Iran at the Nuclear Threshold

Brenda Shaffer

For the past decade, Iran’s nuclear program has been a proliferation concern to the United States. Given that Iran is awash with oil and gas reserves and regularly flares off vast quantities of natural gas, Tehran’s decision to allocate a major portion of its infrastructure investment to develop nuclear power plants has been puzzling. In addition, proliferation warning flags have been raised by Iran’s clandestine attempts to acquire uranium-enrichment equipment and fissile material.1 Combined with its support for Middle Eastern terrorist groups and the regime’s efforts to undermine the Middle Eastern peace process, Washington has special concerns regarding the Iranian nuclear program.

However, up until the spring of this year, the United States was practically alone in pressing for limits on Iranian access to nuclear weapons-related technology and materials. Western European states and Russia have differed with the United States in their assessment of the extent of Iran’s nuclear program and its intentions to develop nuclear weapons. Europe, Russia, and Japan have also been reluctant to upset bilateral trade and political relations with Iran as a lever to prevent proliferation. In addition, the contradictory missions of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)—promoting civilian nuclear programs while preventing proliferation—have allowed states such as Iran to near the nuclear threshold without violating the treaty, complicating proliferation detection and prevention.

Until recently, this international and legal consolation had placed few impediments in the way of Tehran’s ability to produce a nuclear arsenal. This drift was slowed this spring, however, when a spate of revelations, from undeclared importation of nuclear materials and equipment to covert uranium-enrichment activity, convinced key states that Iran has not been forthcoming about the intents and extent of its nuclear program and that the program must be stopped. The resulting tide of international pressure crested with a September 12 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) resolution demanding that Tehran come clean. The external threats resonated inside Iran, adding additional pressure on an unpopular government to weigh its next steps carefully and spurring a strong and unprecedented public debate about Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran’s announcement in the form of an October 21 agreement with a group of European ministers that it intends to open its nuclear facilities to IAEA inspection and to suspend uranium enrichment has the potential to be constructive. And this initiative could provide the face-saving mechanism for Iran to shift away from the nuclear weapons path if it makes that strategic decision. Yet, the credibility of Tehran’s commitment must be viewed with caution. Throughout the last decade, Iran has not been forthcoming about a variety of aspects of its nuclear program and has used the cover of legal agreements to advance its weapons program. Making sure that this agreement is fully implemented and expanded to truly prevent an Iranian nuclear breakout will require that pressure be maintained in the months and years ahead, a task that has now grown harder amid Tehran’s success in driving a wedge between partners in this grand coalition. In particular, the United States must continue to work with Russia to ensure that Tehran does not develop nuclear weapons using spent fuel from plutonium reactors. Tehran has not yet made the political decision to cross the nuclear threshold, and both external and internal pressure must be harnessed to sway Iran’s future decision on its nuclear future.

The Iranian Nuclear Program

Iran became a signatory of the NPT in 1968 as a non-nuclear state, and Shah Reza Pahlavi initiated a civilian nuclear energy program in the early 1970s.2 In parallel, the shah’s regime reportedly began a nuclear weapons program, which continued until the regime’s demise in 1979. In 1984, Iran’s Islamic Republic government, spurred by the Iran-Iraq War, allegedly resuscitated the nuclear weapons program. Iran’s overall nuclear program took a leap forward in 1989 when the USSR signed a nuclear technology cooperation agreement with Iran.3 In 1992 this protocol was expanded when two intergovernmental agreements were signed with Russia: one for nuclear energy cooperation and another for the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant.

Iranian representatives and sympathizers abroad point to the need to counter Israel’s alleged nuclear arsenal as a justification for its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Despite the Iranian rhetoric, the main strategic rationale for the Iranian nuclear program has not been to counter Israel’s nuclear arsenal but to bolster its role as a regional power and to counter Iraq, Iran’s principal threat until this year. Iran is located in a nuclear neighborhood—next to Russia, Pakistan, and India—and seeks to remain an important regional power. The fact that the Iranian nuclear weapons program started under the shah’s regime, which at the time maintained excellent cooperation with the United States and Israel, is solid evidence that Israel has not been the main motivating factor for Iranian nuclear ambitions. In fact, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons has made it a more likely target of Israel.

