What’s Past is Prologue: Hassan Rohani’s Nuclear Legacy

In June, Iran passed an important nuclear milestone. Exactly ten years earlier, Iranian scientists inserted a gas known as “hex”—uranium hexafluoride, or UF6—into a lone centrifuge at the Natanz enrichment facility. It marked the beginning of a decade of uranium enrichment that has brought Iran to the threshold of nuclear weapons. No single act has had more consequence in Iran’s brazen and often brilliant campaign for the bomb. One of the leaders of that campaign is Iran’s new president, Hassan Rohani.

Mr. Rohani is the ultimate insider, with long experience in Iran’s national security establishment. He led Iran’s Supreme National Security Council from 1989 to 2005. From 2003 to 2005, he also served as the country’s top nuclear negotiator in talks with the European Union and International Atomic Energy Agency, until outmaneuvered by then-incoming president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

And he’s sticking with his story. In an interview with the Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat the week before the Iranian presidential election, Mr. Rohani insisted that “Iran has an exclusively peaceful nuclear program.” Such a bald-faced lie would be laughable, except that Iran keeps getting away with it.

The dimensions of the illicit Iranian effort are staggering. Consider that single centrifuge at Natanz in June 2003, when Mr. Rohani was about to take over Iran’s international nuclear negotiations. It was based on designs and components provided by Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan, the nuclear arms merchant who earlier had stolen centrifuge plans from his employer, the European enrichment consortium URENCO. Iranian agents had scoured the global black market for nuclear technology and uranium. China was approached for assistance, then Russia. A clandestine facility in Tehran, operating under the name Kalaye Electric Company, began enriching small amounts of uranium, and testing and developing centrifuges. Uranium ore mining and refinement operations began. The vast Natanz complex was built in complete secrecy. A second possible path to bomb fuel, using plutonium, was opened with construction beginning on the Arak nuclear reactor. All this occurred on Mr. Rohani’s national security watch.

By August 2003, Iran had begun testing at Natanz a “cascade” of ten-interlinked centrifuges. The goal? Enrich uranium hexafluoride to the point it contained 5% of the isotope U-235. In sufficient quantities, hex enriched to 5% U-235 will fuel nuclear power reactors. In sufficient quantities, hex enriched to 20% U-235 is one fast enrichment step up to 90% U-235—bomb fuel.

Mr. Rohani was a key player in this. In a remarkable 2004 speech to Iran’s top leaders, first reported by nuclear researcher Chen Kane, Mr. Rohani championed the enrichment effort. It was not just about nuclear power, he suggested, it was about the bomb. “A country that can enrich uranium to about 3.5% will also have the ability to enrich it to about 90%,” he said.

20% U-235 is the key to the Iranian bomb. While the technical challenges in building the actual explosive device and delivery system are formidable—and the evidence is considerable that Iran is pursuing both—nothing is more difficult than creating the fuel for the bomb.

In 2003, Iran still faced enormous challenges getting to sufficient quantities of 20% U-235. The cascades would have to be bigger and more efficient. Large quantities of low-enriched hex, containing about 5% U-235, would have to be created and further enriched to 20%. The world powers were beginning to take note, calling on Tehran to suspend enrichment activities and moving to cut off international supply routes. Perhaps most consequential, Iran found the United States on its doorstep, toppling regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Saddam Hussein was on the run. Would the mullahs be next?

Mr. Rohani took control of the negotiating process, looking to buy time for Tehran. In November 2003, Iran informed the IAEA that it would suspend all enrichment activities and sign the agency’s “Additional Protocol” allowing for enhanced inspections. Over the next two years, Iran adhered to its no-enrichment pledge.

But Tehran kept busy on other fronts, including sorting out technical problems at a key uranium conversion facility in Isfahan. “While we were talking to the Europeans in Tehran,” Mr. Rohani noted in his 2004 speech, “we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan.”
In February 2006, with the threat of U.S. military action receding, Iran announced that it would not, in fact, abide by the Additional Protocol. The centrifuges quickly started up at Natanz. By June, Iran was running hex into its first 164-centrifuge cascade, reporting to the IAEA an enrichment rate of 5% U-235.

By August 2007, 1,968 centrifuges were operating at Natanz. By August 2008, 3,820 centrifuges were at work. 480 kilos of low-enriched uranium had been produced.

By February 2009, with 3,936 centrifuges at work and another 1,400 installed but not yet operational, Iran had produced over 1,000 kilos of low-enriched uranium. U.S. officials concluded that Iran now had enough low-enriched uranium to fuel a nuclear weapon, should it decide to enrich further.

Which is precisely what it did. In February 2010, Iran began feeding low-enriched uranium into a single 164-centrifuge cascade in Natanz for the purpose of developing 20% U-235. Iran informed the IAEA it wanted the highly enriched uranium for a research reactor in Tehran.

By then, news had emerged of another enrichment site: Fordow. Buried under a mountain on a military base near the holy city of Qum, the heavily fortified Fordow plant is thought to be impervious to air strikes. Like Natanz, Fordow had been built in complete secrecy. Like Natanz, when Fordow was exposed, Tehran simply shrugged and moved on.

By February 2012, two cascades at Fordow, containing a total of 696 centrifuges, had produced thirteen kilos of 20% U-235. At Natanz, production of the highly enriched uranium reached 73 kilos. The production of highly enriched uranium at both facilities continues to this day, with Tehran careful not to produce amounts that would cross U.S. or Israeli red lines.

Mr. Rohani’s nuclear vision had been achieved: the fuel cycle has been mastered. “If one day we are able to complete the fuel cycle and the world sees that it has no choice—that we do possess the technology—then the situation will be different,” he said in 2004. “The world did not want Pakistan to have an atomic bomb or Brazil to have the fuel cycle, but Pakistan built its bomb and Brazil has its fuel cycle, and the world started to work with them.”

Iran now has its fuel cycle. The situation is indeed different.

Comments are closed.