Iran nuclear weapons

The Iranian nuclear weapons program the negotiators aren’t talking about

In November of 2014, it was announced that the nuclear talks with Iran had once again failed to reach an agreement, but the “deadline” had once again been “extended”. They’ve been doing this sort of thing since 2002.

The negotiations used to be about Iran not enriching uranium, pursuant to six UN Security Council resolutions. Now they are about a deal under which the Iranians could continue to enrich uranium but cap their uranium enrichment activities in return for an end to economic sanctions. The negotiators representing the US, UK, France and Germany expressed their disappointment at the failure of the talks but, as always, declared that “serious progress” had been made and vowed to press on. The Iranians didn’t appear to be especially upset. As Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Kamenei said afterwards, the real failure was that the West had not been able to bring Iran “to its knees”. Meanwhile, uranium enrichment continues.

Iran Nuclear Facilities Map


An outsider might wonder why the Iranians aren’t desperate for a deal on enrichment so that the “crippling” sanctions afflicting them could be eased. One reason is that the Iranians have already been able to secure some “limited, temporary and targeted relief” from the sanctions — as a condition just for participating in the negotiations. As the talks have been extended, so has Iran’s access to some $700 million per month from assets the West has “frozen”. That’s about $8.4 billion for the Iranians every year the talks don’t “succeed”. As Senator Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) observed, “The one thing the Iranians didn’t have was time, and now they have 219 days”.

But the more important reason is that, as long as the talks are about uranium enrichment, they aren’t about the nuclear weapons which the enrichment would help to produce.

Enriched uranium is needed both to fuel a nuclear power reactor to generate electricity and to fabricate the explosive core of a nuclear bomb. Only low levels of enrichment are required for a nuclear power plant (2-5%), concentrations of up to 20% for research reactors, and concentrations above 20% only for explosion purposes. Enrichment is achieved through isolating the minute amount of uranium-235 isotope found in uranium ore and running it through a cascade of cylinders spinning at supersonic speeds (centrifuges) to produce progressively higher concentrations. So halting the production of highly enriched uranium (HEU), diluting the stockpiles of HEU already produced, and disabling the cascades of centrifuges which produce the HEU are important to preventing Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

But what about Iran’s other activities involved in making nuclear weapons? As it turns out, they haven’t been on the agenda of the high-level talks for many years, only of a few “technical meetings” involving officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This has obviously been to Iran’s advantage, but it has also provided comfort for those desperate to accept at face value Tehran’s protestations that it has the same sovereign right as any other country to enrich uranium but no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons. If the negotiations spare Tehran from having to answer publicly for its weapons-related activities, it is all the easier to explain away evidence of these activities by arguing that the Iranians may be “hedging their bets” but have not made any definitive decision to build a bomb.

IAEA-ReportIt is less easy to do if one has any familiarity with reports put out by the IAEA in Vienna (Canada has been a member of the Agency since it was founded in 1957). Two reports are especially noteworthy, extracts of which are reproduced below. The IAEA’s 2011 report on Possible Military Dimensions to Iran’s Nuclear Programme and its update in 2014, should remove any thinking adult’s doubts as to Iranian intentions. The links are: GOV/2014/58 and GOV/2011/65.

In brief, the IAEA tells the following story:

