Iran’s Conversion and Enrichment Program: Setting the Record Straight

On 17 January, Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist, the director of the Emerging Technologies Program at the Cultural Intelligence Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting fact-based cultural awareness among individuals, institutions, and governments, wrote a long piece in the the National Interest entitled “Eight Ways You’re Wrong About Iran’s Nuclear Program.” In Meme 8, Butt writes:

Iran’s nuclear enrichment program was not covert by initial design. Iran’s nuclear program was kicked off in the 1950s [Author note: If you would like to read a full accounting of Iran's nuclear cooperation with the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, you can read my post from 20 November 2013] with the full encouragement and support of the United States, under president Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program. In 1983, after the Islamic revolution, Iran went—in an overt way—to the IAEA to get help in setting up a pilot uranium enrichment facility. And the IAEA was then quite receptive to the idea. According to an authoritative account by Mark Hibbs in Nuclear Fuel, “IAEA officials were keen to assist Iran in reactivating a research program to learn how to process U3O8 into UO2 pellets and then set up a pilot plant to produce UF6, according to IAEA documents obtained by Nuclear Fuel.” But, according to Hibbs, “when in 1983 the recommendations of an IAEA mission to Iran were passed on to the IAEA’s technical cooperation program, the U.S. government then ‘directly intervened’ to discourage the IAEA from assisting Iran in production of UO2 and UF6. ‘We stopped that in its tracks,’ said a former U.S. official.”

So when Iran’s open overture to the IAEA was stymied politically, they used more covert means to set up their enrichment facilities. Enrichment facilities by their nature can be dual-use, of course, but they are certainly not disallowed under the NPT. Iran’s allegedly “covert” or “sneaky” behavior may thus have been a response to the politicization at the IAEA documented in Hibbs’ Nuclear Fuel article.

A good way to stop the propagation of dual-use nuclear technology is to implement a revamped “NPT 2.0” that explicitly discourages the propagation of nuclear fuel-cycle and nuclear power technology.

The report is absolutely true, but it has little to do with the allegations that Iran conducted weapons specific experiments. Moreover, it also equates conversion and the prospecting for uranium with enrichment. Below are my thoughts based on my research about the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

In January 1979, Iranian Prime Minister Shahpur Bakhtiar – the last Prime Minister appointed by the Shah – formally announced that the $6.3 billion contract for the construction of two reactors at the Darkhovin site and the ENTEC research center with France had been cancelled. In March 1979, the new leadership in Iran appointed Fereydun Sahabi as under secretary of the ministry of energy and as head of the AEOI. Mehdi Bazargan, the first Iranian Prime Minister after the Revolution appointed Sahabi’s father, Yadollah, as the minister of Revolutionary affairs in the new cabinet. Sahabi appears to have been selected for political reasons, rather than any expertise in nuclear issues. The man was a geologist by training and had no experience in nuclear sciences. Nevertheless, the Islamic Republic began to take steps to scale back the Shah’s nuclear program and undertook a review on the plans for the development of nuclear energy. Khomeini, speaking from exile in France, said in January 1979 that all business contracts with American and foreign countries should be reviewed and that those that “went against the interest of [the Iranian] people should be cancelled.”

In April 1979, Sahabi discontinued work on nuclear projects inside Iran, saying “the activities of [the AEOI] were directed improperly in the past …”Sahabi, however, did indicate that Iran would finish the construction of the two reactors at Bushehr and continue to prospect for uranium. Three days later, however, Sahabi described the Shah’s nuclear program as “a program imposed on the Iranian people” and hinted that even the work at Bushehr could be cancelled.

In July 1979, the AEOI announced that the construction at the Darkhovin site had been “stopped completely” and that the fate of Bushehr remained dependent “upon the government’s final and conclusive decision” on the future of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. Sahabi, however, made clear that “henceforth, the AEOI’s mission will be to enhance the country’s knowledge on nuclear energy with a view towards self-sufficiency.”

On 17 June 1980, Abbaspour, Sahabi, and the new Iranian President Abdulhassan Bani-Sadr agreed that the nuclear program had started on the “basis of colonialist imposed treaties” that had led Iran to be more dependent on the Western countries. Mansour Ruhi, an executive at the AEOI, cited Iran’s lack of technological experience as a reason for cancelling the program. However, he did keep open the option of mining for uranium, saying, “Uranium is one of the resources we have to evaluate … “If we don’t use it ourselves, we can always market it abroad.” The three leaders, therefore, recommended cancelling the program for economic reasons.

However, as early as 1981, the AEOI began to experiment with uranium conversion and reduction. Conversion refers to the further purification of uranium yellowcake for enrichment or fuel fabrication. The Islamic Republic chose to take yellowcake (U3O8) and convert it to ammonium uranyl carbonate (AUC – Most states convert from U3O8 into ammonium diurnate, or ADU). The AUC is then converted into uranium dioxide (UO2), then to uranium tetraflouride (UF4), and then uranium hexafluoride (UF6). The actual start of the conversion experiments (1983) coincided with Amrollahi’s January 1983 announcement that “Isfahan had succeeded for the first time to begin operating in one of its most advanced laboratories.” And, it is at this time that Iran approached the IAEA for help. However, after being rebuffed, the Islamic Republic began to withhold information from the Agency about its conversion and enrichment program.

