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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Fissile Material Acquisition Efforts

Concerns about Iran's acquisition of fissile materials have gone through several stages. At first, when the conditions of industrial potential in Iran was such that without outside help, Iran was unable to organize production of weapons-grade nuclear materials. Iran reportedly tried to acquire fissile material to support development of nuclear weapons, and attempted to develop the capability to produce both plutonium and highly enriched uranium. Second, there were concerns about the diversion of uranium supplied by Russia for the Bushehr nuclear power reactor. But by the time these shipments arrived, concern had shifted to Iranian acqusition of Uranium ore from a variety of countries around the world, given what appeared to be limited domestic sources of ore.

The actual extent of domestic Iranian uranium sources are unclear, though it may represent a bottleneck in Iran's quest for a large stockpile of Atomic bombs. Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, believed that the spread of the bomb could be limited by controlling the sources of natural uranium. In May 1945, when physicist Leo Szilard [who had induced Roosevelt to initiate the Manhattan Project] suggested that the Soviet Union might soon produce nuclear weapons, Truman's incoming Secretary of State James Byrnes observed that "General Groves tells me there is no uranium in Russia". At the time, no Uranium deposits were known in Russia, but they were soon found. Uranium is ubiquitous; it could even be extracted on a large scale from seawater, although no country has done that yet.

In an attempt to shorten the timeline to a weapon, Iran was thought to have launched a parallel effort to purchase fissile material, mainly from sources in the former Soviet Union. There were no convincing reports of any illegal deliveries of nuclear raw materials or nuclear fuel to Iran. Persistent media reports dating back to 1991 concerning four nuclear warheads which Tehran supposedly bought from Kazakhstan remained unconfirmed.

In his 2002 book, The High Cost of Peace: How Washington's Middle East Policy Left America Vulnerable to Terrorism, author Yossef Bodansky claimed: "In December [1991], the Kazakh deal came to fruition, and Iran made its first purchase of nuclear weapons. The deal included two 40-kiloton warheads for a Scud-type surface-to-surface ballistic missile; one aerial bomb of the type carried by a MiG-27; and one 152mm nuclear artillery shell. These weapons reached initial operational status in late January 1992 and full operational status a few months later."

Despite economic handicaps, Iran admitted to the Internatioanl Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2003 that it had been experimenting in converting uranium and other enrichment activities, as well as possibly plotunium seperation experiments, as early as the mid 1980s. Iran secured foreign nuclear material only after a deal reached between Iran and Russia for the construction of a light water reactor at Bushehr involved an agreement to supply the nuclear fuel.

Atomstroyexport was the Russian company building the light water reactor at Bushehr for Iran. The project cost a total of 184 million dollars. One of the final steps in the construction of the plant was delayed because Atomstroyexport accused the Iranian government of not paying its bill in a timely manner. The Iranians instead claimed that the problems were due to political pressure by the west. Still, the Russians delivered 163 basic and 17 emergency fuel assemblies totaling 82 metric tons of uranium of 3.62 percent uranium 235 purity. Before the containers of nuclear material left Russian they were sealed by members of the IEAEA and placed into special containment facilities, all the while IAEA inspectors watched over the handover of nuclear fuel. When the fuel had been spent, expected to occur after ten years of operation, the waste would be returned to Russia.

The first delivery took place on 16 December 2007. The second shipment contained 24 fuel assemblies, shipped via air to the Bushehr on the night of the 27/28 December 2007. The third batch of fuel was delivered 18 January 2008 and was delivered via cargo plane. The shipment contained 24 fuel assemblies (FA), 9 control and protection system rods (CPS) and 9 burnable poison bundles (BPB). On the night of 19/20 January 2008 the fourth portion of nuclear material was delivered. This shipment contained 24 FA, 12 CPS rods and 8 burnable absorber bundles. The fifth shipment of nuclear fuel was in Iran on the night of the 21 January 2008 and contained 24 FA, 10 control rods and 10 absorber rod bundles. The sixth delivery took place on 23/24 January 2008. This shipment weighted 17 metric tons included 24 fuel assemblies, a set of control rods and burnable absorber bundles. The Organization for Atomic Energy of Iran stated the seventh delivery of nuclear materials occurred on 26 January 2008. The final five metric ton bundle arrived on 28 January 2008. It was thought that after the fuel had been delivered, and given that one of the two pressurized water reactors was very nearly completed, the plant would start working as early as July to September of 2008.