  • Iran has had a nuclear weapons program since at least the late 1980s.
  • In 1989, it set up a management structure for the program responsible to the Ministry of Defence, which it has reorganized over the years.
  • At the start, a lot of Iran’s technical knowledge to produce nuclear weapons came from the same underground network which helped countries like Libya. Iran has also been getting help from an unnamed “nuclear weapon state” (Russia? China?), but it has developed considerable scientific and technical capabilities of its own.
  • The program has involved extensive procurement activity, much of it clandestine using false front companies, but benefitting from the fact that many of the components sought have both civilian and military applications.
  • In addition to enriching uranium, Iran has been working on converting highly enriched uranium (HEU) into metal, and casting and machining it into the components of a nuclear core.
  • It has done modelling and calculations on how an HEU device would function.
  • Engineering work has been done on integrating a nuclear device into a missile delivery vehicle.
  • Iran has been experimenting with a multipoint initiation system, with the explosives used having the dimensions of a payload that would fit into the warhead chamber of an Iranian Shahab 3 missile which has a range of some 1300 kilometers. (Iran is also working on a longer range missile.)
  • Iran has been working on the development of safe, fast-acting detonators which can be triggered within a microsecond of each other in order to set off an implosion-type nuclear device.
  • Work has been done on a prototype system for fuzing, arming and firing a nuclear weapon which could explode both in the air above a target and on impact.
  • Iran has conducted a number of practical tests to determine how firing equipment might function over long distances with a test device located down a deep shaft; and it has studied safety arrangements for conducting a nuclear test.

Just hedging their bets. No definitive decision. Really?



Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Report by the Director General

GOV/2014/58, 7 November 2014, Derestricted 20 November 2014

Possible Military Dimensions 

  1. Previous reports by the Director General have identified outstanding issues related to possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme and actions required of Iran to resolve these. The Agency remains concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile. Iran is required to cooperate fully with the Agency on all outstanding issues, particularly those which give rise to concerns about the possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme, including by providing access without delay to all sites, equipment, persons and documents requested by the Agency.
  1. The Annex to the Director General’s November 2011 report (GOV/2011/65) provided a detailed analysis of the information available to the Agency at that time, indicating that Iran has carried out activities that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device. This information is assessed by the Agency to be, overall, credible. The Agency has obtained more information since November 2011 that has further corroborated the analysis contained in that Annex.
  1. In February 2012, Iran dismissed the Agency’s concerns, largely on the grounds that Iran considered them to be based on unfounded allegations, and in August 2014, Iran stated that “most of the issues” in the Annex to GOV/2011/65 were “mere allegations and do not merit consideration”.

Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Report by the Director General

GOV/2011/65, 8 November 2011, Restricted distribution 


Possible Military Dimensions to Iran’s Nuclear Programme  

  1. The information consolidated and presented in this Annex comes from a wide variety of independent sources, including from a number of Member States, from the Agency’s own efforts and from information provided by Iran itself. It is overall consistent in terms of technical content, individuals and organizations involved and time frames. Based on these considerations, and in light of the Agency’s general knowledge of the Iranian nuclear programme and its historical evolution, the Agency finds the information upon which this Annex is based to be, overall, credible.

Nuclear Explosive Development Indicators

C.1. Programme Management Structure 

  1. Sometime after the commencement by Iran in the late 1980s of covert procurement activities, organizational structures and administrative arrangements for an undeclared nuclear programme were established and managed through the Physics Research Centre (PHRC), and were overseen, through a Scientific Committee, by the Defence Industries Education Research Institute (ERI), established to coordinate defence R&D for the Ministry of Defence Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL). Iran has confirmed that the PHRC was established in 1989 at Lavisan-Shian, in Tehran. Iran has stated that the PHRC was created with the purpose of “preparedness to combat and neutralization of casualties due to nuclear attacks and accidents (nuclear defence) and also support and provide scientific advice and services to the Ministry of Defence”. Iran has stated further that those activities were stopped in 1998. In late 2003/early 2004, Iran completely cleared the site.
  1. By the late 1990s or early 2000s, the PHRC activities were consolidated under the “AMAD Plan”. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh (Mahabadi) was the Executive Officer of the AMAD Plan, the executive affairs of which were performed by the “Orchid Office”. Most of the activities carried out under the AMAD Plan appear to have been conducted during 2002 and 2003.
  2. Owing to growing concerns about the international security situation in Iraq and neighbouring countries at that time, work on the AMAD Plan was stopped rather abruptly pursuant to a “halt order” instruction issued in late 2003 by senior Iranian officials. However, staff remained in place to record and document the achievements of their respective projects. Subsequently, equipment and work places were either cleaned or disposed of so that there would be little to identify the sensitive nature of the work which had been undertaken.
  3. Some activities previously carried out under the AMAD Plan were resumed later, and Mr Fakhrizadeh retained the principal organizational role, first under a new organization known as the Section for Advanced Development Applications and Technologies (SADAT), which continued to report to MODAFL, and later, in mid-2008, as the head of the Malek Ashtar University of Technology (MUT) in Tehran. In February 2011, Mr Fakhrizadeh moved his seat of operations from MUT to an adjacent location known as the Modjeh Site, and he now leads the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research. Some of the activities undertaken after 2003 would be highly relevant to a nuclear weapon programme.

