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Iran’s nuclear efforts in the shadow of coronavirus

Notwithstanding the COVID-19 crisis and a deteriorating economy, Iran is pushing ahead with its uranium enrichment and missile and space programs, as well as its activities in Syria.

A Simorgh rocket is launched during the inauguration of Imam Khomeini National Space Base in northern Iran, July 27, 2017. Credit: Tasnim news agency via Wikimedia Commons.
A Simorgh rocket is launched during the inauguration of Imam Khomeini National Space Base in northern Iran, July 27, 2017. Credit: Tasnim news agency via Wikimedia Commons.
Raphael Ofek
Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Raphael Ofek, a BESA Center Research Associate, is an expert in the field of nuclear physics and technology who served as a senior analyst in the Israeli intelligence community.

In July 2019, Iran began to explicitly violate the July 2015 nuclear agreement. The recent International Atomic Energy Agency report (March 3, 2020) addressed the following breaches by Iran on uranium enrichment:

• Iran pledged to reduce the number of centrifuges in the Natanz enrichment plant to 5,060 IR-1 units and to limit its uranium enrichment to 3.67 percent. However, as of July 8, 2019, it began to enrich up to 4.5 percent.

• The agreement demands that the Fordow underground uranium enrichment facility, containing 2,710 IR-1 centrifuges, including 696 active centrifuges, be converted into a “Nuclear Research, Physics and Technology” center with 1,044 centrifuges cut off from the UF6 feed pipeline (UF6, or uranium hexafluoride, is a uranium-fluorine compound fed in a gaseous state into centrifuges for enrichment).

In addition, 348 unused centrifuges were to be used to separate stable isotopes for use in medicine, agriculture and industry, while the remaining centrifuges were to be transferred to storage at the Natanz plant.

However, on Nov. 9, 2019, uranium enrichment was renewed at Fordow, with 1,044 units in operation, including those intended for stable isotope separation.

• The agreement stipulates that the amount of uranium Iran is permitted to enrich to 3.67 percent is limited to 300 kg of UF6 (the uranium content of which is 202.8 kg). But as of Feb. 19, 2020, the amount of uranium enriched at Natanz and Fordow totaled 1,020.9 kg, or more than five times the allowed amount. Of that amount, 806.3 kg was enriched to 4.5 percent and 214.6 kg to 3.67 percent.

• On Sept. 7, 2019, Iran began to violate the limit to which it had agreed regarding the operation of advanced, high-enriching centrifuges. Contrary to the agreement, Iran is enriching uranium with about 400 centrifuges of advanced models (IR-2m, IR-4 and IR-6). The enrichment capacity of the IR-6 centrifuge is over eight times that of the IR-1.

The latest IAEA report says the agency continues to liaise with Iranian authorities regarding IAEA inspections of natural (non-enriched) uranium particles of an anthropogenic (i.e., man-made) source from an undeclared Iranian site: the warehouse in Turkuzabad, a suburb of Tehran, which was unveiled by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 27, 2018.

According to the BBC on March 3, the IAEA dispatched a document to several member states claiming that Iran had rejected a request to allow inspection access to three other unidentified sites as well. According to the document, the inspectors want to find out if natural uranium is being used at any of the sites from which they are being barred. At another site, the IAEA says there have been activities that are “consistent with efforts to sanitize part of the location.”

Iran’s violations of the nuclear agreement—its raising of the uranium enrichment rate to 4.5 percent and accumulation of uranium in excess of the 300 kg UF6 limit—do not currently have a military aspect. This is because uranium enriched to less than 5 percent is suitable solely as fuel for nuclear reactors and cannot be used for nuclear weapons (for which enrichment to at least 90 percent is required). Iranian officials claim these violations are meant to pressure the European Union into neutralizing the sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States.

However, the main concern about Iran’s future ability to manufacture nuclear weapons are the advanced centrifuges the regime is continuing to develop. Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman for the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, said at a conference at Fordow on Nov. 9, 2019 that the enrichment rate is being increased “based on our own needs and instructions. … [W]e have the possibility to produce 5 percent, 20 percent, and 60 percent, or any other uranium enrichment required.”