Some analysts have concluded that Iran's limited indigenous supply of uranium makes it nearly impossible to support its current and future nuclear reactor capabilities. As a consequence, Iran will likely be forced to reach out to foreign suppliers of uranium for its nuclear industry. However, the UN Security Council decided in Resolution 1737 that states must prevent the supply, sale, or transfer of items, materials, technology, and goods to Iran that could contribute to Iran's enrichment-related, reprocessing or heavy water related activities. This includes most forms of uranium.

As a consequence of its geology, Iran's indigenous uranium reserves are insufficient to support its current nuclear power reactor program for a sustained period of time, much less the additional 7-20 power reactors it publicly proclaims an intention to build. As of 2009 Iran had two uranium mines, Saghand and Gachine, but the declared combined output from these mines would meet only about one-third of the annual fuel reload requirements of the single reactor at Bushehr.

According to a study on Iran's plans for future nuclear power reactors by the Department of Energy and using data provided by Iran to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran's total uranium resources (approximately 16,050 tons including approximately 1,500 metric tons of identified and 14,550 metric tons of undiscovered resources) represent less than 25 percent of the 40 year life-cycle requirement of just seven reactors. Consequently, although Iran periodically presents optimistic plans for discovery and exploitation of new domestic uranium resources, its stated long-term uranium and reactor fuel requirements cannot be met without substantial foreign imports. However, its indigenous reserves are more than sufficient for a nuclear weapons program.

Iran could soon begin to look for outside suppliers of uranium, either through uranium producers or countries with uranium mines both to build up its stockpile of uranium and to further its argument that its fuel cycle program is dedicated entirely to civil purposes. This is despite the fact that low enriched uranium fuel for power reactors can be procured on the international market at a lower cost than what Iranian indigenous production would require.

Iran has turned to the international market in the past, including by importing 531 tons of uranium ore concentrate, commonly referred to as "yellowcake," in 1982. Given the IAEA's report to the IAEA Board of Governors on 19 February 2009 that 357 tons of uranium in the form of UF6 had been produced at the Uranium Conversion Facility, it could be deduced that well over two-thirds of this imported material has already been processed at its Uranium Conversion Facility in Esfahan. Unclassified calculations based on Iran's rate of uranium conversion suggested that Iran would run out of yellowcake in early-to-mid 2009, assuming Iran did not slow its conversion process in order to avoid quickly depleting its stockpile. This uranium shortage suggested further that Iran may feel pressed to turn to a wide variety of possible suppliers.

Namibia's Prime Minister Nahas Angula said that Namibia will not heed calls by individual countries on supplying uranium to Iran. PM Angula was quoted as saying that "unless an international agreement, such as with the United Nations Security Council, calls for countries not to supply to Iran, the Namibian Government treats Iran as any other country." The government of Iran has a 15 percent share of the Namibian firm Rossing Uranium Limited, which, according to the press article, supplied 7.6 percent of the world's mined uranium in 2008. The Iranian government has held an ownership stake in Rossing since the 1970s and the firm's External Affairs Manager has publicly stated that shareholders do not have any product take-off rights.

Iran has not concealed its desire to gain access to Tajikistan’s mineral resources, which contain approximately 13 percent of the world’s uranium reserves (Nezavi-simaya Gazeta reported on this in greater detail in its issue dated 11 January 2011). The uranium mines are not being developed today: work was halted several years ago for financial reasons. Considering Iran’s problems with raw material and its plans to develop its own nuclear power industry in spite of various resolutions, this sphere of Iran-Tajikistan cooperation may become the priority in interstate relations in the nearest time.

The 2006 rumors that Venezuela was trafficking in nuclear weapons and mining uranium for Iran appear to be little more than the conspiracy-mongering by Chavez adversaries. In March 2005, a memorandum of understanding signed by the Iranian and Venezuelan Presidents established that Iran would help Venezuela create a "National Geoscience Database" that would contain a survey of the mineral deposits throughout Venezuelan territory. Creating such a "basic geological map" of Venezuela would be the logical first step to restarting a uranium program in Venezuela. Venezuelan threats to take over property in areas believed to have significant radioactive deposits fueled additional rumors that Venezuela is planning to mine uranium. t can gauge the true value of properties' mineral wealth.) In the mid-1980s, the Ministry of Energy and Mines conducted preliminary geochemical samplings that indicated the possible presence of uranium deposits in at least two locations.