C. 2. Procurement activities 

  1. Under the AMAD Plan, Iran’s efforts to procure goods and services involved a number of ostensibly private companies which were able to provide cover for the real purpose of the procurements. For instance, Kimia Maadan was a cover company for chemical engineering operations under the AMAD Plan while also being used to help with procurement for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI).
  2. In addition, throughout the entire timeline, instances of procurement and attempted procurement by individuals associated with the AMAD Plan of equipment, materials and services which, although having other civilian applications, would be useful in the development of a nuclear explosive device, have either been uncovered by the Agency itself or been made known to it. Among such equipment, materials and services are: high speed electronic switches and spark gaps (useful for triggering and firing detonators); high speed cameras (useful in experimental diagnostics); neutron sources (useful for calibrating neutron measuring equipment); radiation detection and measuring equipment (useful in a nuclear material production environment); and training courses on topics relevant to nuclear explosives development (such as neutron cross section calculations and shock wave interactions/hydrodynamics).

C. 4. Nuclear Components for an explosive device 

  1. For use in a nuclear device, HEU retrieved from the enrichment process is first converted to metal. The metal is then cast and machined into suitable components for a nuclear core.
  1. Iran has acknowledged that it received documentation which describes, inter alia, processes for the conversion of uranium compounds into uranium metal and the production of hemispherical enriched uranium metallic components.
  1. This documentation is known to have been available to the clandestine nuclear supply network that provided Iran with assistance in developing its centrifuge enrichment capability, and is also known to be part of a larger package of information which includes elements of a nuclear explosive design. A similar package of information, which surfaced in 2003, was provided by the same network to Libya. The information in the Libyan package included details on the design and construction of, and the manufacture of components for, a nuclear explosive device.
  1. A collection of electronic files from seized computers belonging to key members of the network at different locations included documents seen in Libya, along with more recent versions of those documents, including an up-dated electronic version of the uranium metal document.
  1. In an interview in 2007 with a member of the clandestine nuclear supply network, the Agency was told that Iran had been provided with nuclear explosive design information. The Agency is concerned that Iran may have obtained more advanced design information than the information identified in 2004 as having been provided to Libya.
  1. During the AMAD Plan, preparatory work, not involving nuclear material, for the fabrication of natural and high enriched uranium metal components for a nuclear explosive device was carried out.

 C. 5. Detonator development 

  1. The development of safe, fast-acting detonators, and equipment suitable for firing the detonators, is an integral part of a programme to develop an implosion type nuclear device. There are a number of documents relating to the development by Iran, during the period 2002–2003, of fast functioning detonators, known as “exploding bridgewire detonators” or “EBWs” as safe alternatives to the type of detonator described for use in the nuclear device design referred to in paragraph 33.
  1. In 2008, Iran told the Agency that it had developed EBWs for civil and conventional military applications and had achieved a simultaneity of about one microsecond when firing two to three detonators together, and provided the Agency with a copy of a paper relating to EBW development work presented by two Iranian researchers at a conference held in Iran in 2005. A similar paper was published by the two researchers at an international conference later in 2005. Both papers indicate that suitable high voltage firing equipment had been acquired or developed by Iran. Also in 2008, Iran told the Agency that, before the period 2002–2004, it had already achieved EBW technology. Iran also provided the Agency with a short undated document in Farsi, understood to be the specifications for a detonator development programme, and a document from a foreign source showing an example of a civilian application in which detonators are fired simultaneously. Iran has not explained its own need or application for such detonators.

