Minatom Finally Concedes Iran May Have a Nuclear Weapons Programme

Publish date: March 14, 2003

Written by: Charles Digges

Amid ever increasing international concerns about Iran's fledgling nuclear industry — which has received substantial technical assistance from Moscow — Russia's atomic energy minister, Alexander Rumyantsev, said he could not say for certain that Teheran was not pursuing a nuclear weapons programme.

Rumyantsev’s statements in an interview this week with the Associated Press represent an almost complete climb-down from his previously unyielding assertions for years past that Iran’s nuclear programme — and Moscow’s help in building it — was entirely peaceful in nature. Most recently, on February 21st, Rumyantsev said that “Iran does not have the capacity to build nuclear weapons.”

In defiance of Western concerns, Russia has been building an $800m, 1000-megawatt light water reactor in the Iran port city of Bushehr, and Russia’s Ministry of Atomic Energy, or Minatom, announced this week that it intends to build a second reactor at the same site. Russia’s role in the reactor project — which includes the on site assistance of some 2,000 Russian nuclear specialists and almost as many Iranian engineers — has been repeatedly criticized by Washington, which asserts the reactor project is a smoke screen behind which Iran is obtaining more sensitive knowledge.

Russian unsure of other projects
Speaking with AP on Wednesday, Rumyantsev said that “while Russia is helping Iran build its nuclear power plant, it’s not being informed by Iran of all the other projects that are currently under way.”

A recent visit to Iran by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, made it clear that Iran’s nuclear programme is far more advanced than initially anticipated.

The IAEA’s director, Dr Mohamed ElBaradei last month visited a facility near the city of Natanz, where he was shown 160 hexafluoride gas centrifuges for enriching uranium, as well as supplies to build hundreds more.

ElBaradei called the technology “sophisticated,” but has thus far refused to comment on his findings in greater detail. Officials in Washington have speculated that ElBaradei is conducting behind the scenes diplomacy before coming forward with a public indictment of what America insists is an Iranian weapons programme. A spokesman for ElBaradei said he would not comment directly on whether ElBaradei was engaged in any back-room brokering over the apparently looming proliferation crisis.

Iran’s indigenous weapons production capabilities
Another worrying development, which preceded ElBaradei’s visit to Natanz, was the announcement by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami that Iran is mining its own uranium and will pursue technologies to reprocess the spent nuclear fuel, or SNF, that is generated from Iranian-produced fuel. That, plus the enrichment facility at Natanz, gives the Islamic Republic an indigenous capability to produce both nuclear fuel and weapons.

The announcement that Iran is mining — and aims to reprocess — its own fuel undermines assurance by Teheran and Moscow that SNF will be shipped back to Russia. Although Iran has pledged to return Bushehr’s fuel, which will be supplied exclusively by Russia, that guarantee is now largely academic given that Iran will be independently producing its own nuclear fuel for other reactors it says it intends to build.

When completed, the Natanz facility is expected to hold 5,000 centrifuges, enough to produce a nuclear weapon per year. The discovery prompted the IAEA to renew pressure on Iran to sign a 1997 protocol that would allow international inspectors greater authority to conduct inspections on short notice and to take advanced environmental sampling. Iran has so far declined to ratify the protocol.

The existence of the Natanz facility was made public in December by an Iranian opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which provided news agencies and the Pentagon with satellite photos showing the Natanz site as well as another site near the city of Arak which is meant to produce heavy water — another route to nuclear weapons.

Natanz direct evidence of weapons programme
Highly placed officials in the Bush Administration say that ElBaradei’s findings in Natanz are direct evidence that Iran is pursuing a weapons programme.

Javad Zarif, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, denied that claim in an interview with The Washington Post, saying that his government has no intention of developing nuclear weapons, but that it would seek to aggressively develop its nuclear power industry because of fears the United States may persuade foreign suppliers, including Russia, China and Ukraine, to stop shipments of nuclear components to Iran.

“We have nothing to hide — we played a very straightforward, transparent game with the IAEA,” Zarif said.

“If the United States did not follow this policy of simply trying to deny Iran access to nuclear technology for any purpose, I don’t think you would have had all these scenarios that we are confronting. Unless the United States changes its behaviour, we will see more of the same,” Zarif said. “The United States does not believe in the IAEA. The United States wants Iran not to have nuclear power, period.”

As a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran is permitted to develop nuclear energy under the supervision of the IAEA. Under the terms of the agreement, Iran is allowed to enrich uranium. It was under no legal obligation to declare the Natanz facility until it began enriching uranium. It is not, however, permitted to produce weapons. But many at the IAEA think that Iran — in violation of the treaty — may already have enriched some uranium at a location that Teheran identifies as a watch factory.

US officials have ridiculed the notion that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are for energy purposes only, and Washington contends that nuclear power makes little sense to a nation so replete with supplies of natural gas.

In his interview with AP, Rumyantsev said Russia was not aware of whether Iran was developing so-called dual-use facilities — facilities that can be used for producing weapons-grade material for nuclear weapons as well as fuel for power generation.

“We have no information about the existence of such dual-use technology because we are only involved in the first phase of a nuclear power plant in Bushehr,” he said.

ElBaradei to elaborate next week
According to the AP, ElBaradei is expected to make a report Monday to the IAEA board of governors about Iran, although it is unclear what he will say.

Meanwhile, Iranian officials said Tuesday that Russia has installed all the major components needed for the Bushehr plant to operate.

“Over 70 percent of the work has been accomplished,” Assadollah Sabori, deputy head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said at a news conference in Bushehr.

“The main thing left is shipping nuclear fuel from Russia, which is expected to take place in May,” he said.

According to, a Russian online publication about the nuclear industry, Russian nuclear fuel giant TVEL this week signed contracts to deliver the first 40 tonnes of fuel to Bushehr by the end of 2003, when the reactor is scheduled to come online.