by Isabel Mank
“The Islamic Republic of Iran has never desired a nuclear weapon and it will never desire to have one in the future,” said Iranian President Hassan Rohani in a statement at the World Economic Forum in January 2014. “We are going to continue with our peaceful activities so that we can use nuclear for peaceful purposes including energy production, electricity production, medical purposes, so on and so forth.”
Despite Iran’s justification to enrich nuclear material solely for peaceful purposes, skepticism exists among the international community. The Iranian regime owns stockpiles of highly enriched (> 20 percent) Uranium. The material enriched at 20 percent is required to produce nuclear medicine, which includes radiation therapy for cancer patients and PET scans to diagnose diseases. Once this amount of Uranium is enriched, it becomes less and less difficult to increase it to 90 percent – the point at which weaponization is possible.
According to estimates by the IAEA, Iran already possesses 185kg of 20-percent enriched Uranium. Furthermore, the stockpile is constantly increasing and is nearly at 250 kg, which is the amount needed to convert Uranium into a weapons-grade material. If the IAEA would have access to the Iranian facilities, they would be able to detect whether Uranium is enriched for power production, medical purposes or weapons. However, the agency has not yet been granted access to all facilities by the Iranian regime, wherefore the transportation of nuclear material to compounds designated for bomb building cannot be excluded as it is not yet controlled.
Nevertheless, enriched nuclear material can be transformed into energy and electricity. Today, around 17 percent of the electricity in the world is produced with nuclear power because nuclear energy has a minor influence on climate change (compared to coal and natural gas power, which emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere). It is an alternative to limited fossil fuel supply, is independent of fluctuating oil and gas prices and addresses concerns about energy security. Yet, there are major negative aspects on Uranium enrichment as well.
Most significantly, nuclear material can be used for the development of nuclear weapons. Nuclear bombs commonly contain the chemical element Uranium, and conditionally, Plutonium. Uranium is generally favored due to the reason that it exists in significant quantities in nature and that it holds fissile material, which is indispensable for the development of nuclear weapons. Referring to the former, Uranium can be found in numerous minerals and appears as a heavy, silvery-white metal that is slightly softer than steel. Naturally occurring Uranium consists of largely two isotopes: up to 0.72 percent Uranium-235 (U-235), which accounts for the fissile part of the atom; and the rest of the less fissionable isotope U-238.
Highly enriched Uranium (HEU) at or about 95 percent, is needed to build an atomic bomb and can be enriched to this point with a variety of techniques. The Iranians use the gas centrifuge enrichment technique in enrichment plants. These are located in different areas than the nuclear power plants or the compounds where bombs may be built. In the centrifuge, centrifugal or extreme spinning force modifies the Uranium by separating the heavier U-238 isotopes from the lighter U-235 isotopes, then the U-235 is then further enriched.
Once it reaches three to five percent it can be used for electricity production in a power reactor, where the fission process – the further splitting of the nucleus into small parts as required to produce energy – can be controlled and halted once a certain atomic mass has been reached. So, as soon as it reaches about 20 percent it can be used in reactors to produce radio-isotopes for medicine and cancer treatment. If the enrichment is higher than 20 percent, the so-called HEU can be used for nuclear weapons. At that point, the Uranium will fissile in an intense chain-reaction once the device is ignited.
According to Rohani at the World Economy Form in January 2014, “[Iran’s] nuclear energy program has never sought, nor seeks, anything other than peaceful applications of this technology. […] I strongly and clearly declare that nuclear weapons have no place in our security strategy and that Iran has no motivation to move in that direction.” Due to the controversy between Iran’s talks and its current nuclear efforts, the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) agreed together with Iran on an interim nuclear deal taking effect on 20 January 2014, in order to assure not only Iran’s compliance in the short-run, but also to create a new balance of power in the Middle East in the long-run.
The so called Joint Plan of Action is set for a period of six months with the objectives to eliminate Iran’s stockpile of highly enriched Uranium, prevent the enrichment of Uranium above five percent, dismantle some of its enrichment-related infrastructure, allow more IAEA inspections, and prevent the construction of more nuclear power plants. Additionally, the IAEA requires several justifications from Iran, for example, regarding the production of specific bomb ignitions, which are beneficial for nuclear weapons as they enable accurate timing for ignition, as reported by the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung.
Nevertheless, in return for the planned talks and compliance, Iran is being relieved from several international economic sanctions. The threat of further economic sanctions on Iran forced the government to the table and to accept the interim deal as the economic instability was causing discontent throughout the Iranian population and so challenged the government and policies of the current President Hassan Rohani.
Iran’s position on nuclear weapons is neither new, nor is it solely within the power of Rohani. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei, head of state and the most powerful political and religious authority in Iran, positioned himself against the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons. He emphasized that cooperation would only be possible once the sanctions are lifted. Subsequently, the rapprochement between the USA and Iran is of historical significance since talks had been frozen between the two countries because of the hostages of US embassy employees taken in 1979 to 1981 in Iran.
And yet, according to Foreign Policy, the Joint Plan of Action is rather hiding the “real issue” with regard to integrating Iran into the world economy and the international community. If the sanctions are not lifted, it threatens regional stability. Therefore, the interim deal and the lifting of the sanctions tries to rearrange a balance of power, hence allowing Iran to position itself within the international community. Israel and Saudi Arabia observe this development with resentment as they fear to lose their present influence in the region. In any case not only Iran, but also other countries such as Israel, own nuclear materials and technologies. Subsequently, high-level talks – currently focusing on Iran and nuclear weapons – will need to continue.