 C. 6. Initiation of high explosives and associated experiments

  1. Detonators provide point source initiation of explosives, generating a naturally diverging detonation wave. In an implosion type nuclear explosive device, an additional component, known as a multipoint initiation system, can be used to reshape the detonation wave into a converging smooth implosion to ensure uniform compression of the core fissile material to supercritical density.
  1. Iran has had access to information on the design concept of a multipoint initiation system that can be used to initiate effectively and simultaneously a high explosive charge over its surface. Furthermore, the specific multipoint initiation concept is used in some known nuclear explosive devices.
  1. The multipoint initiation concept has been used by Iran in at least one large scale experiment in 2003 to initiate a high explosive charge in the form of a hemispherical shell. During that experiment, the internal hemispherical curved surface of the high explosive charge was monitored using a large number of optical fibre cables, and the light output of the explosive upon detonation was recorded with a high speed streak camera. The dimensions of the initiation system and the explosives used with it were consistent with the dimensions for the payload which were given to the engineers who were studying how to integrate the new payload into the chamber of the Shahab 3 missile re-entry vehicle (Project 111). The large scale high explosive experiments were conducted by Iran in the region of Marivan.

C. 7. Hydrodynamic experiments 

  1. One necessary step in a nuclear weapon development programme is determining whether a theoretical design of an implosion device, the behaviour of which can be studied through computer simulations, will work in practice. To that end, high explosive tests referred to as “hydrodynamic experiments” are conducted in which fissile and nuclear components may be replaced with surrogate materials.
  1. Iran has manufactured simulated nuclear explosive components using high density materials such as tungsten. These components have incorporated small central cavities suitable for the insertion of capsules. The end use of such components remains unclear, although they can be linked to experiments involving the use of high speed diagnostic equipment, including flash X-ray, to monitor the symmetry of the compressive shock of the simulated core of a nuclear device.
  1. Iran constructed a large explosives containment vessel in which to conduct hydrodynamic experiments. The explosives vessel, or chamber, was put in place in 2000. A building was constructed at that time around a large cylindrical object at a location at the Parchin military complex. A large earth berm was subsequently constructed between the building containing the cylinder and a neighbouring building, indicating the probable use of high explosives in the chamber. The Agency has obtained commercial satellite images that are consistent with this information. The Agency has been able to confirm the date of construction of the cylinder and some of its design features (such as its dimensions), and that it was designed to contain the detonation of up to 70 kilograms of high explosives, which would be suitable for carrying out the type of experiments described in paragraph 43.
  1. Hydrodynamic experiments such as those described above, which involve high explosives in conjunction with nuclear material or nuclear material surrogates, are strong indicators of possible weapon development. In addition, the use of surrogate material, and/or confinement provided by a chamber of the type indicated above, could be used to prevent contamination of the site with nuclear material.

C.8. Modelling and calculations 

  1. Studies conducted in 2008 and 2009 by Iran involved the modelling of spherical geometries, consisting of components of the core of an HEU nuclear device subjected to shock compression, for their neutronic behaviour at high density, and a determination of the subsequent nuclear explosive yield. The application of such studies to anything other than a nuclear explosive is unclear to the Agency.
  1. In 1997, representatives from Iran met with officials from an institute in a Nuclear-Weapon State to request training courses in the fields of neutron cross-section calculations using computer codes employing Monte Carlo methodology, and shock wave interactions with metals. In 2005, arrangements were made in Iran for setting up projects within SADAT centres, inter alia, to establish a databank for “equation of state” information and a hydrodynamics calculation centre. Also in 2005, a senior official in SADAT solicited assistance from Shahid Behesti University in connection with complex calculations relating to the state of criticality of a solid sphere of uranium being compressed by high explosives.
  1. Iranian workers, in particular groups of researchers at Shahid Behesti University and Amir Kabir University, have published papers relating to the generation, measurement and modelling of neutron transport. Other Iranian publications relate to the application of detonation shock dynamics to the modelling of detonation in high explosives, and the use of hydrodynamic codes in the modelling of jet formation with shaped (hollow) charges. Such studies are commonly used in reactor physics or conventional ordnance research, but also have applications in the development of nuclear explosives.

