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29.11.2011: INES 20th Anniversary

The dangers of a military attack on Iran’s nuclear programme

By Stuart Parkinson

There are increasingly vocal demands for military action to halt Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons programme. Stuart Parkinson takes a critical look at the evidence for such a programme and argues that any military attack is likely to make matters considerably worse.

In November, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog, published its latest report on Iran’s nuclear programme. [1] It expressed “serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme”. Economic sanctions against Iran – especially by Western nations – are being ramped up to try force the Iranian government to comply with all IAEA recommendations. Iran, however, protests that its nuclear programme is peaceful and it is being unfairly criticised. Some leading political voices – especially in Israel and the USA – have responded by calling for military strikes to damage or destroy the Iranian programme with the aim being to stop any activity that might lead to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

But is Iran really building a nuclear weapon? And, if it were, would a military attack stop it? Or would it just make matters worse?

Iran’s nuclear programme – an introduction

Iran has declared 15 nuclear facilities to the IAEA. Among these, the principle ones are: [1, 2, 3, 4]
• Nuclear power plants. One operational plant currently supplies electricity to the grid. This 1 gigawatt (GW) reactor (Bushehr-1) began commercial operation just in January this year, nearly 37 years after construction first started. It is a Russian VVER-type reactor fuelled by low-enriched uranium. The nuclear fuel is imported from Russia, although Iran is taking steps to produce its own fuel (see below). The fuel contract with Russia includes the Russians taking back the spent fuel after use. There have also been a number of reports of Iranian plans to construct more nuclear power plants, although these reports are conflicting.
• Research reactors. Three operational reactors are at Esfahan, with one under construction at Arak to replace an aging reactor in Tehran. The main aims of these reactors are officially stated to be the training of nuclear physicists, the production of radioisotopes for medical and agricultural purposes, and basic research. The reactor at Arak is due for completion in 2013 and would use natural uranium fuel and be cooled using ‘heavy water’ produced at a nearby plant.
• Uranium ore mines. Situated at Saghand, these mines began operation in 2005, and are estimated to contain between 3,000 and 5,000 tonnes of uranium oxide.
• Uranium conversion facilities. The main purpose of this facility at Esfahan is to convert uranium ore to a form (uranium hexafluoride) suitable for feeding into an enrichment facility.
• Uranium enrichment facilities. Iran currently has one operational facility to enrich uranium for use in its nuclear power and research programmes. This is located at Natanz in the centre of the country, and contains a pilot enrichment plant (for R&D) and a main enrichment plant. A further enrichment plant is under construction at Fordow, near Qom. The Fordow facility was only revealed to the world in 2009 and this, together with it being located in a military establishment, has raised international concerns.
• Centrifuge production facilities. The Kalaye Electric Company in Tehran manufactures the gas centrifuges which are central to Iran’s uranium enrichment process.

Also of significance is the Parchin military facility which has drawn international criticism for certain suspected activities.

Civilian or military applications?

As with numerous other civilian nuclear facilities around the world, Iran’s too could potentially be used to produce weapons grade uranium or plutonium. [2]

The uranium enrichment facilities in Iran are mainly used to increase the proportion of uranium-235 in uranium fuel from the natural level of 0.7% to the 3 to 5% that is suitable for use in a nuclear power plant. Up to early November 2011, about five tonnes of nuclear fuel enriched to this level (in the form of uranium hexafluoride) had been produced at Natanz and reported to the IAEA. [1] Some further enrichment of material to the 20% level had also been carried out – the intended use being fuel for the research reactor in Tehran. As of November 2011, about 80kg of such fuel had been produced at Natanz. [1] The Natanz facilities are being closely monitored by the IAEA to prevent diversion of the enriched material for unauthorised use.

To construct a nuclear weapon, highly enriched uranium (HEU) – to over 90% – needs to be produced. About 20kg of HEU (in the form of uranium metal) is needed for a basic nuclear weapon. [2] Given the enrichment facilities already available, Iran could, in theory, achieve this by inserting low enriched material back through the enrichment cascades repeatedly. However, IAEA monitoring would quickly pick up such activity. A further problem is the presence of high levels of impurities in Iranian sources of uranium – such as molybdenum – and this could slow enrichment to HEU considerably. [2]

