Center for Arms Control

Fact Sheet: Iran’s Nuclear and Ballistic Missile Programs

Updated December 2013

Updated by Usha Sahay and Alexander Pearson

Iran has committed numerous violations of its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguard obligations.

  • In their November 2012 report, the IAEA stated “Iran has carried out activities that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device. This information, which comes from a wide variety of independent sources, including from a number of Member States, from the Agency’s own efforts and from information provided by Iran itself, is assessed by the Agency to be, overall, credible. The information indicates that, prior to the end of 2003 the activities took place under a structured program; that some continued after 2003; and that some may still be ongoing.”
  • In their most recent report, the IAEA restated its previous concerns and demands; “Since 2002, the Agency has become increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile. Iran is required to cooperate fully with the Agency on all outstanding issues, particularly those which give rise to concerns about the possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program, including by providing access without delay to all sites, equipment, persons and documents requested by the Agency.”
  • The IAEA continues to affirm that “While the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at the nuclear facilities and LOFs declared by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement, the Agency is not in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”

Between 2006 and 2010, the UN Security Council, concerned that Iran was attempting to develop a nuclear weapons capability, passed six resolutions (1696, 1737, 1747, 1803, 1835, 1929) dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.

  • Resolution 1696, passed in 2006, called for Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program and reconsider its construction of a heavy water reactor at Arak. It also called for the international community to enact an array of sanctions against Iran and specific Iranian peoples/entities.
  • The five Security Council resolutions passed since then have maintained 1696’s demand that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment program, but, in contrast to 1696, they have demanded that Iran suspend rather than reconsider construction of the Arak heavy water reactor. New sanctions were also steadily added with each resolution.

However, US intelligence estimates have consistently concluded that Iran has not made a decision to build a nuclear weapon.

  • While Iran insists that its nuclear program is peaceful, a classified 2013 U.S. intelligence estimate stated that Iran “is developing nuclear capabilities to […] give it the ability to develop nuclear weapons, should the decision be made to do so.” The intelligence community does “not know if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”

On November 24, 2013, the P5+1 (Russia, China, France, the UK, the US + Germany) and Iran agreed to a historic, six-month first-step deal that verifiably freezes Iran’s nuclear program and begins to roll back its most proliferation-sensitive aspects. The purpose of the deal is to build time and trust to negotiate a more comprehensive final agreement that ensures Iran cannot develop a nuclear weapon. Key provisions of the agreement include:

  • Halting all enrichment above 5%, diluting or converting the existing stockpile of 20% uranium to a form that cannot be further enriched, and restricting any further increase in the stockpile of 3.5% uranium.
  • Prohibiting the installation and activation of new centrifuges, devices that enrich uranium to a higher grade.
  • Suspending construction at Iran’s heavy water reactor near Arak.
  • “Unprecedented transparency measures” in the form of daily IAEA inspections at Iran’s Natanz and Fordow facilities, along with regular access to centrifuge assembly, component and storage facilities.
  • In return for these concessions, Iran will receive limited, reversible sanctions relief in the amount of approximately $7 billion. The relief will primarily amount to a release of sanctions on oil assets, gold and precious metals and Iran’s auto sector, while leaving the much stronger sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors in place.

If Iran ever decided to weaponize its nuclear capability, it would require three components for a usable weapon: 1) Weapons-grade fissile material, 2) a device capable of initiating a nuclear explosion, and 3) a delivery vehicle.

1) Weapons-grade Fissile Material:

