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Obstacles to Iran nuclear deal: Secrets, lies, political infighting

October 14, 2013|By Carol J. Williams
  • Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, shown here at a discussion with academics during their U.S. visit last month, have brought a more conciliatory tone to the debate with Western powers over Iran's nuclear programs. Still, negotiations that resume Tuesday have huge obstacles to overcome to reach a deal that would satisfy foreign fears that Tehran seeks nuclear weapons and Iran's urgent need to get crippling economic sanctions lifted.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, and Foreign Minister Mohammad… (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP/Getty…)

Iran and six major powers have been at odds for a decade over the Islamic republic’s development of nuclear capabilities, at the heart of negotiations set to resume Tuesday in Geneva.

Hopes of budging the high-stakes diplomatic standoff from impasse have been raised by the conciliatory words of Iran’s recently inaugurated President Hassan Rouhani. But many in the West point out that Iran has yet to match its hopeful promises with verifiable deeds to show its nuclear programs aren’t aimed at building atomic weapons.

David Albright, a physicist and founder of the nonprofit Institute for Science and International Security, told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this month that Iran’s nuclear industry investments “often made in secret and dominated by black market purchases, have not been consistent with a strictly peaceful nuclear program.”

Here is an overview of Iran’s suspect facilities, enriched uranium stockpiles and the political posturing that has led to uneven compliance with International Atomic Energy Agency inspections and doubts in Tehran and Washington that leaders can deliver on a deal even if one is reached.


Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant

Iran built the site where it enriches uranium in secret, beginning in 2007, according to the IAEA, which learned of it two years later when President Obama and his French and British counterparts presented evidence obtained from independent satellite monitoring and exile reports. The facility was designed to hold about 3,000 centrifuges and was believed to have achieved full capacity earlier this year. Its two main enrichment halls are built into a mountainside and considered invulnerable to destruction by conventional airstrikes. The United States and its allies – Israel in particular, due to its location within Iranian missile range – have expressed concern that Tehran has located enrichment activity underground to allow it to evade detection, should it decide to accelerate highly enriched uranium output for weapons.

Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant

Iran has increased the capacity of the Natanz facility to house more than 15,000 centrifuges, including more than 1,000 IR-2m models capable of more efficient processing of the type needed for weapons-grade uranium. The buildup occurred as Iran informed the IAEA two years ago that the plant, another underground facility, though not as deeply buried as Fordow, will be producing low enriched uranium (LEU) to a purity of 3.5%; the high enrichment activity will be conducted at Fordow.

Arak heavy water reactor

Analysts describe the facility southwest of Tehran as better suited to making plutonium for nuclear weapons than its stated purpose of producing medical isotopes, for which the Tehran Research Reactor is judged sufficient to meet the country’s needs. Commissioning of the Arak reactor has been delayed to about mid-2014 by sanctions-induced complications in importing some equipment. The Arak facility, intended to produce plutonium, would also give Iran a second fuel, in addition to highly enriched uranium, to power nuclear weapons.

Parchin military site

Suspected of housing a high-explosive testing chamber and related facilities, the Parchin military base has undergone major “sanitizing,” according to Institute for Science and International Security interpretation of satellite imagery, which shows buildings have been razed and soil bulldozed and carried away. While IAEA inspectors were allowed limited access to the base in recent years, they were not permitted to take soil samples or visit areas of the base where prohibited nuclear weapons testing is suspected of having been carried out. Western nations’ fears are that evidence of any bomb testing in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty has been removed. If so, Tehran's pledge of better “transparency” for United Nations inspectors would do nothing to alleviate concerns about Iran’s ability to clandestinely build and test atomic weapons.

Esfahan fuel fabrication facilities

Iran operates three small research reactors, built with Chinese assistance, and a Fuel Fabrication Laboratory that converts uranium to fuel pellets. Esfahan also houses Iran’s largest missile-production facility, also built with help from China and North Korea, according to Albright's institute.

Uranium stockpiles:

According to the IAEA safeguards report in August, Iran has produced 9,704 kilograms of 3.5% uranium, 2,877 kilograms of which has been further enriched at Natanz and Fordow to produce 373 kilograms of near 20% LEU. As of August, the IAEA reported, Iran held 186 kilograms of near 20% LEU, having converted the rest of its stockpile to fuel rods for a medical research reactor.

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