Search
  • blpglobalanalyst

THE IRAN PROJECT PART ONE: IRAN’S NUCLEAR CAPABILITIES

Aimee Hanstein, Eleonore Thibaud, Marco Parks, CENTCOM Team

Week of Monday, May 17, 2021


Iran’s Nuclear Facilities Map[1]


Since the 1970s, Iran has intensified its search for access to the technology that would give it the option to build a nuclear bomb. Iran’s then-Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, intensified the state’s drive toward nuclear weapons in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, following reports of an Iraqi clandestine nuclear program. The Islamic Republic’s nuclear capabilities have gradually increased, and, in response, so have international concerns. Since the beginning, Tehran has denied that Iran’s nuclear program ever had a military purpose despite conclusive evidence that Iran has conducted nuclear weapons-related work up until and likely after 2003. In the past, the reasoning for Iran’s long-term campaign to possess a nuclear weapon may be perplexing given all the international pressure, economic sanctions, and isolation that it has endured because of its prospective nuclear aptitude. Despite these challenges, Iran has continued to develop its nuclear program, which is likely to expand further. If Iran’s nuclear program is not properly monitored, it is likely Iran could use nuclear weapons against countries such as the US and Israel if tensions continue to rise. Nuclear proliferation around the world, in general, is a danger, but when threatened to be used by authoritarian countries with nuclear aspirations such as Iran, Russia, and North Korea, the threat becomes larger and nuclear countries such as Iran could potentially be more interested in offense instead of defense.


Given the context of Iran’s notorious chauvinism and a strong sense of nationalism, Iranians see only greatness in their future—Iran’s nuclear program is a product of this perspective. The quest for nuclear energy, which dates back to Mohammad Reza Shah, who ruled Iran from 1941 to 1979, has become a key to the modern nation’s economy. For many Iranian citizens, the right to enrich uranium to fuel nuclear reactors is first and foremost an issue of sovereignty and modern development. As Iran modernizes, Tehran, strongly supported by the Iranian populace, intends to use its nuclear program as a means to deter, threaten, and, if necessary, attack adversaries, thus buttressing its military, security, economic, and social independence from the outside world.


Iran’s interests in nuclear technology predate the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which structured and increased the program’s capabilities. Its nuclear enrichment program, which started in the 1950s, was initiated by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, emphasizing the state’s power aspirations both nationally and regionally.[2] This industrialization through nuclear development as a means to achieve modernization reflects Iran’s future hegemonic goals in the Central Command (CENTCOM) region. This nuclear evolution was also part of US President Eisenhower’s ‘Atoms for Peace’ initiative, which aimed at continuing nuclear armaments and the peaceful use of uranium enrichment to balance states’ insecurities.[3] Although Iran’s nuclear capability baseline had been built, Western powers withdrew their support; notably, the US ended their supply of enriched uranium fuel and forced the closure of Iran’s first nuclear reactor. Arguably, Iran’s desire for modernization has been driven by Western powers, notably the US. The US has provided the technological means and the scientific training required for the Islamic state to develop such nuclear capabilities. Nevertheless, as this growth started to threaten Western nuclear hegemony, halting the program became a priority, especially amid the Islamic Revolution, which vilified Western powers and made them Iran’s primary concern.


For a few years, Iran’s enrichment program stopped as Ayatollah Khomeini deemed nuclear development ‘un-Islamic’ before being reactivated during the Iran-Iraq war in response to the chemical weapons threat.[4] Due to the lack of technological development post-1979, the Islamic Republic sought cooperation with already established nuclear powers such as China, North Korea, and Pakistan, as the US refused to help. To monitor Iran’s nuclear revival, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) provided technical assistance to its nuclear program to ensure compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). However, the Islamic Republic had started its own arms race in response to chemical weapon attacks perpetrated by Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war. Iranian officials justified restarting the nuclear program to meet the country’s future energy needs and the international prestige associated with it. In 2002, the National Council of Resistance of Iran revealed the existence of undeclared nuclear facilities, including the Natanz Enrichment Complex, highlighting Iran’s aspirations to develop its nuclear weapon, inconsistent with the IAEA’s directives.[5] The international community, through the IAEA, expressed concerns about the potential diversion and military use of nuclear technologies against Western powers (for their lack of support during the invasion of Iraq) and regional threats such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq over political, religious, and diplomatic matters.