With the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, much of the original strategic motivation for acquiring nuclear weapons for Tehran has been lost. The current strategic rationale, however, may have changed, and it seems that in 2003 Tehran even flaunted its progress in its nuclear program as a way to deter the United States from creating a fate for the Iranian government similar to that of Hussein’s regime. In addition, domestically, the regime seems to be using the nuclear program as a nationalistic rallying issue and way for the desperately weak regime to project power.

Beginning in mid-2002, a series of revelations shed light on the extent of the Iranian nuclear program. These discoveries began with information provided by a coalition of Iranian opposition groups based outside Iran—the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI)—that disclosed a uranium-enrichment plant near Natanz, the Arak “heavy water” production plant , and laser-based uranium-enrichment facilities.4 Additional inquiries and visits by IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBareidi and other officials only raised further doubts about the candor of Iran’s past reporting to the IAEA and member states.

Recent revelations indicate that Iran’s nuclear program is expansive and that it encompasses three different routes to obtain the fissile material needed to build nuclear weapons. Tehran could use the spent fuel from either the light-water reactor (LWR) at Bushehr or the heavy-water reactor (HWR) at Arak to obtain plutonium, or it could opt for a uranium-based program employing the enrichment facilities at Natanz and domestic mining and processing of uranium ore.

As part of its uranium route, uranium enrichment has been taking place at several sites within Iran, including the Natanz facility. The Iranians claim that the enrichment is solely for civilian purposes; uranium needs to be enriched to low-enriched uranium (LEU) before it used in civilian nuclear power plants. However, environmental samples taken by IAEA inspectors this year at the Natanz plant and the Kalaya Electric Company uncovered traces of weapons-grade uranium. The explanation that Tehran gave for this weapons-grade uranium, that the imported enrichment equipment must have arrived in Iran contaminated, created even more suspicions because Tehran had never reported the importation of enrichment facilities, claiming that their centrifuge program was indigenous.

The existence of the Arak heavy-water plant and admitted plans to construct a heavy-water reactor is also especially conspicuous. HWRs can produce weapons-grade plutonium more easily than LWRs, so proliferation alarms sound.

Having three distinct routes complicates certain strategies that the United States and other countries might employ, such as military strikes on facilities, to curb the Iranian drive to nuclear weapons. The three alternative routes, along with recent statements by regime leaders, also hint at Iran’s determination to construct such weapons. Most notably, President Mohammed Khatami in February broke with previous Iranian remarks by stating emphatically that Tehran should control the entire fuel cycle of the nearly finished Bushehr LWR, developing the indigenous ability to fuel that reactor and refusing to return the spent fuel to Russia, as Moscow has demanded.5

Khatami also declared that Iran is mining its indigenous uranium reserves as well as building uranium-concentration and -conversion facilities and fuel fabrication plants. Following Khatami’s speech, the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, revealed that Iran also plans to open a uranium-conversion facility at Isfahan. According to Aghazadeh, this plant will refine yellow cake into uranium oxide, uranium hexafluoride, and uranium metal. Aghazadeh did not explain the purpose of uranium metal, which raised further proliferation concerns because uranium metal has few civilian uses but is a key ingredient in nuclear weapons.6

Foreign Pressure

In recent months, the cooperation among the European Union (EU), Russia, Japan, and the United States has been unprecedented in efforts to curb the Iranian nuclear program.

With Iran’s credibility with the major nuclear powers shaken, member states supported the unprecedented September 12 IAEA demand for full cooperation from Tehran and called on it to take such steps as opening its nuclear program to complete inspections by signing an additional protocol to the NPT and explaining previous infractions.7 Otherwise, the IAEA implicitly threatened that the matter would be referred to the UN Security Council. At the same time, Russia, the EU, and Japan suspended significant spheres of cooperation with Iran.