C.9. Neutron initiator

  1. Iran has undertaken work to manufacture small capsules suitable for use as containers of a component containing nuclear material. Iran may also have experimented with such components in order to assess their performance in generating neutrons. Such components, if placed in the centre of a nuclear core of an implosion type nuclear device and compressed, could produce a burst of neutrons suitable for initiating a fission chain reaction. The location where the experiments were conducted was cleaned of contamination after the experiments had taken place. The design of the capsule, and the material associated with it, are consistent with the device design information which the clandestine nuclear supply network provided to Iran.
  1. Iran embarked on a four year programme, from around 2006 onwards, on the further validation of the design of this neutron source, including through the use of a nonnuclear material to avoid contamination.

C.10. Conducting a test 

  1. Iran may have planned and undertaken preparatory experimentation which would be useful were Iran to carry out a test of a nuclear explosive device. In particular, Iran has conducted a number of practical tests to see whether its EBW firing equipment would function satisfactorily over long distances between a firing point and a test device located down a deep shaft. Additionally, there is a document, in Farsi, which relates directly to the logistics and safety arrangements that would be necessary for conducting a nuclear test. These arrangements directly reflect those which have been used in nuclear tests conducted by Nuclear-Weapon States.

C.11. Integration into a missile delivery vehicle 

  1. During the period 2002 to 2003 under what was known as Project 111, there appears to have been a structured and comprehensive programme of engineering studies to examine how to integrate a new spherical payload into the existing payload chamber which would be mounted in the re-entry vehicle of the Shahab 3 missile.
  1. Using a number of commercially available computer codes, Iran conducted computer modelling studies of at least 14 progressive design iterations of the payload chamber and its contents to examine how they would stand up to the various stresses that would be encountered on being launched and travelling on a ballistic trajectory to a target. The masses and dimensions of components (see paragraphs 43 and 48) correspond to those assessed to have been used in Project 111 engineering studies on the new payload chamber.
  1. As part of the activities undertaken within Project 111, consideration was being given to subjecting the prototype payload and its chamber to engineering stress tests to see how well they would stand up in practice to simulated launch and flight stresses (so-called “environmental testing”). This work would have complemented the engineering modelling simulation studies referred to in paragraph 60. Some, albeit limited, preparations were also undertaken to enable the assembly of manufactured components.
  1. Iran has denied conducting the engineering studies, claiming that the documentation which the Agency has is in electronic format and so could have been manipulated, and that it would have been easy to fabricate. However, the quantity of the documentation, and the scope and contents of the work covered in the documentation, are sufficiently comprehensive and complex that, in the Agency’s view, it is not likely to have been the result of forgery or fabrication. While the activities described as those of Project 111 may be relevant to the development of a non-nuclear payload, they are highly relevant to a nuclear weapon programme.

C.12. Fuzing, arming and firing system 

  1. As part of the studies carried out by the engineering groups under Project 111 to integrate the new payload into the re-entry vehicle of the Shahab 3 missile, additional work was conducted on the development of a prototype firing system that would enable the payload to explode both in the air above a target, or upon impact of the re-entry vehicle with the ground.
  2. The agency carried out an assessment of the possible nature of the new payload. As a result of that assessment, it was concluded that any payload option other than nuclear which could also be expected to have an air burst option (such as chemical weapons) could be ruled out.


The mission of the Vimy Report is to inject new information that will raise the quality of public discussion on security and defence issues, to do so with impact, and thereby to educate and influence the ultimate decision-makers: citizens and their elected representatives.

Leave A Comment