It’s time to stop the masquerade. There is no doubt that Iran’s nuclear program is aimed at nothing other than military capabilities. Various experts – from the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and from the New York Times, to name just a few – have spent the last two years combing through thousands of documents from Iran’s secret nuclear archive which were snatched by Israeli Mossad agents from the heart of Teheran in January 2018. Their investigations prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that, at least until 2003, Teheran was in the midst of a state-sanctioned multi-sited effort – the Amad project – to produce five nuclear warheads.
More importantly, there are lots of clues and cues strongly suggesting that this effort to achieve an atomic bomb never stopped and pushes on even today. There is virtually no significant evidence indicating the opposite. And where there is radioactive smoke, there is nuclear fire.
The first clue can be found in Teheran’s usual policy of deceit and evasion vis-à-vis the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation into “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear activities. The agency has recently reopened its examination of the true nature and scope of these forbidden activities. At the same time, IAEA inspections on known nuclear sites in Iran seem to be successfully overcoming difficult circumstances created by the major outbreak of COVID-19 in that country – one of the epicentres of the pandemic in the region.
Almost two decades since the agency opened its nuclear file on Iran, inspectors are still apparently unable to get conclusive, or truthful, responses from the Iranians, as recent IAEA reports clearly indicate. Instead, caught with its hands inside the radioactive cookie jar, Teheran has been blocking IAEA access to sites related to the Amad project – for example to the “atomic warehouse” in the Turquzabad suburb of Teheran, where refined uranium particles were detected by the IAEA last year.
Another indicator is economic. Despite consistently insisting publicly that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, the Iranian regime’s civilian atomic industry cannot now, and will not in the foreseeable future, be able to justify cultivating indigenous uranium enrichment capabilities on economically sensible grounds. Producing nuclear fuel domestically for the Russian built nuclear power plant at Bushier, the Teheran Research Reactor (TRR) or the currently semi-dismantled Arak heavy water reactor is significantly more expensive than purchasing it from reliable sources, including from Russia and the US.
Moreover,, the Iranian enrichment program suffers from severe efficiency issues, including a shockingly high rate of centrifuge breakdown – 20 percent per year, as opposed to the 1 percent required for a financially viable enrichment program.
Understanding it cannot continue to peddle the idea that its nuclear project has strictly civilian purposes, Teheran has begun talking about ‘legitimate’ and ‘defensive’ military applications of nuclear technology. This is why, in 2018, the regime notified the IAEA of its intention to develop nuclear-powered submarines.
Publicly announcing on April 18 that a nuclear submarine project is now on Iran’s agenda, the commander of the Iranian navy, Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, claimed that “None of the international pacts ban using peaceful nuclear energy, but the peace we are talking about doesn’t mean without maintaining defense readiness.”
Moreover, nuclear submarine reactors typically use very highly enriched uranium, much higher than used in civilian reactors. Nuclear submarines thus potentally give Iran a valid reason to enrich uranium to near-military grade without obviously being involved in a breakout to a nuclear bomb.
There is however only one small problem with Iran’s claims about this program – they are complete nonsense. As marine expert Caleb Larson explains, Iran does not possess the technology and industry capacity required to build such an advanced war machine as a nuclear submarine. “Iran has a long history of bombastic announcements and is not likely to produce a nuclear-powered submarine anytime in the near future”.
The same rationale motivates Iran’s satellite program, which is used to test and perfect long-range missiles that could carry a nuclear payload. Until a few weeks ago, Teheran tried – and mostly failed – to launch several ‘civil’ satellites into earth’s orbit. On April 24, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the elite force engaged in terror export and protection of the Ayatollahs, successfully launched the Noor-1 military satellite into space. According to the IRGC, the mission of the small satellite is military reconnaissance, “navigation and military communications”.
However, no one believes the Iranian cover story. “Iran’s space program is clearly a cover for its intercontinental ballistic missile [ICBM] aspirations,” said Brian Hook, US special representative for Iran, “Any claims that Iran’s space program is peaceful are pure propaganda.” Indeed, Noor-1 was launched from a military Scud missile launcher, heavily based on North Korean technology. It was carried into orbit by the Qassed (Messenger) rocket, that exhibits a 2000 km range, typical of Iran’s existing Shehab Intermediate range ballistic missiles. Moreover, the small satellite itself has very little practical value, and was described by US General Jay Raymond, the Chief of Staff of Space Operations, as “a tumbling webcam in space” which is unlikely to be providing any useful intelligence.
In other words, both the nuclear submarine and the satellites are fairytales meant to conceal the ultimate aim of the nuclear work – atomic weapons \, with ballistic missiles to deliver them.
Meanwhile Iran’s latest series of breaches of the 2015 nuclear deal (JCPOA) commitments also point in the direction of bomb building. These includes, among other things, trying to produce and deploy advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges; amassing increasing amounts of fissile material; re-opening the Fordow enrichment plant which originally could only be used for military purposes; only partially neutralising the Arak heavy water reactor – the list goes on and on.
A new analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), which took into account these latest developments, tries to estimate Teheran’s ‘breakout time’, defined as “the time Iran would need to produce 25 kilograms of weapon-grade uranium (WGU), enough for a nuclear weapon” should it decide to race to do so. The report is the product a collaboration between ISIS and experts from the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia (UVA), which is “engaged in a multi-year program to quantify, via sophisticated computer simulations,” Iran’s nuclear trajectory. The analysis is based on the Iranian nuclear stockpiles, facilities and capabilities as recorded by the IAEA in late February 2020. It also considers a scenario that Iran is running a covert nuclear plant operating a few thousand advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges (type IR-2m), on top of its known facilities.
The conclusion of the analysis is alarming – Iran’s nuclear breakout time is now only 3 to 5 months.
Moreover, since February, Teheran has produced more enriched uranium and is in possession of a bigger fissile material stock. Today it has amassed more than 1 ton of enriched uranium, kept in various forms and at various enrichment levels (2 to 4.5 per cent). This means the breakout time is almost certainly getting shorter and shorter.
It’s time to stop pretending – everybody knows that Teheran is lying. There is an urgent need to take effective to stop or reverse Iran’s breakout timelines. Australia can play a role by diplomatically supporting US efforts to increase and sustain economic sanctions and pressure on Teheran, even amidst the COVID-19 global crisis.