Along with the sticks came some carrots. Concurrently, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany launched a separate diplomatic initiative, eventually convincing Tehran on October 21 to address all “IAEA requirements and outstanding issues,” sign an IAEA additional protocol on inspections, and halt its uranium-enrichment and reprocessing activities. In exchange, the European ministers offered further assistance to Iran’s civilian nuclear program when their concerns “are fully resolved” and support for turning the Middle East into a non-nuclear zone.

The separate European initiative vis-à-vis Iran, while potentially possessing positive elements, succeeded in breaking apart this united front.

Russia’s Relationship

Because of its direct nuclear cooperation with Iran, Russia holds the most direct influence over Iran’s nuclear future. Moreover, Moscow and Tehran also maintain close cooperation and possess mutual interests in a variety of spheres, especially as bordering states.8 Loss of Russia’s strategic backing in a variety of international fora would be a crucial loss to Tehran and a consideration not taken lightly by the regime. Thus, Russian pressure can be a crucial lever on Tehran to curtail its nuclear program. Until 2003, Moscow was a vocal defender of its nuclear cooperation with Iran and the peaceful intentions of Tehran’s nuclear program.

Beginning this year, however, Moscow began to shift position. President Vladimir Putin and senior representatives of the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM) began expressing concern over the Iranian program and, in response to the IAEA reports, began calling on Iran to sign an additional protocol. These concerns began to heat up in February after Khatami’s public statements. When facing critics of its nuclear cooperation with Tehran, Moscow has consistently pointed to its stipulation that the spent fuel from Bushehr be returned to Russia as justification to dismiss proliferation concerns.

Consequently, Khatami’s statement about retaining spent fuel led to new worries in Moscow about whether the Russian-built 1,000-megawatt reactor would be used to develop fissile material for weapons.

The dispute continues to hold up an agreement between Moscow and Tehran on supplying fuel for Bushehr. That dispute remains a matter of contention9 that is impinging on their overall cooperation, and creates an opportunity for use as an important policy tool. Russia does not seem willing to cancel construction of the Bushehr reactor voluntarily, yet in recent months, Russia has been steadfast in refusing to fuel the reactor until Iran reaffirms its agreement to return spent fuel to Russia. Nevertheless, the European initiative will challenge this stance and strengthen the hands of Putin’s critics in Moscow against his policy of Russian cooperation on this issue. However, for Moscow, the dispute is about more than nonproliferation: supply of fuel and storage of the spent fuel from the reactor had been one of the long-term prime financial incentives of this deal to Moscow.

U.S. Reaction

The seriousness of the information being revealed about Iran came at quite an inopportune time for Washington, on the verge of a presidential election year and already burdened with Iraq, Afghanistan, the war on terrorism, North Korea, and potentially recurrent Middle Eastern crises. The administration’s policy on the Iranian nuclear program is less than clear, and there does not even seem to be a senior member of the administration that is either particularly active on the issue or has articulated a detailed U.S. policy. The Bush administration has not even formulated an overall policy toward Iran, nor has Washington succeeded in producing a policy review on Iran.

The recent overall U.S. policy toward Iran has been largely driven by its Iraq policy, its Afghanistan policy, and its attempts to have Iran turn over al Qaeda suspects currently in Tehran’s custody. With U.S. success in Iraq partly contingent on countering Iranian efforts to undermine U.S. policy there, Washington does not seem to have decided if the best way is to deter or to tempt Tehran from further destabilization operations in Iraq. At times, its concerns about Iran’s nuclear policy seem to play second fiddle.

To the extent that Washington does have a policy, it is one of denial and delay, attempting to prevent Iran from importing and developing nuclear capabilities and to delay Tehran’s progress in obtaining such weapons until the day when the current regime is tossed out of power. In the Bush administration’s view, a new regime may decide not to pursue a nuclear weapons program or may not use those weapons to threaten the United States and its allies. In addition, a new regime in Iran may be more stable, and concerns about control of the fissile materials in Iran’s domain may be reduced. Within the administration, some propose a wait-and-see attitude on regime change in Iran while others argue that the United States should actively promote and accelerate regime change.

