Everything you need to know about Iran’s nuclear program

To write about the history of Iran’s nuclear program means recounting the story of a Nation which for over 70 years has witnessed a sequence of dramatic events including coup d’etats, revolutions, wars and repression.

Four years after the coup orchestrated by the US to enable the return of the Shah andwhich deposed Mossadeq, Washington and Teheran signed a cooperation agreement concerning civil uses of atomic energy: it was 5th of March 1957. The treaty called for the supply of technology, not covered by secret, for the construction of a research reactor with the intent of boosting development in the areas of energy and medicine. Also part of the agreement was the sharing of information on staff and infrastructure security, the sale of a certain amount of U-235 (6 kg enriched at 20%) which would be sufficient for the initial operations and recharging of what was to become the first Iranian reactor.

Paragraph b of article IX of the treaty explicitly states that no kind of material supplied as part of the agreement could be used for the construction of atomic weapons or the research and development of related technologies. These clauses were in line with president Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” policy, which aimed to assist different Nations(including India, Pakistan and Israel) in investing in nuclear power in the hope that a peaceful use of the technology would prevent its military exploitation.

The following year, partly as a direct consequence of the agreement, Iran became part of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) founded in 1957 and which today counts 169member states.

In 1967 the first 5 Mw reactors, which were built on the grounds of the agreement signed 10 years previously, opened at the Teheran Campus, a part of the Nuclear Research Center; the reactor is still operational today.

The year 1968 represents a milestone in the history of nuclear power and Iran with the signing of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (Npt)which takes us directly to the 1970s when the Shah launched a campaign to extend the nuclear program and hit a target production of approximately 23,000 Mw of energy over a 20-year period: it was 1974.

In that period Teheran did not just look to the US but also turned to Europe to reach agreements for the construction of new plants: talks were initiated with Kraftwerk Union of West Germany for the construction of two 1200 Mw reactors in Bushehr; andwith the French company Framatomefor two additional900 Mw reactors. During the same period Iran invested a good one billion dollars in a uranium enrichment plant,again French, owned byEurodif, a European consortium, and started developing activities relating to the entire uranium cycle, including the extraction of the small amounts it possessed, inSaghandand Gchine, with a parallel agreement to build a second research center in Isfahan.

It was at this point that the United States began to fear they might have made a mistake by supplying Teheran with nuclear technology, and that Iran might some day arm itself with nuclear weapons. They therefore began negotiating a series of limitations to the nuclear program with the Shah. The latter refused these in the name of the Iran’sright to nuclear energy just as likeany other sovereign State.

Five years later, in 1979, the Islamic Revolution succeeded in deposing theShah and establishing the Ayatollah regime, causing the Iranian atomic program to be suspended for a few years. Subsequently the war with Iraq further contributed to setting back Teheran’s atomic research although, with China’s assistance, the Isfahan center was opened in 1984. The two reactors under construction in Bushehr on the other hand were bombed several times during the course of the conflict and the German Siemens, which had taken over from Kraftwerk Union, abandoned the project.

It was during thisperiod that the Ayatollah Khomeini made his famous statement whereby he expressed the intention of using Bushehr’s decommissioned facility for wheat storage.

The nineties saw the relaunching of nuclear development plans in Iran under the supervision of President Rafsanjani. With the help of China, Russia and Pakistan Teheran successfully got back on its feet following the bloody and costly war against Iraq and signed action plans – in 1990 with Beijing and in 1995 with Moscow – to rehabilitate and finalize its atomic infrastructure. With Russia, in particular, Iran agreed to complete the construction of the Bushehr reactors and to equip itself with uranium enrichment plants: according toIAEA studies between 1994 and 1995 Iran received parts for the construction of nuclear centrifuges for a total value of 3 million dollars, to be added to the 2000 components used to build the first series of centrifuges for the Atomic Energy Organization of  Iran (AEOI) at the Teheran research center between 1985 and 1987.

Also in 1994 the AEOI approved the construction of a fundamental plant for uraniun enrichment at Ardakanin the province of Yazd. This is where the production of what in jargon is called “yellowcake” takes place, a uranium concentrate which is then gasified to become uranium hexafluoride (UF6) which can be used in the enrichment centrifuges.  Construction of the Ardakanfacility began in 1999 and in 2003 Teheran admitted to producing this specific compound.

In 1998 the United States expressed their concern regarding Iran’s atomic program and took further action through diplomatic workings with Russia and China to try and limit the countries from passing on technology to Teheran. Already during the nineties Washington had been able to stop Iran from receiving a complete know howand the components to enrich uranium, however Beijing and Moscow took it in turns to satisfy Iran’s requirements; infact there is proof that China supplied projects for the construction of a uranium reconversion plant which is thought to be that of Esfahan.

On March 14th 2000 President Bill Clinton signed a law which imposed sanctions on those organizations or people providing help towards the Iranian nuclear program thereby establishing the first true official act in such a policy.

At the start of 2002 the production of enriched uranium was transferred to the Natanz plant, in a pilot facility with one thousand centrifuges but which on paper was planned to house 50,000, with an estimated enriched uranium production between 3 and 5%. The site was revealed to the public in August of the same year and was visited by the IAEA in February 2003.

In May 2003 the president of Aeoi, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, admitted that the Esfahan reconversion plant was used to convert “yellowcake” into uranium hexaflouride; the announcement came after the Iaea’s inspection in February that same year, of the Iranian nuclear plants. The IAEA submitted a request that Teheran sign a protocol which would allow future inspections, more extensive and thorough, but the Ayatollah refused.

