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5 August, 2011

Why We are Right to be Concerned by Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions

Iran’s Nuclear Program could add fuel to the Middle East Arms Race

On 8 June, the Head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, Mr Fereydoun Abbasi Davani announced plans to triple Iran’s capacity to produce 20 percent enriched uranium, transferring enrichment from Natanz to the Fordo plant. Inside Iran, this announcement by a discredited regime drew little comment and was quickly overshadowed by the domestic political theatre of the latest high-profile tussles between Supreme Leader Khameni and President Ahmadinjedad. But it was an important statement because it makes even clearer that Iran’s programme is not designed for purely peaceful purposes.                                                                                                           

Iranhas one civilian nuclear power station and is seeking to build more. All of these power stations need uranium enriched to about 3.5 percent for fuel. So plans to enrich any further rightly prompt questions. 

Uranium enriched to up to 20 percent does have some civilian uses. But not in the civilian nuclear power stations that Iran claims to desire. Predominantly it is used as fuel for research reactors producing, among other things, isotopes for medical use. These are very efficient: one research reactor in Belgium is capable of producing almost all the medical isotopes needed across the whole of Western Europe.

Iranhas one research reactor. The plans announced by Mr Davani would provide more than four times its annual fuel requirements. Yet this reactor is already capable of producing enough radioisotopes for up to 1 million medical investigations per year – already comparable to the UK and much more than Iran needs. The plan would also require diverting at least half of Iran’s current annual output of 3.5 percent enriched uranium, and so deny it to Iran’s nuclear power stations.  If Iran is serious about developing civil nuclear energy, why divert limited materials and resources from the civil energy programme in this way, while spurning offers from the outside world, including the E3+3 countries of the UK, China, France, Germany, Russia and the US, of technological assistance for Iran’s peaceful use of nuclear energy?

Yet there is one clear purpose for this enriched uranium.  Enrichment from natural uranium to 20 percent is the most time-consuming and resource-intensive step in making the highly enriched uranium required for a nuclear weapon. And when enough 20 percent enriched uranium is accumulated at the underground facility at Qom, it would take only two or three months of additional work to convert this into weapons grade material. There would remain technical challenges to actually producing a bomb, but Iran would be a significant step closer.

Iran’s intensified uranium enrichment is envisaged to take place at a previously covert site, buried deep beneath the mountains. The fact that it claims to allow IAEA monitoring is not a safeguard at the current time. Iran has a persistent record of evasion and obfuscation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. It has failed to provide the IAEA with access to relevant locations, equipment, persons or documents. It has not replied to questions from the IAEA on its procurement of nuclear-related items and aspects of its work that could only be useful for developing a nuclear weapon - such as multipoint detonation for the initiation of hemispherical explosive charges – or in plain English, detonators for an atom bomb. Iran has an active ballistic missile programme, including the development of missiles with a range of over a thousand kilometres and carried out a range of missile tests in June.  A reasonable observer cannot help but connect the dots.   

This is not an abstract issue: Iran’s nuclear programme could lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, already the world’s most volatile region. It would be both naïve and a derogation of duty to give them – once again – the benefit of the doubt.

This is why there are already six United Nations Security Council Resolutions that require Iran to immediately suspend enrichment - all ignored by Iran. The latter has so far refused to enter into any negotiations on its nuclear programme until the E3+3 agreed to lift all sanctions and immediately recognise Iran’s right to uranium enrichment. But there will remain no rationale for lifting sanctions until Iran engages in negotiations to address what are well-founded concerns about its nuclear programme. So far, Iran has done the opposite. 

This latest revelation demonstrates the urgency of increasing pressure. The UK is prepared to take action: I have already agreed a further 100 designations to add to EU sanctions last month, and last week announced additional travel bans against known proliferators. Iran may hope that the unprecedented changes of the Arab Spring will distract the world from its nuclear programme. We are determined that it shall not.


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