In light of the October 21 agreement, the U.S. ability to mobilize support for action to contain Iran has been compromised despite Washington’s insistence that all of the conditions of the September 12 IAEA resolution remain in effect. The initial response from the White House was positive but cautious.10

It seems that, although the Bush administration is skeptical about the merits of the October 21 agreement and its ability to prevent Iranian proliferation, the administration has been keen to avoid a showdown with its European allies and with Iran at a time that its agenda is so overloaded. In any case, it would be difficult for the United States to muscle support for real action against Iran if its case were referred to the UN Security Council. Secretary of State Colin Powell later commented that the agreement was a “positive step” but that he did not trust the Iranian pledge in light of their past behavior.11

Europe and Japan

Over the past decade, Europe and Japan have been reluctant to take action against Tehran’s perceived proliferation. However, the recent revelations from the IAEA prompted a shift in their position. The EU implied that progress on a highly sought trade agreement with Iran was linked to its agreement to sign the additional protocol. Japan also conditioned discussions over extensive investments in the Iranian oil sector on the signing of an additional protocol. Europe’s next steps on implementation of the agreement and the anticipated degree of its cooperation with the United States are not clear.

Iran’s Domestic Politics

The debate in Iran has been strongly affected by the growing international concern over Tehran’s nuclear program. This has surprised the Iranian public, forcing Iranians to understand that this current crisis is a serious one that risks further isolation for their country and contributing to a wider debate over the nature of the Iranian regime and its politics.12

The Iranian political system is a relatively active one, and extensive debates both in the parliament and in the press are conducted on a variety of issues, especially domestic ones. Although national security issues have remained the domain of a small number of functionaries—even Khatami has had little influence over foreign policy issues, let alone national security issues—the potentially drastic foreign consequences of Iran’s nuclear program have opened a wider debate on the whole question of the secrecy surrounding Iran’s foreign and security policy decision-making.

This debate encompasses the entire Iranian political spectrum, from hard-line religious figures to reformists. One of the most ardent hard-liners in the Iranian regime, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who serves as secretary of the powerful Iranian Guardians Council, argued in response to the IAEA demands that Iran should follow the North Korean example and withdraw altogether from the NPT.13 On the other hand, a statement by the reformist Islamic Participation Front (IPF), which is the largest bloc in the Iranian parliament, referred to the government’s handling of the crises over the nuclear program by stating that “[t]his is a product of mismanagement, which in turn stems from restricting the decision-making authority to certain closed circles.”14

In addition, the IPF, led by Khatami’s brother, advocated the signing of an additional protocol by arguing that this move is not against the national interest of Iran and would be a step toward building international confidence.

Particularly worrisome to hard-liners in the government was that the nuclear issue is one of the first foreign policy issues that the reformist camp is seriously engaging. Until now, their agenda has focused on domestic issues that are much more critical to their constituency. In light of the reformist camp’s very limited achievements in the domestic sphere, they have been wary to confront the regime on foreign policy issues.

On this issue, however, they have attempted to play a role. On September 3, Iranian politicians called a special closed session of the parliament, or Majlis, to debate this issue and asked Khatami to appear and report on the state’s nuclear policy. It seems that a major factor impelling the reformists to address the nuclear issue was the fear that otherwise Washington might attempt to cut a deal with the current regime: the regime would agree to give up the nuclear weapons program, and Washington would agree to forgo undermining the ruling regime. In private conversations, reformists expressed fear that such a deal could impede political change in Iran.

Nevertheless, it should not be deduced from this exchange that the reformists oppose Iran acquiring nuclear weapons while the hard-liners support this move. Along a wide cross-section of the political spectrum in Iran, including many reformists, there is support for acquisition of nuclear weapons. The reformists, however, wanted to initiate debate to assess the merits of the action and seem mostly supportive of signing an additional protocol in order to prevent Iran’s isolation.