Turning to the plutonium cycle, Iran’s research reactors would be the most attractive way to produce plutonium for use in a weapon. [1, 2] However, the plutonium would need to be produced in sufficient quantities, and would also need to be chemically separated (reprocessed) from other reactor material in order to construct a weapon. Plutonium could also be reprocessed from the used fuel rods that will eventually emerge from the Bushehr power plant, although there are more technical obstacles to this route. The IAEA’s most recent report states that “there are no ongoing reprocessing related activities in Iran” – although it does highlight the possibility of undeclared facilities. [1]

In addition to producing adequate amounts of weapons-usable nuclear material, Iran would of course also need to have a specific programme to build the weapon itself. It was the sections of the November 2011 IAEA report dealing with these aspects that attracted the most media attention. They concluded that “Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device”. [1] However, much of the evidence presented relates to an earlier nuclear weapons programme, which the IAEA acknowledged was formerly ended in 2003. Regarding the situation since, the IAEA report states that “some activities may still be ongoing”, and calls on Iran to provide more information and access to facilities (including Parchin) to clarify the situation. The specific IAEA concerns relate to possible recent nuclear warhead design work, testing of relevant components and efforts to develop secret routes for the production of nuclear material.

Significant doubts have been raised, however, about whether the November IAEA report deserved such high-level political and media attention. A former IAEA director reportedly said many of the concerns were “old news”, while the Arms Control Association, a US think tank, concluded that “a nuclear-armed Iran is still not imminent nor is it inevitable”. [5] Further announcements [6] from the Iranian government in February this year about advances in the enrichment programme are also arguably of limited technical significance, intended more to boost its political standing.

In general, while Iran is gradually improving its expertise in the nuclear fuel cycle – and may be said to be shortening the timeframe to build a nuclear weapon should it take that decision – there is no clear indication that it is actively pursuing that path. There is good reason to believe that it would still take several years following such a decision for Iran to develop all the materials and technologies to have a credible nuclear weapons arsenal. [4] In short, the current IAEA safeguards and inspections that are in place – although incomplete – still offer important barriers to Iran that make it much more difficult for them to pursue the nuclear weapons option.

Military attack – why it would fail and how it would make things worse

Although Iran’s nuclear programme seems to include activities that take it closer to nuclear weapons development, there are major doubts about whether pre-emptive military air strikes (by Israel, the USA or any other country) could both halt the programme and avoid wider, and potentially disastrous, consequences. [2, 4]

To begin with, given the extensiveness, complexity and geographical spread of Iran’s nuclear (and military) facilities, it would require a large number, probably hundreds, of strike sorties to destroy or damage a sufficient proportion of the available targets. It is contradictory to assert that a military strike could both include all key nuclear facilities and be quick and precise. Moreover, many of these targets are in heavily populated areas, which would likely lead to a large number of civilian casualties. Much Iranian technical expertise in physics, engineering and related disciplines is based in universities. Some of these may also be seen as military targets, and casualties would therefore be even higher. [4] An additional concern is that if sites like Bushehr nuclear power plant are hit, the risk of a major release of radioactive material is high.

A further complication is that some of the Iranian nuclear facilities – including the two uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow – are underground. At Natanz, the facility has been buried under more than 15m of reinforced concrete and soil, [2] and at Fordow the facility is being built deep underground. (The possibility of other, secret facilities cannot be ruled out.)

Another problem is that, unless Iran’s extensive scientific and technological know-how was severely curtailed, it would only be a matter of time before technicians re-established its nuclear programme. Although some important nuclear scientists have been assassinated in recent years, it is still likely that enough key personnel would survive future attacks.

Furthermore, it is to be expected that the Iranian population, including the scientific community, would unite around the current government after a military strike from the West and support any subsequent moves to attain a nuclear weapon for deterrent purposes. The Iranian government could then embark on a ‘crash’ nuclear programme. [2] This would first include withdrawing from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, with its detailed inspection regimes and technical restrictions, allowing it to rapidly pursue one of a number of weapons production paths – using either uranium or plutonium. The specific option chosen and the speed with which it would be pursued would depend on the extent of the damage to its major facilities and the degree to which secret stores and facilities are available. Purchases of additional supplies on the black market would add to this capability. The only way to try to prevent such a scenario would be continued air attacks – probably over a prolonged period. A major armed conflict would thus become very likely.

Nationalist anger may also lead to further major consequences. [4] The Iranian government may order its navy to blockade of the Strait of Hormuz – a key route used for global oil trade. Military and paramilitary attacks may also be carried out with the direct or indirect support of the Iranian armed forces. Further military escalation would be likely, and a regional conflict may ensue.