In 1998, Iran reported to the IAEA that it had converted imported U3O8 – which had been exempted from IAEA safeguards – into ADU and then into UO2 at a uranium conversion laboratory (UCL) at the Isfahan Nuclear Research Center. Iran later declared that it closed the UCL at Isfahan in 1987 (Iran had concluded an agreement with China for a Uranium Conversion Facility). Yet, while Iran did declare some work in 1998, it had chosen to keep most of its work secret, until the IAEA began to investigate the program in late 2002/ early 2003. In February 2003, Iran admitted to having conducted undeclared conversion and reduction experiments at Jabr Hayan multipurpose laboratory (JHL) at the Tehran Nuclear Research Center in the 1990s. Iran used 1.8 tons of undeclared uranium that it imported from China in the form of UF6 (1000 kg), UF4 (400 kg) and UO2 (400 kg) for these experiments. Iran had initially sought to downplay its conversion experiments, telling the IAEA that “it had not carried out any research and development or testing, even on a laboratory scale, of other more complex processes (e.g. conversion of UO2 to UF4 and conversion of UF4 to UF6) using nuclear material.”

However, after the IAEA found evidence of depleted UF4 in samples of waste taken at JHL, Iran acknowledged in August 2003 having conducted UF4 conversion experiments on a laboratory scale during the 1990s at the Radiochemistry Laboratories using depleted uranium that it had previously declared to the Agency as process loss. Moreover, as part of these experiments, Iran admitted to having used 45 kg of the Chinese UF4 for dissolution, purification using pulse columns and the production of uranium metal. While the process could have weapons applications – notably the separation of plutonium from uranium using pulse/d columns – Iran likely undertook these experiments to purify UF6 for enrichment tests.

These experiments moved in parallel to the development of the country’s enrichment program. Iran began its initial centrifuge work in 1985. These early efforts were aimed at collecting available literature on design and operation from open sources and academic journals. More robust efforts to secure the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle began in 1986, when Iranian officials met with Pakistani General Zia al-Huq to inquire about purchasing fuel cycle equipment. Zia instructed officials to allow for low-level nuclear cooperation and the initiation of discussions for a nuclear cooperation agreement, but refused to agree to the Iranian leadership requests for the transfer sensitive fuel cycle technology.The Iranian delegation included then President Ali Hosseini Khamenei, Foreign Minister Velayati, and Construction Jihad Minister Bijan Namdar Zangenh. (Khamenei submitted his formal report to Khomeini on 23 January 1986.)

During the meetings, Velayati proposed the establishment of permanent working groups to discuss deepening trade relations and cooperation. Pakistani Minister Yaqub Kahn agreed and proposed expanding cooperation in the oil and gas field. These initial discussions – which were initially overseen by Khameinei – ended in 1987, with the conclusion of a formal nuclear cooperation agreement. The terms of the agreement called for Pakistani nuclear scientists to train a contingent of Iranian nuclear scientists at the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology.

Al-Huq, however, refused to provide Iran with centrifuge technology. In turn, Iran sought out other ways to procure centrifuge equipment from Pakistan. According to Nuclear Black Markets: Pakistan, A.Q. Khan and the Rise of the Proliferation Networks, “One contact [between Iran and Khan] was made in Switzerland, possibly through one of Khan’s long-time associates and regular suppliers, German engineer Gotthard Lerch.” It is unclear who initiated this meeting. Nevertheless, between 1986 and 1987, Iranian officials and representatives from the A.Q. Khan network met multiple times.

Later, during a 1987 meting in the United Arab Emirates, Iranian agents met with S. Mohamed Farouq, a businessman representing A.Q. Khan at his workshop in Dubai. The Khan network allegedly presented the Iranian representative with technical schematics and centrifuge equipment for a centrifuge facility, as well as a list of illicit suppliers in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia. The key interlocutor on the Iranian side was Mohammed Eslami, who represented the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. through a front company. Iran is alleged to have paid Khan $3 million for this transaction.

At a second meeting in Dubai in 1987, Farouq provided Iran with a 15-page document “describing the procedures for the reduction of UF6 to uranium metal and the machining of enriched uranium metal into hemispheres, which are components of nuclear weapons.” Iran maintains that it did not ask for the uranium metal document or information about casting hemispheres, but has admitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency that the decision to clandestinely pursue enrichment technology was approved by the AEOI and Iran’s leadership at the time. The Khan network is not known to have ever provided either document free of charge to any of its other customers. The Islamic Republic has admitted that beginning in 1987, it received some components of two disassembled centrifuges, plus supporting drawings and specifications from the Khan network. The supporting documents described the manufacturing, assembly, and operational processes for the P-1 centrifuge, as well as detailed the design layout for six cascades of 168 machines.