  • A highly enriched form of uranium (90%) or separated plutonium could be used as the fissile material with which Iran could develop a nuclear weapon. Since beginning its nuclear program, Iran has developed its capability to produce both elements to weapon-grade purity.
  • Iran has the ability to enrich uranium at its Fordow and Natanz facilities.
  • Since the election of President Hassan Rouhani in August 2013, the IAEA has noted an effective ‘freezing’ of Iranian nuclear enrichment:
    • 4 new first-generation centrifuges were installed at Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities. No advanced second-generation centrifuges were installed.
    • Iran’s effective stockpile of 20% enriched uranium rose by 5% from 185.8 kilograms to 196 kilograms between August and November. By comparison, this stockpile rose by nearly 15% between May and August.
    • Since Iran began enrichment, it has produced 410 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium. Nearly half of this enriched uranium was converted into a metal form that cannot be used for weapons.
    • Iran’s stockpile of 5% enriched uranium rose by 6.3% from 9,704 kilograms to 10,357 kilograms.
  • In August 2013, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) estimated Iran’s ability to ‘breakout’ and produce enough weapons-grade uranium using declared facilities at between 1-1.6 months if all installed centrifuges were to be used.
  • If successfully implemented, the P5+1 deal significantly lengthens this ‘breakout’ time-frame. Just before the signing the P5+1 deal, ISIS President David Albright was quoted in a House Armed Services Committee hearing stating that the ‘breakout’ time-frame would increase to 3.1-3.5 months as a result of the removal of Iran’s stockpile of 20% enriched uranium. This removal was subsequently agreed to in the final agreement.
  • If Iran ever decided to ‘breakout’ without risking being caught by the international community, it would have to enrich uranium at facilities currently undisclosed to the IAEA. The IAEA has stated that “it is not in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran.”
  • Plutonium
    • Iran has the ability to produce the specific isotope of plutonium (plutonium-239) required for a plutonium-based nuclear weapon by separating the isotope from used-nuclear fuel at its IR-40 40 megawatt thermal heavy water reactor near Arak.
    • Construction on the reactor began in 2004. In late 2012, Iranian officials informed the IAEA that they expected the plant to be fully operational by 2014.
    • The ISIS has estimated that the Arak reactor could produce up to 9 kilograms of plutonium-239 every year once it becomes fully operational and a reprocessing facility to separate out the plutonium-239 has been built. 9 kilograms of plutonium-239 is enough to develop two nuclear weapons per year.
    • As agreed by the P5+1 deal reached in November 2013, Iran has committed to:
      • Not commission or fuel the Arak reactor.
      • Halt all production and testing of fuel for the reactor.
      • Install no additional reactor components at the reactor site.
      • Not transfer any fuel or heavy water to the reactor site.
      • Not construct a facility capable of reprocessing.
      • The suspension ensures that no plutonium-239 can be produced or tested over the six-month interim period.
    2) The Bomb
    • If a state pursues uranium enrichment as a path to nuclear weapons, building the actual warhead is generally the easiest piece of the puzzle. However, the U.S. intelligence community believes Iran has not yet made the political decision to build a nuclear weapon.
    • The US intelligence community's assessment continues to be that Iran is at least a year away from building a nuclear explosive device should it decide to do so.
    3) The Delivery Vehicle
    • Iran has developed and deployed Shahab-1, -2, and -3 ballistic missiles in addition to shorter-range missiles; the Shahab-3 has the greatest range at an estimated 800-1000 km, which means it could reach Israel, Turkey, and portions of southeastern Europe. The Ghadr-1 missile, which began flight testing in 2004, is an advanced version of the Shahab-3, with an extended range of 1,100 – 1,600 km, although it cannot carry as heavy of a payload as the Shahab-3. Finally, Iran successfully tested the Sejil-2 (formerly Ashura) missile in 2009, which reportedly has a range of 2,000-2,200 kilometers, but has not yet been deployed.
    • Reported ranges are often based on statements from the Iranian government, which has an incentive to exaggerate its capabilities.
    • Furthermore, many estimates do not take into account the fact that loading a nuclear warhead onto the missile will increase its weight and therefore reduce its range. According to the East-West Institute, Iran’s claims of possessing missiles with a range of 2,000 km do not take into account the weight of the warhead: carrying a standard payload weighing 1,000 kg, Iranian missiles have an estimated maximum range of only 1,100 km.
    • A May 2009 report by the East-West Institute argued that an Iranian ballistic missile capable of reaching all of Europe or the United States remains at least six to eight years away from development.” Indeed, while Iran reported successes in 2009 with the Sejil-2 test and the Safir-2 rocket that launched a small satellite into orbit, no further advances in range have been apparent and a series of tests in July 2012 included only Shahab-3 and shorter range missiles.
    • In its 2012 Annual Assessment of the Military Power of Iran, the Defense Department stated that “With sufficient foreign assistance, Iran may be technically capable of flight testing an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015,” but it doesn’t explain whether other states are providing this assistance or whether the assessment takes account of setbacks imposed by economic sanctions against Iran. Moreover, some observers have pointed to differences between the 2012 assessment and the 2010 assessment and concluded that the intelligence community has pushed back its predicted timeline for an Iranian ICBM. Finally, the DoD report focuses on when Iran will test an ICBM, not when it will be able to deliver a nuclear warhead on an ICBM.
    • The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) stated in a November 2013 report that it is “highly unlikely” Iran could deploy an operational nuclear-armed ICBM “within the next decade.” Assuming Iran were to develop the Sejil-2 to allow it to deliver a nuclear warhead to a range that would threaten the US, "the soonest Iran might have an operational, solid-propellant ICBM […] would be late 2019." However, the report admits that this prediction assumes “that Iran could mature its technical and manufacturing capacity smoothly and efficiently.” This would be unlikely considering the history of Iran’s ballistic missile development.

    All These Estimates Are Exactly That - Estimates

    • There is no clear consensus on exactly how close Iran is to acquiring a nuclear weapon, fitting a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile, and/or developing a ballistic missile capable of reaching most of Europe and the United States.

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