Photo of Iran’s IR-40 heavy water plant courtesy of Wikipedia. Modified by Curiousmatic.
Iran’s controversial nuclear program has long been a concern to the U.S. and its allies. Here’s what’s known about the program.
In November 2013, an agreement was outlined between Iran and the U.S., along with the nuclear-capable nations of China, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany.
The agreement centered on reducing Iran’s production of uranium to a level unsuited for weaponization, as well as allowing UN inspectors into facilities it previously didn’t have access to.
Iran insists that its program is for peaceful energy-producing purposes only, but other nations such as Israel, a sworn enemy of Iran, worry that this capability could easily be used to produced nuclear weapons.
Iran’s nuclear production
Across the country, Iran has more than 30 known nuclear sites, including uranium mining and enrichment operations, heavy water treatment plants, research facilities and nuclear waste disposal sites, according to the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS).
At its IR-40 heavy water treatment plant, which was scheduled for completion in 2014, Iran could produce 9-10 kg of plutonium yearly, enough for two nuclear bombs, according to (pdf) the Arms Control Association.
However, activity at the plant halted as part of the November 2013 agreement.
Currently, Iran has the capacity to produce highly enriched uranium at its enrichment plants, which can be used both for producing electricity, or nuclear weapons.
Naturally occurring uranium contains about 0.7% of the isotope uranium-235. In order create a nuclear bomb, the concentration of this isotope has to be enriched to 90%, which is done using centrifuges.
Anything above 20%, however, is considered weapons-grade, as it is not necessary for civilian electricity-producing purposes according to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
As of August 2013, Iran had produced an estimated 9,704 kg of uranium enriched up to 5%, and 372.5 kg of uranium enriched up to 20%, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
Under the deal reached in November, the outline of which was agreed to in November 2013, Iran would not enrich uranium over 5%, according to CFR. It would also dilute its stock of 20%-enriched uranium.
According to the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, using current stockpiles, Iran can theoretically produce enough finished, 90%-enriched uranium metal for a nuclear bomb (an implosion-type bomb like the 20 megaton Fat Man) in 3-12 months, if all 9,000 installed centrifuges operate at full capacity.
It theoretically has enough low-enriched uranium for 7 bombs, WPNAC states.
According to ISIS, Iran has yet to enrich uranium above 20% – but the organization speculates that the country aims to produce the necessary quantity quickly enough that it will not be detected by IAEA inspectors.
It’s also not known whether Iran possesses the capability of turning weapons-grade uranium into a warhead, which requires shaping it into an explosive metal with an accompanying trigger mechanism.
According to NTI, Iran has one of the most sophisticated missile programs in the Middle East, with one rocket capable of striking within a 2,000 km radius, capable of reaching most of the region as well as the Eastern parts of Egypt, southern parts of Ukraine, Turkey and Russia, as well as Western India.
However, it’s not clear whether these missiles would be capable of delivering nuclear warheads.