The domestic Iranian debate over the nuclear weapons program is not a particularly informed debate, and it seems that many government officials are not even aware of Iran’s NPT obligations or the dangers inherent in the possession of nuclear weapons and how Tehran’s actions can actually spur an arms race in its vicinity. Most participants in the debate and the general public confuse the right to develop nuclear energy with the right to develop nuclear weapons. The debate is very rhetorical and value-laden in speaking of “rights,” and many Iranians see possession of nuclear weapons as a symbol of prestige. Because much of the current regime’s opposition is very nationalistic, there is a patriotic appeal to acquisition of nuclear weapons. However, when faced with the question as to whether this current regime should acquire nuclear weapons, especially in light of the fact that security issues are controlled by a shadowy and dangerous inner-regime, many in Iran are opposed. It seems that the scientific-technical community that is developing the weapons program (many of them overlap with the energy sector) is predominantly secular, and many of its members are not enthusiastic supporters of the regime and are relatively open to engagement on the nuclear issue.

Iran’s Response to IAEA Challenge

To deal with the IAEA challenge, the regime pulled together an internal committee comprised of many of the leading national security seats of power in the Iranian regime: the minister of intelligence, Ali Younessi; Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi; Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani; the supreme leader’s adviser for international affairs, Ali Velayati; and Secretary of the High National Security Council Hassan Rowhani.

Rowhani, head of the Iranian High National Security Council, has played the leading role in the showdown with the IAEA and in articulating Iran’s policies recently on this issue, while elected officials such as Khatami have played only bit parts. Rowhani led the negotiations with the European foreign ministers and met with ElBaradei during his missions to Tehran. Rowhani’s role in this capacity is especially significant. He has served as the negotiator with a number of foreign governments, including Russia, for aid to Iran’s nuclear program and has helped to secure bilateral intelligence cooperation with a number of states that have been sources of material and technology for Iran.

It seems questionable that the man who has spent so much time in the past decade negotiating deals and frameworks that served the Iranian nuclear weapons program would now be the one to lead its demise. Moreover, on the same day that Rowhani concluded the agreement with the European foreign ministers, he said that “it could last for one day or one year; it depends on us.”15

There was little public response to the announcement of Tehran’s intention to sign an additional protocol, and it seems that the reformist blocs in the parliament support this move. Outside of the meeting with the European ministers, a handful of hard-line demonstrators protested the proposed signing of an additional protocol, and the Tehran conservative daily Jomhuri-ye Islami called it “an everlasting disgrace” that would “bring the curse of future generations on the country.”16 That fact that the demonstration, while extremely small, got extensive coverage by the official Iranian press may indicate that it was orchestrated as a tool to be used in the future, so Tehran can point to “domestic opposition” as the reason for dragging out conclusion of the agreements. 17

A Deal to Be Tested

The Iranian case is a crucial test for the nuclear nonproliferation regime. To be sure, holding Tehran to its commitments will clearly require constant vigilance and a tough-minded determination from the United States and its allies. Yet if Iran follows through, the recent developments are likely not only to prove crucial to Iran and the peace and security of the Middle East but also to offer valuable lessons on how the fragile nonproliferation regime can be strengthened around the globe. If the nonproliferation regimes fail this test, members of the international community will search for new tools to prevent nuclear-weapon proliferation, and the period of this search can be a dangerous stage for the international nonproliferation system.18 The measure of successful nonproliferation policies will not be if the international community succeeded in concluding agreements with potential proliferators or establishing inspections missions in these states, but rather whether these policies actually succeed in preventing proliferation.

Despite the significant strides that Iran has made toward acquiring nuclear weapons, there is room for optimism that the correct policies can deter Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. The European-led October 21 agreement succeeded in averting a crisis and the possibility in the short term of Iran taking drastic steps such as NPT withdrawal. Iran’s implementation of an NPT additional protocol can further complicate its ability to conduct further clandestine activities, although it will not serve as a serious obstacle to Iran’s nuclear weapons program if Tehran decides to continue pursuing it.

Agreeing to the inspections is a double-edged sword in terms of Iran’s potential proliferation drive. On the one hand, it buys time to continue a covert nuclear weapons program, but it also forces it to do so under heightened IAEA scrutiny. Iran may continue to conceal installations from the IAEA inspection even with the protocol signed, and a series of cat-and-mouse games may emerge between Tehran and the IAEA inspectors. A new crisis could later resurface if the results of the IAEA testing continue to testify to prohibited activity. However, if Iran decides to curtail its nuclear weapons program, this European led initiative could give it the proper face-saving framework to do it.

