s Secret War on Nuclear Trafficking, by Catherine Collins and Douglas Frantz. Even after Khan’s network was shut down, Iran continued to develop their enrichment capabilities.

Today, Iran’s nuclear program is complex. According to Ian Hore-Lacy, the director of public communications for the World Nuclear Association, Iran is simultaneously promoting a commercial nuclear power program with IAEA support and running an nuclear fuel enrichment program against a multitude of international sanctions. “There are two separate things going on,” Hore-Lacy said. “One of which is legitimate.”

Commercial Nuclear Power

The legitimate activity on the part of the Iranians is the commercial nuclear power. While there is no international support for Iran’s enrichment program, Hore-Lacy explained that there is support for building nuclear reactors to produce electricity.

The Russian government collaborated with the Iranians to finish building the Bushehr reactor, which was started up in the spring of 2011, and should be grid-connected by January of 2012. The reactor is expected to produce seven terrawatts of power a year, the equivalent of 11 million barrels of oil, which Iran will now be able to export for cash, according to the World Nuclear Association. The reason that the international community supports the Bushehr reactor project is that under a 2005 agreement, Russia sells Iran the fuel rods, already enriched to about 3 percent, and then takes back the used rods. The IAEA monitors this facility thoroughly, and it meets all safety standards.

Through this agreement, Iran can produce power without the need for any enrichment facilities. Since their commercial reactor program does not require fuel enrichment, Iran’s enrichment program raises concerns about weaponization. The fact that they began construction of the enrichment facilities without informing the IAEA also begs suspicion. Although Iran’s nuclear power plant has international support, the enrichment activities, which are not supported by the safeguards, raise concerns internationally.

Suspicious Enrichment

The remaining uncertainty about Iran’s nuclear aim lies in the fact that the uranium enrichment process starts off the same for both commercial nuclear power and for nuclear weapons. The IAEA report gives a careful count of the number of centrifuges at the enrichment facilities in Iran. These numbers are key indicators of Iran’s nuclear plans.

Todd Allen, the University of Wisconsin professor of Nuclear Engineering, explained that installing a larger number of centrifuges raises concerns internationally. “It’s one of the reasons why people are suspicious of what they are doing. If you’re going to make commercial fuel, you do have to enrich it to about 5 percent. So, if you built a bunch of centrifuges, you can claim that you are just doing it to make commercial fuel, but if you have more centrifuges, right, then you keep things going, then you can make weapons.”

Weapons-grade uranium is enriched up to 90 percent. Commercial power plants usually use around 3 to 5 percent. According to the IAEA, Iran is currently enriching up to 20 percent for use in the Tehran research reactor. Research reactors in the U.S. also typically use fuel enriched to 20 percent.

Enrichment is actually a misnomer. The process is more of a refinement. When you dig uranium out of the ground, most of it is in the more stable form, with only a very small amount of the less stable atoms that are used in nuclear fission. Enrichment processes separate out the stable atoms, so that the percentage of reactive uranium in the fuel increases.

Today, enrichment involves sending uranium fluoride gas through a series of centrifuges, called a cascade. Centrifuges are devices that spin rapidly, and separate out the lighter, more reactive form of uranium from the heavier, more stable form. The process is repeated over and over in successive centrifuges. The more you repeat, the more you increase the amount of the fissionable uranium the fuel.

The process of dividing the natural uranium into the higher and lower concentrations is called separative work. About 90 percent of the total work required to make weapons grade uranium occurs taking the natural uranium to 20 percent, which Iran has already achieved.

Houston Wood, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Virginia, explained that this enrichment work occurs on logarithmic scale, where it is much harder to get the process started, and gets easier as it gets further along.

As of November 2, Iran was running 37 chains of centrifuges, called cascades, comprised of 6,208 IR-1 centrifuges, in the Natanz enrichment facility, according to the IAEA report published on November 8th. These cascades are producing low enriched uranium, about 3.5 percent. Iran also started installing several hundred advanced IR-2 and IR-4 centrifuges that can separate the uranium much more efficiently, reaching almost 20 percent currently. The Fordow enrichment facility, which is under construction, will increase Iran’s production capacity for 20-percent uranium significantly.