2003 was a crucial year for Iran. In August the IAEA inspectors announced to the world that they had found highly enriched traces of uranium (therefore suitable for making weapons) at the Natanza plant; however Iran declared that the traces were caused by contamination to the equipment which had been bought in other countries. Meanwhile they came to an agreement to sign an additional clause of the Npt treaty which allowedthe carrying out of snap inspections.

In September the IAEA found out that Polonium-210 had been produced at the experimental facility in Teheran between 1989 and 1993. This particular radioactive isotope is used as a detonator in the construction of atomic weapons. The International Agency itself however declared that the amount of radioisotope was extremely limited.

Enrichment at Natanz’ pilot plant was suspended in November 2003, thanks a deal finalized with UK, France and Germany, but Teheran continued to fabricate centrifuges and in December that year the agreement establishing snap inspections was signed.

Meanwhile the search for heavy water reactors, for the production of plutonium used in nuclear weapons, continued and in May 2003 Teheran announced its plan for the construction of a 40 Mw (l’IR-40) reactor at the Khondab site, not far from Arak; the reactor which was to use uranium ore (UO2) was built with the help of Russia. It had been nearly completed when, in accordance with the deal signed with the 5+1, Iran made the reactor inoperative between 2015 and 2016.

In 2004 Teheran announced it had resumed centrifuge production activities but no enrichment activities, and the following year it took up mineral conversion processing which had been suspended at the same time as enrichment. Concurrently it completely opened the doors of the Isfahan plant to the IAEAthat declared that it was not an enrichment plant.

In July 2004 the IAEA reported intelligence source findings that Teheran had attempted to purchase deuterium in gaseous form from Russia. This particular hydrogen isotope, combined with tritium, is used to increase the power of fission reactors, transforming them in “fission-fusion”. French sources reported that Iran had also tried to come into possession of means for carrying out nuclear tests and simulations.

In 2006 Teheran also relaunched the Natanz enrichment facility claiming that it was in accordance with the terms of the agreement reached with IAEA, and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki declared that if the country was going to be denounced the government of Teheran would be forced to abandon its collaboration with the IAEA, starting from the snap inspections.

On February 4th 2006 President Ahmadinejad ordered any cooperation with the IAEA to be stopped. Uranium enrichment processing in Natanz was carried out expeditiously throughout 2006 despite IAEA requests to cease activity. On December, the UN Security Council unanimously voted its first resolution imposing sanctions on Iran, thus opening the way for a decade of economic and trade limitations which were to end only with the JCPOA deal, more commonly known as the “5+1”.

In March 2007, following more reports by the IAEA on uranium enrichment activities by Iran, the UN approved resolution 1747 which imposed stricter international sanctions freezing the assets of 28 organizations involved in Iran’s nuclear and missile program.

In June that same year the Minister of the Interior, MostaphaPourMohamedi, announced: “Now we have 3000 centrifuges in our facilities and we have 100 kg of enriched uranium in our deposits,” and added, “We also have 150 tons of raw material for the production of uranium gas(UF6 A/N)”.

In December an American intelligence report claimed that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that it would not be able to resume it before 2010/2015.

In 2008 the IAEA presented its member States a report pointing out how Iran had continued its nuclear weapons research and listed 18 documents which proved it. Iran defined the report as having been purposefully fabricated and concurrently refused to help the Agency investigate the validity of the report by denying access to the sites.

On September 21st 2009 the existence of another Iranian atomic facility was discovered in proximity of Qom air base.The plant had been built entirely underground to protect it from precision strikes. One month later IAEA inspectors were allowed to visit the new nuclear facility.

Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Iranian nuclear program, announced to the world that Iran was now self-sufficient in the field of nuclear energy and that it could produce the fuel rods for its power plants. It was January 8th 2011, and in September the energy produced by the Bushehr facility started to run along the national electricity network.

In September Iran tried to come to an agreement by proposing complete access to IAEA inspectors for five years in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions. It was the first attempt to reach an agreement since the sanctions had been enforced however the European Union refused stating that Iran first had to meet international requirements.

In November that same year the IAEA published another report containing detailed information on Iran’s attempts to equip itself with nuclear weapons.According to the report Teheran possessed the technology and the know-how for computer modelling of compression and implosion mechanisms; it also stated Iran had carried out testsusing high potential explosives to analyze their effects. With the support of a Russian scientist, VyacheslavDanilenko, it had developed an efficient detonation mechanism and a diagnostic system to monitor experiments as well as, much more disconcerting, a program to equip the Shahab-3missile with a spherical loadable to incorporate all the technology mentioned so far, therefore a first atomic warhead.

In 2012 the IAEA confirmed that uranium enrichment activities had also begun in the Fordow facility in northern Iran. The EU subsequently announced an embargo on Iran’scrude oil and petroleum products. The president of the National Intelligence in January declared to the US Senate that there was no proof that Iran was building a nuclear bomb and CIA director, Petraeus, stated he agreed on this.

­On May 25than Iaea report stated that environmental samples collected at Fordowregistered uranium enrichment levels at 27%, higher than previous values of 20%.

18-19th June2012. The first P5+1 meeting takes place in Moscow, however no agreement I is reached.

On January 20th 2014 Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman of the Iranian nuclear program, stated that Iran had suspended enrichment activities and parallel to this the EU announced the lifting of a number of sanctions for a period of six months. The same year a series of agreements was signed with Russia for the construction of eight new reactors of which the first two in the Bushehr facility.

OnJuly 14th 2015 the parties came to an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. On the basis ofthe Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Iran agreed to reduce its number of centrifuges by two thirds and to limit its R&D activities.