In the 2000s, Iran’s nuclear non-compliance posed a great threat to the P5+1, which attempted to resolve the nuclear crisis and contain Iran's enrichment capacities through sanctions and economic incentives.[6] Europe and the US imposed sanctions between 2011 and 2013, including oil embargos and Iran’s economic isolation.[7] In 2015, P5+1 and Iran reached an agreement after years of intense talks. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) marked a 25-year plan to achieve a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear crisis. However, this agreement by relieving the Islamic Republic of its sanctions enabled further development in the shadows.


The IAEA confirmed that Iran violated the enrichment limit in 2019.[8] Even though peaceful enrichment for nuclear energy can be achieved by exportation, Iran’s domestic production signals intentions of resuming its nuclear weapon program. The withdrawal of the US from the JCPOA in 2018 and US President Trump's 'maximum Likely, campaign prompted further nuclear enrichment from the Islamic Republic, as sanctions severely crippled Iran’s economy.[9] Preventing Iran’s weaponization of its nuclear program represents one of the most pressing national security issues for both the US and its allies. This enrichment reached its apogee on April 12, 2021, when Iran achieved 60% enrichment in uranium in response to the attack on the Natanz nuclear facility, which the Iranian government deemed ‘terrorist sabotage.’[10] Iran used the 60% enrichment figure as a demonstration of power to instill fear in the region, notably towards Israel, the potential perpetrator of the explosion in the facility.[11] This figure was also used to obtain leverage during the Vienna talks: the Islamic Republic would potentially reverse such measures if the parties were to meet all of the state’s demands. Post Islamic Revolution, Iran followed a balance of threat narrative, encouraging its constant arms race to balance regional, notably Israel and Saudi Arabia threatening its potential hegemony, and international threats, with the current Vienna talks that aim to mitigate Iran’s nuclear threat. In a state of insecurity, Iran emphasizes its power maximizer goals through, inter alia, nuclear weapons development.


Iran’s enrichment programs and non-compliance to international treaties reflect the country’s constant state of insecurity in the region. The fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s created a neutral area for Iran to expand its power in a world now dominated by the US hegemony. Furthermore, the defeat of Saddam in 1991 also prompted this ultimate arms race.[12] It is likely that Iran did not seek the nuclear weapon per se, but the threat of having it, or being very close to obtaining it, pressuring Western powers, and creating leverage in diplomatic matters. Iran’s enrichment program is likely to be a response to the threat posed by Israel, the US, and the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war to balance this threat. Furthermore, in 2006, the IAEA’s resolution 1696 suspending Iran’s uranium enrichment led to a crisis that enhanced Iran’s state of insecurity.[13] Economically, sanctions caused a recession in 2012 and 2013 with high inflation and high unemployment rates within Iran.[14] Politically, Iran was now isolated from other states in the Middle East and the world. Militarily, the regime feared attacks from Israel or the US, notably in response to Iran’s hostility towards both states and the potential armament of its proxies in Israel-Palestine and around the Middle East through its nuclear and missile programs. Despite the costs of developing the Islamic Republic's nuclear capabilities, Iran’s leaders deemed that such losses were essential to deter potential attacks and invasion. By isolating its power, Iran is likely to become a threat as it will use its capabilities as leverage in international affairs and a bargaining chip in negotiations with the US, including in the current Vienna talks.


Iran’s growing nuclear power has yielded international condemnation and diplomatic action, spearheaded by the United States. Signed in 2015 by Iran and several world powers, including the United States, the JCPOA placed significant restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Although US President Trump withdrew from the deal during his term, President Biden is currently endeavoring to bring the US back to the JCPOA if ‘Iran resumes compliance, stressing that diplomacy is the best way to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.’[15] If all parties comply, the JCPOA has many strengths that could temporarily resolve the Iranian nuclear issue, such as relieving the Iranian economy and ensuring low enrichment levels, preventing Tehran’s weaponization of its nuclear program. Implementation, however, may be difficult throughout its duration given past Iranian covert nuclear work, failures to abide by agreements, violations of trade controls and sanctions, and pushing against restrictions. Moreover, if the current parameters of the JCPOA remain and Iran fully adhere to the deal, Iran could glide toward nuclear weapons capability in ten to fifteen years. The JCPOA is, of course, not designed to allow the proliferation of an Iranian nuclear weapon. It is the weak parameters and compliance checks of the deal that may enable Iran to acquire a bomb while still adhering to the confines of the JCPOA.