The Institute for Science and International Security analyzed the IAEA evidence and measured how much enriched uranium Iran is producing. The report that states, in total, Iran has put 765.5 kg of 3.5 percent low enriched uranium into their enrichment cascades to produce 79.7 kg of 19.75 percent uranium since the beginning of operations in February 2010. The 19.75 percent uranium is just below the legal international limit of 20 percent, but far too enriched for use in their commercial power reactor.

Uranium requires enrichment because producing energy, for power supply or weapons, depends on a greater density of the more reactive form of uranium than is found naturally. Through a process called fission, an atom of radioactive uranium will split if it gets hit with a small particle called a neutron. When the atom splits, it usually releases two more neutrons, and produces a lot of heat.

For a nuclear power plant, Allen explained that the radioactive uranium atoms need to be close enough together that one of the two released neutrons hits another atom, causing another split. The other neutron just flies off into space. This creates a steady stream of fission reactions that produce power.

“If you want to make a bomb, what you really want to do is design a system that captures more than one of those neutrons created in a fission,” Allen said. “If you have 2 releases, starting with a single fission, and that creates two, and each one of those release two, you can see each generation up-ing, and then everything blows up.”

This exponential increase in the amount of power produced by each successive generation of the fission reaction creates the explosive force of the bomb.

Another cause for concern is Iran’s recently constructed heavy water reactor in Arak. According to Hore-Lacy, this reactor is suspicious because it is too small to be used to produce electricity. Instead, it appears designed to use uranium to produce plutonium, which is used primarily in nuclear weapons.

“It looks like a plutonium production reactor such as the one North Korea has used to build up its inventory of weapons-grade plutonium,” Hore-Lacy said.

In addition to the documented enrichment facilities and the potential for plutonium production, the IAEA found that Iran has been testing nuclear weapon components, like detonators, acquiring nuclear weapons development information, running simulations, building a clandestine nuclear supply network, and constructing a large explosive containment vessel.

Political Perspectives

On November 20, Ali-Akbar Salehi, Iran’s foreign minister, responded to the IAEA recent resolution calling the report lacks credibility and effectiveness, according to Islamic Republic News Agency.

“The IAEA has no other option but cooperating and interacting with the Iranian government,” Salehi told reporters, adding that the agency should soften its approach towards the Islamic Republic.

But the approach to the IAEA report has not been soft so far. According to AlJazeera news agency, the United States, Britain and Canada will impose new financial sanctions on Iran in an effort to pressure Tehran to halt its suspected nuclear weapons program. Earlier this month, the House of Representative leadership in a letter urged President Obama to take the next step toward sanctioning the Central Bank of Iran, or CBI.

The rate bi-partisan letter sent on November 17 was signed by Reps. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the minority leader, Eric Cantor, R-Va., the majority leader, Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the minority whip, Illeana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the Foreign Affaris Committee chariwoman and Howard Berman, D-Calif., the Comittee’s top Democrat.

In this letter, they wrote: “If a review of the facts confirms that CBI is involving in illicit activities linked to Iran’s nuclear program and terrorism activities, we urge you to quickly designate CBI as a facilitator of Iran’s weapons of mass destruction proliferation and terrorist activities for the purpose of imposing sanctions on persons that do business with CBI.”

Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Counci, a Washington DC think tank, says the sanctions against CBI is outrageous. “Going after the Central Bank, cutting off Iranian oil export, this would hurt ordinary people, and certainly hurt the world economy, and I think it would be really stupid.”

Sanctions, although controversial, seem to be the only tool that the US has at its disposal right now. To start any form of dialogue or diplomacy with Iran “is not going to be easy,” said Marashi.

“There is a complete and total lack of trust on both sides. There are the ghosts of history in the room, where both sides can point to the past, as an accusation of a negative influence by the other side.”

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