Iran’s nuclear capability: to produce energy or to obtain the bomb?


Imad Khadduri, Iraqi nuclear scientist

This article was originally published in Arabic on


With the escalation of the American-Israeli media and diplomatic campaigns in the past few years countering the accelerating Iranian nuclear program, justified qualms, from countries adjacent to Iran as well as form military and political strategists, continue to accumulate regarding the nature the Iranian nuclear program and its ultimate intentions.


Gleaning from Iraq’s delusional experience in the eighties of the last century to build its own atomic weapon, a program in which I participated in during my 30 years of work in the Iraqi nuclear program; two questions that seem to be rarely asked in the media blitz come to mind.


Pertinent questions


1 -    Is it in Iran’s interest to constantly attract so much attention to its nuclear program by trumpeting the news at every step of the development of its centrifuge uranium enrichment process while having tried and yet failed to keep secret other suspect nuclear projects such as developing the technology for the extraction of heavy water for use in an indigenously designed and built natural uranium reactor that is capable of producing plutonium that they had embarked on in the early nineties of the last century?  Or Iran’s procrastination for two years before the recent submission of a classified report to the International Atomic Energy Agency that details the casting and manufacturing of the atomic bomb’s core on the grounds that the report was given to Iran in gratuity by the Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Kader Khan and without Iran’s specific request for it, along with the purchased drawing maps of the centrifugal uranium enrichment process? 

Has Iran internally resolved its contradictory intentions and opted for the peaceful pursuit of nuclear energy and hence her boisterous claims on the nuclear enrichment process, or is this media campaign in fact a clever negotiating ploy to gain time for the conclusion of Iran’s military nuclear capability?


 2-    What is the more feasible alternative, an American-Israeli military strike against Iran’s defensive and offensive military forces followed by the destruction of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, or allowing for the hope that a nuclear armed Iran would follow in the steps of other countries that have developed a nuclear military capability and who had then adopted a mature political stance that reflected their content with achieving their ambitions and international prestige and proceeded to employ their nuclear might only as a military deterrent that serves their regional political strategies?


An attempt will be made here to respond to these two questions and to foresee the near term consequences of Iran’s nuclear ambitions based on my humble experience with the short lived Iraqi nuclear weapon program.



The Iranian Nuclear Program


It is relevant to take a quick look at the history of the Iranian Nuclear Program.

It was the U.S., in the early seventies of the last century, who had dangled the nuclear generated electricity carrot to the Shah of Iran and had offered to build 5 to 7 nuclear power plants throughout Iran.


However, ran was shocked by the exorbitant cost of the American plants, and opted for two power plants from the German Kraftwerkunion/Siemens who commenced their construction at Bushehr in 1974.


The first of these two reactors, slated for operation in 1981, was 85% completed when the Islamic Revolution in Iran broke out in 1979.


Before that, the U.S. had already granted Iran a research reactor which was built and commissioned in Tehran University in 1967.


It is worth mentioning that the same research reactor was originally intended for Iraq as a gift under President Eisenhower’s “Atom for Peace” program. Its first shipment was about to arrive to the Iraqi port of Basra in the summer of 1958 when Iraq’s July revolution erupted. Accordingly, the U.S. decided to change the destination of the ship and directed it to unload its cargo at an Iranian port. During the same year of 1967, a Russian research reactor commenced operation in Tuwaitha, near Baghdad.


The pace of work at the Bushehr plants stalled down considerably following the success of the Iranian Islamic revolution. However, with the escalation of the Iraqi-Iranian armed conflict, the two plants were severely bombarded by the Iraqi air force in 1987.


Iran later endeavoured to revive its nuclear program for peaceful purposes and succeeded in contracting the Soviet Union in 1995 to rebuild the two damaged German reactors into Russian equivalent plants. Both reactors are slated for operation in 2008-2009.


But is that the prime purpose of Iran’s nuclear ambition? The facts dictate otherwise.


It is essential to emphasis that the acquisition of a national nuclear weapon requires foremost a political decision. For example, the Pakistani President, Zulfigar Ali Bhutto, upon China’s first nuclear test in 1964, became convinced that India will persistently follow the path of acquiring its own nuclear weapon, and decreed in 1965 that Pakistan should obtain its own bomb “even if we have to eat grass and leaves”.


Similarly, the Iraqi leadership determined to embark on its nuclear military option in the summer of 1981 following the Israeli destruction of its two French research reactors at Tuwaiha near Baghdad in June of that year.



When did Iran take its decision?


This will remain a state secret until either Iran declares it officially upon acquiring or testing its nuclear weapon or until an Iranian nuclear scientist, or a dissident leading political member, both of which are remote possibilities, dares to reveal such information.


However, certain decisions and steps that were taken by Iran in the early nineties of the last century, as will be detailed below, positively indicate that Iran might have made its political decision either following the 1987 destruction of the Bushehr reactors by the Iraqi forces, or following the first Gulf war and the destruction of all Iraqi nuclear facilities either through American bombardment or by the International Agency for Atomic Energy inspection teams in 1991.


Iran might well have learned from, or was stunned by, the success of the Iraqi nuclear military program and the nascent acquisition of its highly enriched uranium. Iran might very well have decided to proceed forth with adopting the two nuclear military paths, namely, the concurrent acquisition of plutonium and the highly enriched uranium for weapons assembly.