While the efficacy of the JCPOA continues to yield much discord, Tehran has repeatedly breached the nuclear boundaries imposed by the JCPOA since President Trump withdrew the US from the deal. These breaches have recently included enriching uranium past 3.67 percent to 63 percent,[16] ignoring the JCPOA’s provision to limit new research by testing advanced IR-9 centrifuges,[17] and suspending International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) snap inspections of undeclared nuclear sites.[18] The consequence of this rapid nuclear acceleration has been twofold. It demonstrates that diplomatic, mutually agreed-upon nuclear restrictions are the only effective and sustainable means for stopping or, at least, crippling Iran’s nuclear program. Iran, faced with comprehensive and austere sanctions for over four years, demonstrated that while its citizens suffer from a weakened economy, Tehran will continue to push forward with nuclear development, thus rendering the sanctions ineffective. Additionally, Iran’s rapid increase in enrichment in a short period signifies that Iran is likely maintaining higher capabilities than assumed previously—leading to the conclusion that restrictions of the JCPOA may have effectively stifled its development in the past. The second implication has been to pressure President Biden to relent on his goals to expand the JCPOA. As talks to reenter the JCOPA of 2015 are taking place concurrently in Vienna, Biden’s acquiescence to Iran’s pressure is very likely to be secured with the provisions of the JCPOA remaining and Iran enjoying enormous sanctions relief in exchange.


Former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and reimposition of sanctions have substantially impacted the Iranian economy, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic last year.[19] Sanctions led to a strong recession on the Iranian part, with currency depreciation and high unemployment rates. Iran has retaliated against these sanctions by escalating tensions in its proxies, posing a greater threat to international law and human rights. [20] The implications of Iran being involved in regional conflicts such as the Yemen Civil War has led to an alliance between the Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia, concerned about having their regional hegemony taken away by Iran. In recent years, Iran and the US have been targeting their mutual drones, oil tankers, and military vessels in Iranian waters and the Strait of Hormuz, causing greater insecurity in a major chokepoint for international trade.[21]


In addition to the international actors like the US, many Middle Eastern actors are also apprehensive toward a prospective Iranian nuclear bomb. If Iran obtained a bomb, the power dynamics in the Middle East and South Asia would be severely skewed, thus relatively weakening Iran’s key regional rivals, Israel and Saudi Arabia. For this reason, Israel and Saudi Arabia, as two powerful American allies, have influenced the US approach to countering Iranian nuclear ascendancy. The most evident impact of their lobbying has been on opposing the instating of the JCPOA in 2015 and, now, President Biden’s attempts to reenter the JCPOA. If both parties, Iran and the US, reach an agreement on the nuclear deal, Iran’s nuclear aspirations are likely to be slowed, though regional opponents may seek their nuclear deterrent.


Iran’s nuclear capabilities also caused tensions with Israel, fearing an upgraded armament of Hamas and Hezbollah, implicated in the Israel-Palestinian dispute. Israel started perceiving the Islamic Republic as a threat in the late 1990s as Iran started its proxy in the Israel-Palestine conflict through Hezbollah. Iran would not only challenge Israel’s monopoly on nuclear weapons in the CENTCOM region but would also severely threaten the existence of a Jewish state through proxies by supporting Hamas in the Occupied Territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon (inter alia, involved during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel).[22] Israel faces two potential approaches to managing Iran’s nuclear threat: joining the P5+1 in diplomatic discussions or attacking Iran’s facilities directly.[23] In the early 2000s, the intelligence community did not know the extent of Iran’s nuclear program. It was likely that attacking Iran would strengthen the weaponization of its program in the name of fear and insecurity. Furthermore, Iran’s nuclear facilities are scattered across Iran, some closer to highly populated areas and some located underground. Any attacks on these facilities would induce Tehran’s retaliation through proxies, leading to a regional war involving Israel and the Gulf States. The recent Abraham Accords between Israel and Bahrain and Israel and the United Arab Emirates were made as a sign of force against Iran, thus strengthening the alliance between Israel and the Gulf States in the event of said conflict. Finally, considering Russia and China’s opposition to military action against Tehran, despite supporting economic sanctions, could trigger an international crisis that Israel cannot handle considering the pressure of its settlement activities.[24] Nevertheless, although Israel did not confirm the recent attacks, the Jewish state likely opted for the latter option to contain Iran’s threat to its nuclear monopoly and existence.