There is certainly reason for skepticism about Tehran’s motives and the agreement it brokered with the European foreign ministers.19 Throughout the last decade, Iran has not been forthcoming about a variety of aspects of its nuclear program, and therefore the credibility of Iran’s commitment should be viewed with caution. Moreover, the European arrangement, even if fully implemented, can help limit the uranium route to nuclear weapons but will have little impact on the plutonium-based aspects of Iran’s nuclear program. In addition, the European deal with Tehran will weaken Russia’s newfound will to suspend cooperation in the nuclear field with Iran, making the completion of the Bushehr reactor by Russia more feasible no matter Iran’s behavior and thus potentially increasing the chances of proliferation through the plutonium route.

Options and Levers

In order to ensure that Tehran’s pledge to the European foreign ministers is turned into an effective tool to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, a number of steps should be taken. One, intelligence efforts on Iran’s nuclear program must be increased and deepened. Intelligence proved essential to tipping off the IAEA in the last year to Iranian violations and will continue to serve this function. Funds should be allocated by IAEA member states to their intelligence services that will allow them to provide adequate intelligence on the Iranian program, and these should provide leads to the IAEA.

Second, a mechanism must be put in place to address the potential plutonium routes for an Iranian nuclear weapons program. The European-led agreement focuses on uranium enrichment and does not pose obstacles to Iran’s plutonium programs beyond additional inspections.

Third, serious efforts should be made to keep Russia on board in checking Iranian proliferation. The most effective way to decrease the importance of the Bushehr reactor as a proliferation source is to maintain pressure on Russia to hold to its stated policy of refusing to provide fuel for the reactor until an agreement on the return of the spent fuel is in place and is enforceable. To minimize proliferation dangers further, Moscow should ensure that the spent fuel is not allowed to accumulate in Iran and is frequently transferred to Russia. Moscow has concrete technical leverage over the program, the potential for excellent intelligence due to the presence of the hundreds of Russian technicians and engineers in Iran working on the program, and the ultimate option of withdrawing its strategic backing from Tehran, which would be a crucial consideration in the calculations of the regime’s leadership.

The Bush administration has been very successful in working with Russia on this issue and should continue to pursue this track, quietly rewarding Putin for this cooperation. For success to continue, the Russian shifts in policy must be presented as not a concession to Washington but as a choice of Moscow.

Care also needs to be taken to ensure that European companies do not take advantage of the new framework to supplant Russian companies in Iran. For years, one of Moscow’s main claims to justify its nuclear cooperation with Iran was that, if it ends this activity, a European or U.S. company would step in and take over the contracts. The fact that the European states offered Tehran cooperation in the civilian nuclear sphere as part of the deal will understandably raise Moscow’s suspicions that the European states are using the October 21 deal also as a way to gain a foothold in the Iranian nuclear market. Thus, Moscow will be reluctant to give up its own cooperation with Iran.

If expansion of civilian nuclear cooperation is to be offered to Iran as part of the October 21 package, Russian state companies should receive priority in receiving the new cooperation contracts, so that they will not feel undermined by the European-sponsored cooperation.

Export controls and especially sanctions on specific countries and individuals that engage in proliferation activities have been especially effective in curbing the illicit cooperation and transfers to Iran from states such as Ukraine, Armenia, Moldova, and China.20 The U.S. Congress should continue to uphold its sanctions on companies and individuals in those states that engage in banned cooperation with Iran and should compel the governments in those states, especially ones such as Ukraine and Armenia, which are major recipients of U.S. aid, to cooperate in this sphere.

The military options for confronting the Iranian nuclear challenge are limited. A military strike such as that carried out by the Israel Defense Forces on the Iraqi Osiraq reactor in 1981 cannot have a similar crippling impact on the Iranian nuclear program, because it is much more advanced than the Iraqi program and is highly dispersed around Iran. A strike on the known facilities (assuming that intelligence information is good enough to identify most of them) could slow down the Iranian program but not eliminate it.