According to Iran’s declaration to the IAEA, “the decision to acquire centrifuge technology was taken by the President of the AEOI [Amrollahi] and endorsed by the Prime Minister of Iran [Mir-Hossein Mousavi]. The Islamic Republic provided the Agency “with a copy of a confidential communication from the President of the AEOI to the Prime Minister, dated 28 February 1987, which also carried the Prime Minister’s endorsement, dated 5 March 1987. In his communication, the AEOI President indicated that the activities “should be treated fully confidentially.”

Thus, while it may be tempting to write off Iran’s enrichment and conversion activities as being in reaction to American pressure on foreign suppliers, the range of experiments – and the lengths to which Iran went to to procure material – suggest a different story all together. For example, as early as 1979, Iranian officials did point out that they were interested in mining for and, perhaps, exporting  uranium. Moreover, the initial outreach to the IAEA to assist with conversion coincided with the reopening of ENTEC, which had only been saved from closure, after Dr. Reza Kazaneh – a holdover from the Shah’s nuclear program – convinced Sahabi to keep the facility open to help deepen Iran’s nuclear expertise. However, in 2003, the Islamic Republic initially told the Agency that the facility was intended “for the conversion of UOC [Uranium ore concentrate, or, yellowcake] into UF6, for enrichment outside Iran, and for the subsequent conversion (at UCF) of: low enriched UF6 into low enriched UO2 (5% U-235); low enriched UF6 into low enriched uranium metal (19.7% U-235); and depleted UF6 into depleted UF4.” However, when the Agency inspected the facility in 2002, inspectors noticed, “that the depleted UF4 process line had been extended to include a process line for uranium metal production.” Iran submitted an updated declaration in February 2003 and indicated, for the first time, that intended to “carry out enrichment of UF6 domestically, up to 5% U-235, as per the declared maximum enrichment level” at the previously undeclared Natanz enrichment facility. (I wont discuss the laser enrichment program in this post, but the uranium metal was of concern because of Iran’s interest in laser enrichment.) Thus, while Iran did declare an interest in conversion and uranium mining, it did not indicate an interest in domestic enrichment. There is a difference. (Critics will say Iran was under no obligation to do so, owing to its interpretation of modified code 3.1 of its safeguards arrangement with the IAEA. Moreover, there are allegations that the Alleged Studies documentation are forgeries. The IAEA claims that the evidence is credible.)

Moving forward, the P5+1 will likely seek to do two things: 1) Roll back the number of centrifuges operating in Iran from 19,000 or so (Only 10,000 or so are actually enriching material) to about 3,500 IR-1 centrifuges. The decrease in centrifuge numbers will, in turn, lengthen the break-out time needed for the Islamic Republic to enrich uranium to weapons grade (they would then have to actually weaponize the uranium); 2) Seek more clarification about the so-called alleged studies, which are electronic documents that suggest a a parallel military enrichment program was established in Iran sometime in 1987. In doing so, the Islamic Republic will have to answer a number of unanswered questions about work related to the production of uranium tetraflouride, the alleged procurement network run out of Sharif University, alleged explosive testing, and the alleged designing of a nose-cone capable of carrying a well-designed nuclear implosion warhead. For Iran watchers, a thorough understanding of the program’s history is necessary, but whitewashing aspects of Iran’s controversial nuclear past are not all that helpful.

* For brevity, I did not include anything on Iran’s negotiations with China, the plutonium separation experiments, or the irradiation of bismuth at the Tehran Research Reactor. Moreover, I also did not discuss the laser enrichment program, or go into any details about the origins of the AMAD Plan at the PHRC. And lastly, this post mostly covers Iran’s actions between 1979 and 1994. I will detail Iran’s work between 1994 and 2003 in a separate post at a later date.

** The bulk of the research for this post was done for my PhD dissertation. The sources are included in the original document.

About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
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2 Responses to Iran’s Conversion and Enrichment Program: Setting the Record Straight

  1. yousaf says:

    Aaron — excellent details — thanks. There are couple of meta-level points: the conversion experiments etc. — as long as they were under safeguards — were legit. Glad you brought up Pakistan. I’d also add India and Israel and say that those 3 should be first served up w/ Ch. 7 treatment before Iran — or any other NPT member is. That was one of the other memes.

    For details see:

  2. aaronstein1 says:

    I agree, but the issue with the conversion experiments is that Iran claimed discrepancies in UF4 accounting as process loss. Moreover, in 2003, Iran initially declared that its conversion experiments were meant to prepare Hex for enrichment in another country, before being returned to Iran for fuel fabrication. Iran changed its declaration in 2003, after the Agency found enriched uranium particles. With that said, I agree with you that the push for a domestic enrichment program was spurred, at least in some small way, by US efforts to block Iran’s program. If one were to play devil’s advocate, one could point to the failure of the Committee on Assurances of Supply (CAS) in 1987 as the reason for the hastening of enrichment work in or around the same time. In fact, that is what Soltaneih told me when I interviewed him last year. I doubt this explanation, however, given the fact that Iran has admitted to starting its enrichment research in 1985 (not to mention the cooperation with American Jeff Eerkens beginning in 1975.) In any case, I enjoyed your article and agreed with 99% of it. I just thought I would add more about the conversion experiments. Many thanks for your comment and for reading the blog.

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