The JCPOA was one way for the US to mitigate and control Iran’s nuclear capabilities as it held Iran accountable but still allowed it to have a nuclear program. When former President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, he felt that it would hold Iran accountable and that Iran should not have access to nuclear weapons.[25] However, It is likely that Iran already has a nuclear weapon; this can be seen from how far their nuclear program has advanced over the years.[26] If that is the case, the US and the international community can not stop Iran’s nuclear capabilities but can help mitigate them, prevent the development of more weapons, and help prevent them from ever being used.


To make more weapons and further advancement less likely, the United States and other interested countries may seek to discourage Iran from rapidly rebuilding its nuclear infrastructure and reducing the time it needs to begin producing nuclear weapons.[27] In particular, they could explore with Iran an interim arrangement that would temporarily freeze or roll back advances in Iranian nuclear capacity in exchange for some US sanctions relief measures.[28] This is potentially something that might happen during the indirect talks between the US and Iran in Vienna. If tensions between the two countries continue to rise without a deal in place, it is possible, though unlikely, that the US could send troops to the Middle East to prevent Iran from further developing its nuclear program. This is unlikely as President Biden is currently more focused on getting troops out of the Middle East, which can be seen in withdrawals in Afghanistan and Iraq and President Biden’s focus on diplomacy. While under different circumstances, a military presence in the Middle East to confront Iran would be helpful with overall tensions, it is likely to not stop Iran from developing weapons and is likely to embolden Iran to continue their nuclear program.


The IAEA also plays a role in the capabilities Iran will have in the future. It has been monitoring Iran’s nuclear facilities and capabilities; it also publishes reports on Iran and other countries’ nuclear programs. The IAEA has recently said that while the agency has an opening for diplomacy with Iran, it will not be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations between the US and Iran.[29] Given that the IAEA is a UN branch, the move to not be a bargaining chip is good for the IAEA and the UN as it does not show any bias towards any outcome. It has stated that if the aforementioned countries reach a deal, the IAEA will monitor Iran’s commitments, just as it does for any country.[30] While the UN is more Western-thinking based, it still needs to be unbiased, and thus, it ought to allow other countries to have the same access to programs that countries like the US do. While it is reasonable to have concerns about what Iran will do with its weapons, the UN (and the US) could implement a system to monitor their use and limit Iran on when and how it can use these weapons.


If the US and Iran do reenter the JCPOA or even come up with a new deal, the IAEA will likely become more involved along with other nuclear proliferation governmental organizations and non-governmental organizations. It is also likely that overall the UN will become more involved in all diplomatic issues regarding Iran as there will be an increased need to prevent Iran from using these weapons. This is especially true with Israel-Iran relations. If Iran does enter a deal with the US and further enhances its nuclear program, Israel may likely react militarily or through covert action. To avoid another war in the Middle East and a potential war world, the UN and the US will have a duty to step in to prevent this from happening.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) recommends that all parties involved in the current talks between the US and Iran consider all options for mitigating Iran’s nuclear program. CTG also recommends that countries take an unbiased view as influence from countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia could be present and could affect the talks in a potentially harmful way and cause future issues between the US and Iran. CTG’s CENTCOM team will continue to monitor Iran’s nuclear developments such as uranium enrichment, weapons being built, new nuclear facilities being built, and the current talks. The CENTCOM team will also monitor any nuclear propaganda that may circulate on Iranian social media through digital targeting and threat hunter duties, and WATCH duties.