For any of these strategies to succeed, unity and cooperation are essential. The unprecedented cooperation this last year between Russia, the United States, Europe, and Japan is what brought Tehran to terms with the Europeans. Unfortunately, the fact that the European initiative was separate from the IAEA ultimatum and did not include Russia and the United States may have allowed Iran to divide the concerned states and to weaken the united front against it. A united front must be restored.21

The Iranian public must also be encouraged to be more active in preventing the current regime from acquiring nuclear weapons, and IAEA officials and members of the world scientific community should weigh in on that debate and help shape it. The debate in Iran needs to be more informed and should focus on the question, Would they like this regime to acquire nuclear weapons? The scientific community and greater professional energy community in Iran should be engaged and encouraged not to help this regime acquire nuclear weapons.

The Iranian public should be made aware that Iran is going into an unstable and potentially chaotic domestic period; the presence of fissile materials on which central control may diminish would pose not just a danger in terms of proliferation and world terror but also to the citizens of Iran themselves. Concerned scientists in Iran as well as the international community should have a contingency plan in place in the event of domestic turmoil in Iran to secure the fissile materials and facilities from diversion. In debating its nuclear options, the regime itself in Tehran should be aware that the largest threat to its power is internal—the large Soviet nuclear arsenal in no way saved Mikhail Gorbachev and friends from the collapse of the USSR.


1. For instance, in 1992 Iranian agents sought to purchase highly-enriched uranium from the Ust-Kamenogorsk nuclear facility in Kazakhstan and attempted to establish connections with additional nuclear facilities in the country. In addition, Iran and Russia concluded a contract for the sale of centrifuges for uranium enrichment. The deal was cancelled after U.S. President Bill Clinton directly confronted Russian President Boris Yeltsin with evidence on the contract in 1994.

2. Anthony H. Cordesman, Iran’s Search for Weapons of Mass Destruction: Warfighting Capabilities, Delivery Options and Weapons Effects (Washington, DC: CSIS, 2003).

3. Priroda, no. 8 (August 1995), pp. 3-11 (interview with Viktor Mikhailov).

4. An interesting aspect of this year’s revelations on Iran’s nuclear program is the fact that the information provided by the NCRI has been astonishingly accurate. In many political settings, oppositions abroad tend to exaggerate information in order to gain support for their causes against ruling regimes. The NCRI has shown restraint in its reporting on the nuclear program.

5. “Iran Mining Uranium for Fuel,” BBC News, February 9, 2003, available at

6. David Albright, Iran at a Nuclear Crossroads (Washington, DC: Institute for Science and International Security, February 20, 2003).

7. Arms Control Today (October 2003), p. 21.

8. Brenda Shaffer, Partners in Need: The Strategic Relationship of Russia and Iran (Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001).

9. Iran’s nonsensical position that Russia should pay Iran for the spent fuel is making it easier for Moscow to hold fast on this topic.

10. Douglas Frantz, “Iran Accedes to Demands of Nuclear Agency,” Los Angeles Times, October 22, 2003.

11. Reuters, October 24, 2003 (quoting Secretary of State Colin Powell’s interview in Le Figaro)

12. Elaheh Koolaee, Tehran Times, October 20, 2003. Koolaee is a member of the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee.

13. Tehran Friday Prayer Sermon, September 19, 2003, quoted in

14. Jim Muir, “Iran Debates Nuclear Co-operation,” BBC News, September 17, 2003, available at

15. Hassan Rowhani, IRNA, October 21, 2003.

16. BBC, October 22, 2003.

17. IRNA, October 21, 2003.

18. Richard Lugar, “Slap Iran with Stiff Inspections,” Los Angeles Times, October 24, 2003.

19. Ibid.

20. Arms Control Today (September 2003), p. 36.

21. IRNA, October 23, 2003 (English version).


Brenda Shaffer is research director of the Caspian Studies Program at Harvard University. She is the author of a number of articles and books on Iran, including Partners in Need: The Strategic Relationship of Russia and Iran (2001) and Borders and Brethren: Iran and the Challenge of Azerbaijani Identity (2002).