Therefore, it is likely that a military attack on Iran’s nuclear programme would not only fail to stop it, but would accelerate the country’s efforts to gain nuclear weapons – while also inflaming tensions quite possibly leading to regional war and global economic impacts.

Alternative strategies

Although there has been a particular focus on sanctions to try to halt the most controversial aspects of the Iranian nuclear programme, especially in recent months, there is the risk this could entrench different viewpoints and accelerate the onset of military action. Hence there is a strong case for a greater focus on diplomatic engagement. No one is under any illusions of the difficulties of pursuing a negotiated settlement, but the risks could hardly be worse than the military option discussed above.

One area where cautious hope exists is the possibility of a nuclear weapons-free zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East. NWFZs now cover about half of the world’s land surface, and there was renewed interest in the proposal for such a zone in the Middle East at the 2010 review conference of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Indeed, at the time of writing, preparations are being made for an intergovernmental conference on this issue to be held in Finland during 2012. [7]

However, there are many obstacles to success for this proposal, not least Israel’s nuclear weapons capability – it is thought to have at least 80 nuclear warheads [8] – and the ongoing Israel/Palestine question. Nevertheless, this is an option that deserves far greater active support from leading nations, including Western powers. Placing Israel’s nuclear weapons on the negotiating table would be an important step forward in this regard.

A further option is try to initiate collaborative international programmes on renewable energy. Iran has rich solar and wind resources – and is already exploiting its hydro resources. Hence, such programmes could provide an incentive for the nation to start to diversify away from nuclear power, as well as fossil fuels. The DESERTEC proposals provide an example of an existing collaboration in the wider region. [9]

Concluding comments

The confrontation over Iran’s nuclear programme demonstrates both the security difficulties raised by the continued widespread use of civilian nuclear power, and huge risks of armed conflict should a decision be taken to use military action to deal with illicit nuclear activities. This again highlights the importance of prioritising the efficient use of peaceful, renewable energy sources within the global economy.

Dr Stuart Parkinson is Executive Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, UK. His background includes research on a range of energy and security issues.


1. IAEA (2011). Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran. International Atomic Energy Agency. Report by the Director General. 8 November. International Atomic Energy Agency. http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Board/2011/gov2011-65.pdf
2. Barnaby F (2007). Would air strikes work? Understanding Iran’s nuclear programme and the possible consequences of a military strike. March. Oxford Research Group. http://www.oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk/publications/briefing_papers/would_air_strikes_work_understanding_irans_nuclear_programme_and_possib
3. IAEA (2012). Power Reactor Information System. International Atomic Energy Agency. http://www.iaea.org/programmes/a2/index.html
4. Rogers P (2010). Military action against Iran: Impact and effects. July. Oxford Research Group. http://www.oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk/publications/briefing_papers/military_action_against_iran_impact_and_effects
5. Hersh S (2011). Iran and the IAEA. The New Yorker. 18 November. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/comment/2011/11/iran-and-the-iaea.html
6. BBC News online (2012). Iran loads 'first domestically-made nuclear fuel'. 15 February. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-17041135
7. UN News Centre (2011). Finland to host 2012 talks on setting up nuclear-weapon-free zone in Middle East. 14 October. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=40062&Cr=nuclear&Cr1=
8. Federation of American Scientists (2011). Status of World Nuclear Forces. 7 June. http://www.fas.org/programs/ssp/nukes/nuclearweapons/nukestatus.html
9. DESERTEC (2012). http://www.desertec.org/

Update (27/03/12)

Since this article was completed (23/02/12), there have been a number of further developments:
• At the end of February, the IAEA published a further report on Iran’s nuclear programme, [a] stating that it “continues to have serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme”. Continuing operations at Natanz had produced a further 21kg of uranium enriched to 20%, and new enrichment operations at Fordow had produced 14kg. This demonstrated a marked increase in enrichment capability. Iran had continued to refuse access to the Parchin military facility.
• In early March, Iran offered to grant access to Parchin, [b] although negotiations to facilitate this are still continuing. A new round of high-level talks between Iran and six leading nations was also announced.
• Meanwhile, rhetoric from political leaders on all sides ramped up significantly.

Additional references
a. IAEA (2012). (Report leaked to ISIS). http://isis-online.org/uploads/isis-reports/documents/IAEA_Iran_Report_24February2012.pdf
b. BBC News (2012). http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-17269341