Furthermore, on March 27, Kamalvandi announced that on Iran’s National Nuclear Technology Day on April 8 his organization was going to unveil a new advanced centrifuge. (The event was postponed due to the coronavirus crisis.) He added that “some of Iran’s advanced centrifuges have reached a phase where we can industrialize them … [they] can be manufactured at 60 centrifuges per day.”

He even bragged, “Production [enrichment] above 250,000 SWU [separative work units] is definitely achievable, but our goal is to reach one million SWU.” As it takes approximately 5,000 SWU to produce 20 kg of 90 percent-enriched uranium from natural uranium (which contains about 0.7 percent uranium-235, the fissile uranium isotope), This means that Iran is quite close to obtaining enough enriched uranium to construct its first nuclear bomb.

As for Iran’s missile and space program, on April 22 the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) announced the successful launch of the Noor-1, Iran’s first military satellite. This is after several recent failures by Iran to launch satellites into space.

The satellite was launched using a three-stage missile launcher nicknamed “Qased” (“messenger”). Its first stage was based on a rocket fueled with liquid fuel, with the two additional stages fueled by solid propellant. Solid fuel propulsion indicates an impressive advance in Iran’s missile technology.

While Tehran claims the satellite launch was part of a civilian space research and exploration program, U.S. military experts have expressed concern that the program is intended to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles that can threaten the United States with nuclear warheads. Iranian ballistic missiles are also being developed for a 2,000 km range, which could threaten Israel.

On April 29, Iran marked National Persian Gulf Day. There have been recent incidents in the Gulf—regarding which Tehran has claimed paramountcy since the days of the shah—between IRGC ships and U.S. Navy vessels. Also, following Qassem Soleimani’s killing on Jan. 3, Iran launched more than 15 missile and rocket attacks against U.S. bases and targets in Iraq.

Tehran has also continued its military entrenchment in Syria. Despite recent claims by Israeli security officials that due to the Israel Defense Forces’ intense activity Tehran has become a liability rather than an asset to Damascus, Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias, and Hezbollah in particular, seem to be continuing their operations in the Syrian Golan Heights.

Iran’s overall situation is quite distressing. The Iranian people have lost faith in the regime, especially now, in view of the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic. The people (along with the rest of the world) doubt the official casualty figures. As of this writing, the regime is claiming about 110,000 cases and 6,800 deaths, but the true numbers are estimated to be much higher. This distrust became stronger against the backdrop of the authorities’ initial denial of the downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet on Jan. 8 after takeoff from Tehran (most of its passengers were either Iranian or of Iranian origin).

The coronavirus outbreak has dealt a new blow to the Iranian economy, which had already collapsed in 2018 as a result of U.S. sanctions. The Iranian rial plummeted to unprecedented lows and the Iranian street expressed its anger that the regime had wasted so much money on its operations in Syria. According to the London Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat on Jan. 1, 2020, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the damage to the Iranian economy resulting from sanctions by the end of 2019 was $200 billion.

In 1965, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto responded to the development of Indian nuclear weapons by saying: “If we have to feed on grass and leaves, or even if we have to starve, we shall also produce an atomic bomb.” Indeed, in 1972, at the beginning of his tenure as Pakistan’s president, he set his country’s nuclear-weapons project in motion.

It is highly doubtful that the Iranian people are ready to eat grass in order to bring the regime’s dreams of an Iranian nuclear bomb to fruition. Though the mullahs’ goal of becoming a regional power that controls Shi’ite Islam across the Middle East remains unfulfilled, the regime continues to do what it can to demonstrate its power.

The object is to show the world that Iran is not capitulating to the United States in any way—not regarding its nuclear and space programs, and not militarily. It also seeks to project an image of strength to the increasingly resentful Iranian people, as it fears that signs of weakness could bring an end to its rule. However, the regime’s investments in security at the expense of the nation’s welfare may backfire.

IDF Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Raphael Ofek, a BESA Center Research Associate, is an expert in the field of nuclear physics and technology who served as a senior analyst in the Israeli intelligence community.

This article was first published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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