An alleged three-page report leaked 25 May 2008 by the Israeli Foreign Ministry detailed Iran's activities in Latin America. It pointed to both Bolivia and Venezuela as countries assisting Iran with its nuclear program. On May 27 Bolivian Mining Minister Luis Alberto Echazu told the press that Bolivia is not exporting uranium, saying "there isn't even a geological study, much less could there be export (of uranium)." Minister of the Presidency Juan Ramon Quintana also denied the claim saying "only a fool could believe such nonsense." A day later, however, it was revealed that not only had Bolivia produced over 57 kilograms of yellow cake in the 1970's, but that Potosi department officials were investigating the possibility of producing uranium in the near future. Potosi is located in southern Bolivia and is Bolivia's mining capital for gold, silver, tin and more. It is one of the poorest places in the western hemisphere; its altitude of 5,000 meters (over 16,000 feet) makes the region barren of most crops and its economy is heavily based on mining.

In 2009 there were rumors that uranium deposits in Kono in Sierra Leone (a region already famous for its diamonds) could be sold to hostile powers, including Russia, Iran and Libya. Supposedly the uranium had been uncovered by the previous government, and though many expressed interest, failed for unknown reasons to move forward with a deal. It was said that the Sierra Leonean Ambassador to Iran was already tasked to obtain an Iranian offer for the rights. Such a deal would undercut Russian supplies of uranium to (and consequent leverage over) Iran, and allow Iran unfettered material and opportunities to refine uranium. A back-door deal with the Iranians to mine the uranium in Kono, a location with little international community penetration and effective policing, could be easily and clandestinely managed, from extraction to exportation.

On February 23, 2013, days before resuming talks over its disputed atomic program, Iran said it had found significant new deposits of raw uranium and identified sites for 16 more nuclear power stations. State news agency IRNA quoted a report by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) which said the reserves were discovered in northern and southern coastal areas and had tripled the amount outlined in previous estimates. Iran's reserves of raw uranium now stood at around 4,400 tons, taking into account discoveries over the past 18 months, IRNA quoted the report as saying.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived on April 15, 2013 in Niger, the world's number 4 uranium producer, where French nuclear group Areva has seen its monopoly tested by a government looking to diversify its partners. Niger is the second of three stops on a trip aimed at deepening Iran's ties with Africa, a continent Ahmadinejad has courted for business deals and diplomatic support as the Islamic Republic becomes increasingly isolated by international sanctions targeting its disputed nuclear program. Some Western analysts say Iran may be close to exhausting its reserves of raw uranium crucial to its nuclear activity and could have to seek out foreign sources of supply.

It was not clear if any deal with Niger was on the table during Ahmadinejad's trip, but his Nigerien counterpart said last month he wanted to renegotiate the terms of its nuclear business with Areva. On the eve of Ahmadinejad's arrival, a local student's union called for Niger to strike a uranium deal with Iran. "Areva has exploited us for over 40 years. What the Nigerien people need is a fair partnership,'' the union said in statement broadcast on private television stations. There is broad frustration in Niger that one of the world's least developed nations straddling the Sahara has not benefited more from decades of mining by Areva in its remote desert north. Earlier in the month, several thousand people protested on the streets of Niamey against Areva, burning French flags.

Iran will get uranium for its nuclear program from Zimbabwe under a secret deal that bypasses a UN ban on such exports to the Middle Eastern country, a British newspaper reported 10 August 2013 . The bilateral memorandum of understanding on uranium exports was signed in 2012, but not reported before, Gift Chimanikire, an opposition leader who is the deputy mining minister in the outgoing Zimbabwean government, was cited as saying. Chimanikire did not say whether the Iran has actually received any uranium from the African country. Analysts cited by The Times said Zimbabwe uranium deposits may not yet be ready to supply produce for export. Zimbabwe’s authoritarian president, Robert Mugabe, has publicly supported Iran’s nuclear program during a meeting with his then-Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2010. Both countries are subject to international sanctions over, respectively, Mugabe regime’s dismal track record on human rights and Iran’s nuclear program.

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Page last modified: 10-08-2013 17:40:26 ZULU