Iran Buckles on WMD
Apr 24, 2003

Stratfor Intelligence


Russia and Iran finalized a deal on April 23 that calls for all spent fuel rods from the not-yet-activated Bushehr reactor to be sent back to Russia for reprocessing. Had Iran reprocessed them locally, as Tehran initially wanted, it could have extracted weapons-grade plutonium -- but the combination of the Iraq war and Russian pressure forced Iran to give up that goal. At the very least, Tehran appears to be toeing Washington's line on WMD. The next issue on the table will be Tehran's plan to mine uranium locally.


The construction of Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor, built with Russian assistance, is nearing its final stages. Tehran has agreed to return spent fuel rods from the reactor back to Russia for reprocessing rather than doing so in Iran, where it might have been able to extract plutonium for possible use in a program to build weapons of mass destruction.

Russian aid is key to the Iranian nuclear program, since Russia is one of the few countries that will assist Iran, which was labeled part of the "axis of evil" by U.S. President George W. Bush. However, both countries have been under extreme pressure for Iran to return the used fuel rods, and Moscow -- aggressively lobbied by the Bush administration -- threatened to squash the deal should Iran refuse.

It was revealed in February that Iran has a much more advanced nuclear program than previously believed -- a great concern to the United States, which has made a habit of preventing countries it deems hostile from developing WMD. International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei visited several Iranian nuclear sites, including uranium enrichment facilities that he declared were on the brink of violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Meanwhile, Iranian President Mohammed Khatami said in March that mining for uranium had begun at Saqand, 200 kilometers from the city of Yazd, and underground uranium reserves were being tapped near Ardakan. Officials stressed that the mined uranium would be used for a civilian nuclear energy program, not for a weapons program. However, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, "We continue to have very grave concerns that Iran is using its supposedly peaceful nuclear program as a pretext for advancing a nuclear weapons program."

Though the United States has not yet been able to influence Russia to cease associations with Iran, other countries have joined the campaign to force Iran into returning the fuel rods. Israel, for one, has applied strong pressure on both the United States and Russia, including visits by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Moscow and discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin solely for that purpose.

The United States may have won an important battle in forcing promises for the return of the spent fuel rods, but one issue remains. Washington will try to prevent Iran, a country it considers extremely dangerous due to suspected ties with international terrorist groups, from continuing to mine uranium locally. If this next step should be achieved, Iran would still have a nuclear program, but it would lack the ability to directly obtain either enriched uranium or plutonium -- making it impossible for Iran to fabricate a nuclear weapon.