The roots of Iran's nuclear program
It's quest to develop a nuclear program has taken a circuitous path through history – and includes early cooperation with the US.
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Khan said he sent the Iranians to Muslim suppliers in Sri Lanka who did business out of Dubai. But many experts believe Khan himself provided Iran with uranium-enriching centrifuge technology. "Iran obtained its centrifuge designs and initial lot of material from A.Q. Khan," says Jacqueline Shire, a senior analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security.Skip to next paragraph
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Thus began the bob-and-weave period of Iranian nuclear development. While US pressure managed to stop some technology transfer – such as a deal with Russia for laser enrichment technology – Iran's illicit procurement network provided a stream of acquisitions. Typical were the efforts of Mohsen Vanaki, a German-Iranian trader recently found guilty by a German court of brokering the illegal sale of high-speed cameras and radiation detectors for the Iranian nuclear weapons program.
Mr. Vanaki dealt with a Tehran-based front company named Kimya Pakhsh Sharg, according to German court documents reviewed by the Institute for Science and International Security. Vanaki bought the devices from a Moscow-based manufacturer, Bifo Company, falsely naming a Middle East university as the end user. Vanaki was stopped after he was caught trying to buy Swiss-made night vision goggles. But his sentence, imposed in September, was relatively light: 22 months, suspended, and a Є5,000 fine. Prosecutors are appealing, asking that Vanaki spend three years in jail.
In the end, the case may show how hard it is to stop the flow of illicit technology. "A determined smuggler can often evade detection for years," concludes an ISIS report on the subject. "If caught, prosecution is difficult."
UNDER THE SHAH, Iran developed a base of nuclear facilities. After a fallow period of 10 years, Iran's current leadership has finished some of the projects started under his regime – notably the Bushehr light-water reactor – and developed its own extensive network of nuclear sites, via procurement both legal, and not.
That is where we are today. Iran has a large enrichment plant at Natanz, with perhaps 5,000 operable centrifuges, piling up about 2.75 kilograms of low-enriched uranium daily. It has another site for centrifuges, recently revealed, near Qom.
According to the IAEA, Iran now has a stockpile of about 1,600 kilograms of low-enriched fissile material. If they wanted, Iranian leaders could feed that stuff back through the centrifuges, and, in relatively short order, they would have enough highly enriched uranium to make a bomb.
What are Iran's intentions? Tehran's past deceptions, including withholding information from the IAEA, lead many in the West to conclude that Iran wants to at least develop the ability to produce weapons. But that is not the same as having a bomb. No matter how much fissile material a nation has, or how many Project 111-like studies it has run, the construction of nuclear weapons takes time.
"Building nuclear weapons is not like assembling furniture at IKEA," said Greg Thielmann, a senior analyst at the Arms Control Association, at an October seminar on Iran's capabilities. "It is both an art and a science. There is no evidence Iran has completed this work yet and little reason to believe it could do so quickly." •