The atomic bomb which the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, was of the military grade uranium, while the Nagasaki bomb, dropped in August 9, 1945, employed the plutonium core.


Commencing in 1996, Iran embarked on the construction of a heavy water plant assembly in Arak,  near the center of the country. The plant started its production of heavy water on an industrial scale in 2006. Its location and scope became known only when Iranian dissidents revealed its existence in 2002.


Concurrently, Iran commenced in 2004 to construct an indigenously designed 40 MW reactor in the vicinity of the heavy water plant that employs heavy water and Iranian natural (not enriched) uranium.



Why did Iran select this type of reactor?


This type of reactor, and with the above stated power of 40 MW, is capable of producing sufficient quantities of plutonium for nuclear weapons. It is of the same type and power of each of the French reactor in Dimona which has provided Israel with its over 200 atomic bombs, and the Canadian reactor which allowed India to obtain its nuclear weapon, and the Pakistani reactor in Khushab.


Iran claims that its selection of such a reactor, which is expected to become operational in 2009, is primarily intended for scientific research and the production of radioisotopes for medical and agricultural utilisation. It further augments its argument for this type of reactor in that it deploys natural uranium, which is available in Iran.


The capacity of the reactor (40 MW) is rather large for the claimed aims. A 10 MW heavy water moderated reactor would have been sufficient for the declared purposes. Furthermore, Iran has by now well overcome the obstacle of the availability of nuclear fuel by its success in the centrifugal uranium enrichment process.


The looming impetus for this particular reactor is the production of plutonium for military purposes. In that case, there is no deterrence form its achieving its goal save the continued and strict surveillance by the International Atomic Energy Agency of its burned fuel. Unfortunately, this option is fraught with tension and liable to interruption as recent diplomatic events have proven.


In the event that this constraint is abandoned or overridden, Iran will be able to extract plutonium from its burned fuel by utilising the reactor’s hot cells. However, in this eventuality, the reactor may well be subjected to an aerial bombardment, which is impossible to defend against. The same eventuality applies to all other large size atomic plants in Iran, such as the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, located between Isfahan and Kashan, which houses the centrifugal uranium enrichment process and the laser enrichment process.


It is here that Iran had intelligently absorbed its lessons from the demise of the Iraqi experience by focusing on the centrifugal process technology that surpasses other enrichment processes by far in the ease of concealing these equipments, piece wise, in buildings that can not be located by satellite surveillance.


In this regards, it is most likely that the Iranians became cognizant of the American failure in the winter of 1991- during the first Gulf War which devastated almost all Iraqi nuclear infra-structures – in speciffically bombing the “Al-Atheer” plant, the most important plant of Iraq’s whole nuclear program that was then intended for the design of the nuclear weapon and the manufacturing of the core of the bomb. The plant escaped aerial destruction with only one thermal bomb that hit an electric substation outside its fence. 



The accidental destruction of Iraq’s nuclear facilities


After three months of continuous carpet air strikes, and only in the last week of the aerial bombardments, were the Iraqi enrichment plants at “Al-Safaa” and “Al-Fajer” attacked by an accidental freak bombing.


When the Americans had completed their aerial strikes against all planned targets, they bombed the incongruous “Al-Safaa” complex at Al-Tarmia, 30 kilometres north of Baghdad on the Tigris river after failing to find further targets worth bombarding in that area.


However, next morning, their aerial photography of the bombed location revealed an intensive effort by the Iraqis to salvage as much as possible from the destroyed complex. When they further compared the satellite images of “Al-Safaa” complex with other locations in Iraq that were not hit yet, they realised a stunning resemblance between “Al-Safaa” and that of “Al-Fajer” complex in Sherqat, north of Beiji, which was still under construction. “Al-Fajer” also happened to host the relocated senior nuclear scientists and senior managers and their families in its housing complex to escape the bombings.


The Americans then launched an air strike against the “Al-Fajer” just a few days before the cease fire. It is to be noted that none of the intelligence agencies, whether American, British or Israeli, were able to pre-determine the purpose of these two large complexes until a few months after the cessation of the war and the arrival of the international inspectors.


Importantly, the very close resemblance between the security and intelligence structures that were controlling Iraq’s security in the eighties of the last century – which succeeded in preventing enemy intelligence from locating important Iraqi nuclear weapons facilities, as verified above - and the present control of the Iranian security agencies signifies the weakness of the Western intelligence’s capability yet it bolsters Iran’s confidence to continue with its nuclear capability with its hidden nuclear structures; namely, the lack of espionage personnel, or “Human Intelligence” in the Iranian nuclear cadre.


In answering the title of our essay; we believe that Iran is endeavouring to achieve both purposes.


In answering the first question; we claim that the ferocity and intelligence of Iranian negotiating skills have provided it with the necessary negotiating umbrella to gain enough time for the conclusion of Iran’s military nuclear capability.



In answering the second question, we assert that Iran has the sovereign right to acquire the full uranium cycle, from production to enrichment to electricity production, for peaceful purposes as long as it abides by the international treaties that govern the use of atomic energy.


However, what remains hidden may be far greater than is obvious.


In conclusion, the U.S. may well double its political folly and blunder and plunder in Iran what it has committed in Iraq.






The author wishes to thank Adib Younes for his assistance in the English translation.