Has Iran met its nuclear goals?

The March 31 deadline for a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme is looming, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry are currently in Lausanne attempting to build a final negotiated agreement.

If a deal is successful, Iran’s uranium enrichment and heavy water-related programmes are likely to be scaled back. The progress of these capabilities was more or less frozen under the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action; experts assess that under a deal, Iran’s centrifuge numbers would fall from current levels and its heavy water reactor at Arak would be redesigned to produce much less plutonium.

Regardless of whether a deal is made or not, Iran’s strategic goals for its nuclear programme will continue to be debated – both inside Tehran and well afar from it. These debates are unlikely to stop. If the US achieves its stated goal in the negotiations, Iran will retain the capability to produce nuclear weapons, but will be permanently held at least one year away from actually doing so. Many will still claim that Tehran wants nuclear weapons sometime down the line.

From a stratospheric perspective, Iran may have already attained its major nuclear objective. Washington has acquiesced to Tehran maintaining some form of uranium enrichment infrastructure, which Iran claims proves its much-vaunted ‘right to enrichment’. (There is still a largely-untold story waiting to be written about how US administrations came to tolerate Iranian centrifuges.)

Iran has indeed developed a uranium enrichment capability that is, in essence, too big to fail. It is rightly proud of this achievement. But look more closely at Iran’s repeated claims of nuclear progress that it has made over the past decade, though, and important shortcomings are revealed.

In fact, Iran has fallen short of almost every declared goal that it has set itself for its nuclear programme. A review by Project Alpha of official IAEA reporting (see table below) has found that almost every deadline Iran has set itself has been missed; almost every major nuclear facility has been finished late. (Indeed, some promised facilities not even been started.)

What is the cause of this shortfall? The two most likely factors are sanctions and mismanagement. Sanctions have prevented, hindered or made more expensive the supply from abroad of nuclear essential goods, technology and expertise; mismanagement within the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran has prevented Iran’s large talent pool of nuclear engineers from flourishing.

A deal that caps Iran’s nuclear programme within internationally-tolerable limits will be a good thing, for many reasons. A very small one is that Tehran will be saved the embarrassment of failing to expand its nuclear programme to the extent that it says it will.

Comparison of Iran’s stated goals for its major nuclear facilities with actual progress, based on IAEA reporting.

Facility

Iran’s stated objective

Was objective met?

Saghand uranium mine

Ore production at Saghand forecast to commence by 2006.[1]

No. IAEA stated in May 2010 that mine did not appear to be in operation.[2] Iran officially began operations in Saghand in April 2013, according to a semi-official Iranian website.[3]

Gachin uranium mine and mill

Iran has stated that, as of July 2004, mining operations at Gachin had started and the mill had been hot tested.[4]

Probably not. A semi-official Iranian website states that the first sample of yellowcake produced in Gachin was sent to the Esfahan Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) in December 2010.[5] Samples of ammonium diuranate from Gachin were received at UCF in March 2009, according to the IAEA.[6]

Ardakan Yellowcake Production Plant

Operational by late 2006.[7]

Probably not. Infrastructure and processing buildings completed in 2004, facility officially started production in April 2013, according to a semi-official Iranian website.[8] IAEA noted construction at site between 2009[9] and 2011.[10]

Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant

50,000 centrifuges to be installed.[11]

No. As of February 2015, there are 16,428 centrifuges installed in the FEP, according to the IAEA.[12]

3,132 IR-2m centrifuges to be installed.[13]

No. As of February 2015, there were 1,008 IR-2m centrifuges installed in the FEP, according to the IAEA.[14]

Esfahan Fuel Manufacturing Plant

Construction to start in 2003, commissioning in 2006, operating in 2007.[15]

No. Process line for the production of fuel assemblies for the heavy water reactor fuel completed in 23 May 2009.[16] First UO2 fuel pellets produced in Feb 2012.[17]

Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant

Operational (UF6 introduced into cascades) in the summer of 2011;[18] total of 3000 centrifuges to be installed.[19]

Partly. Became operational in December 2011,[20] has 2700 centrifuges installed as of February 2015.[21]

Advanced centrifuge models to be used at Fordow.[22]

No. As of February 2015, only IR-1 centrifuges were installed in the FFEP, according to the IAEA.[23]

Arak IR-40 Heavy Water Research Reactor

Operational by 2014.[24]

No. As of February 2015, the IAEA noted that some of the reactor’s major components were yet to be installed.[25]

Reactor vessel to be installed in 2011.[26]

No. Reactor vessel was installed in June 2013.[27]

55 fuel assemblies to be produced by August 2013;[28] another 140 assemblies by August 2014.[29]

No. By May 2014, 11 assemblies, 36 prototypes and one mini assembly had been produced.[30]

Darkhovin 360MW Nuclear Power Plant

To be commissioned in 2015.[31]

No. Construction is not known to have commenced.

Fars 10MW Research Reactor

Operational by 2016-2018.[32]

Unlikely to be met.

New enrichment facility

Construction to commence in or shortly after March 2011.[33]

Not known to have commenced.

New research reactors

Four to five reactors built in the ‘next few years’ after April 2011.[34]

Not known to have been built or commenced.


[3] ‘NuclearEnergy.ir,’ http://nuclearenergy.ir/facilities/, accessed 4 March 2015.

[5] ‘NuclearEnergy.ir,’ http://nuclearenergy.ir/facilities/, accessed 4 March 2015.

[8] ‘NuclearEnergy.ir,’ http://nuclearenergy.ir/facilities/, accessed 4 March 2015.