________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]Iran’s Nuclear Facilities My Maps”, by Aimee Hanstein, via Google My Maps

[2] A History of continuity in Iran’s long nuclear program, Atlantic Council, December 2020, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/a-history-of-continuity-in-irans-long-nuclear-program/

[3] Iran: Nuclear, NTI, June 2020, https://www.nti.org/learn/countries/iran/nuclear/

[4] Iran: Chemical, NTI, January 2020, https://www.nti.org/learn/countries/iran/chemical/

[5] Iran: Nuclear, NTI, June 2020, https://www.nti.org/learn/countries/iran/nuclear/

[6] The P5+1 refers to The UN Security Council’s five permanent members: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, plus Germany.

[7] The Iranian Nuclear Issue and Regional Security: Dilemmas, Responses and The Future, Department of Political Affairs, Middle East and West Asia Division, July 2016, https://hr.un.org/sites/hr.un.org/files/The%20Iranian%20Nuclear%20Issue%20and%20Regional%20Security.pdf

[8] Iran nuclear deal: Enriched uranium limit breached, IAEA confirms, BBC, July 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-48784786

[9] The ‘maximum pressure’ campaign is a series of sanctions imposed by the US on Iran to cripple its economy and force the country into renegotiating a nuclear deal. By doing so, the Islamic Republic would stabilize its economy, while Western countries would ensure the mitigation of Iran’s nuclear threat.

[10] Iran will enrich uranium up to 60 per cent. Here's why experts say it's part of a dangerous tit-for-tat with Israel, ABC News, April 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-04-14/iran-nuclear-enrichment-natanz-60-per-cent-israel-cyber-attack/100067680

[11] Iran says 60% enrichment meant to show nuclear prowess, is reversible, Reuters, April 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/iran-says-60-enrichment-meant-show-nuclear-prowess-is-reversible-2021-04-20/

[12] The Iranian Nuclear Issue and Regional Security: Dilemmas, Responses and The Future, Department of Political Affairs, Middle East and West Asia Division, July 2016, https://hr.un.org/sites/hr.un.org/files/The%20Iranian%20Nuclear%20Issue%20and%20Regional%20Security.pdf

[13] IAEA and Iran: Chronology of Key Events, IAEA, 2002, https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/focus/iran/chronology-of-key-events

[14] Six charts that show how hard US sanctions have hit Iran, BBC, December 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-48119109

[15] What is the Iran Nuclear Deal?, Council on Foreign Relations, February 2021, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-iran-nuclear-deal

[16] Iran has enriched uranium to up to 63% purity, IAEA says, Reuters, May 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/iran-has-enriched-uranium-up-63-purity-iaea-report-says-2021-05-11/

[17] Iran says nuke program testing newest advanced centrifuge, Associated Press, April 2021, https://apnews.com/article/donald-trump-iran-iran-nuclear-nuclear-weapons-united-nations-7324cb007c43eb8e58ab1bbbcbec963c

[18] Obliged by law, we halted voluntary implementation of Add'l Protocol, Twitter, February 2021, https://twitter.com/JZarif/status/1364166855288623106

[19] Iran - A Threat to Regional and Global Peace and Security, American Jewish Committee, 2021, https://www.ajc.org/iran

[20] The U.S. is Getting A Reality Check In Yemen, Bloomberg, May 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-05-11/the-u-s-is-getting-a-reality-check-in-yemen-with-iran-backed-houthis

[21] U.S. Vessel Fires Warning Shots at Iranian Patrol Boats, The New York Times, May 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/10/us/politics/us-iran-navy.html

[22] Ibid

[23] Iran Natanz nuclear site suffered major damage, official says, BBC, April 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-56734657

[24] Why China and Russia Help Iran, The Diplomat, November 2011, https://thediplomat.com/2011/11/why-china-and-russia-help-iran/

[25] Trump’s JCPOA withdrawal two years on: Maximum pressure, minimum outcomes, Atlantic Council, May 2020. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/issue-brief/trumps-jcpoa-withdrawal-two-years-on-maximum-pressure-minimum-outcomes/

[26] Iran Probably Already Has the Bomb. Here’s What to Do About It, National Review, March 2021, https://www.aol.com/news/iran-probably-already-bomb-192403407.html

[27] Averting a new Iranian nuclear crisis, Brookings, January 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/policy2020/bigideas/averting-a-new-iranian-nuclear-crisis/

[28] Ibid

[29] UN’s nuclear watchdog agency will not be ‘bargaining chip’ in Iran nuclear deal, UN News, March 2021, https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/03/1086092

[30] Ibid

167 views