Center for Arms Control

Fact Sheet: Iran’s Nuclear and Ballistic Missile Programs

Updated July 2014

Updated by Brenna Gautam

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) related to Iran’s nuclear program.

  • Resolution 1696, passed in 2006, called on Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program and reconsider its construction of a heavy water reactor at Arak. It also called on the international community to enact an array of sanctions against Iran and specific Iranian peoples/entities.
  • The five Security Council resolutions passed since 2006 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 have been steadily added with each resolution.
  • 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.”

Prior to December 2013, Iran had 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 a November 2013 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."

Past 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 and Iran agreed to the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) 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.

Implementation of the JPOA and progress toward a comprehensive final agreement has demonstrated Iranian compliance with the interim deal and cooperation with the IAEA. According to the latest IAEA report, Iran’s current status on fulfillment of the agreement is as follows:

  • Iran has implemented the seven practical measures outlined by the Framework for Cooperation with the IAEA, and has agreed to the implementation of 5 additional practical measures.
  • Iran has not enriched uranium above 5% at any of its declared facilities since the JPOA took effect.
  • Iran's stock of 20% enriched uranium has decreased from 209.1 kg to 38.4 kg and Iran has ceased all further production of 20% enriched uranium.
  • “No additional centrifuges have been installed in Iran’s fuel enrichment plants.
  • No additional components have been installed at Iran’s heavy water reactor near Arak, and there has been no manufacture or testing of fuel for the reactor.
  • Iran has provided the IAEA with managed access to centrifuge assembly workshops, centrifuge rotor production workshops, and storage facilities.

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.

Uranium

  • Iran currently has the ability to enrich uranium at its Fordow and Natanz facilities. Although it continues Research and Development work at the Natanz enrichment plant, Iran has not installed any new centrifuges of any type at Fordow or Natanz since the signing of the JPOA..
  • Since the signing of the JPOA in November 2013, the IAEA has observed a significant reduction in Iran’s uranium stockpiles and production; however, Iran still possesses certain uranium stockpiles and enrichment capabilities. :
    • Since January 2014, Iran has not produced uranium enriched above 5%
    • Stockpiles of 20% enriched uranium have been reduced to 38.4 kg through downblending or conversion into uranium oxide; this is half the amount of nuclear material that was present in the 20% form in January 2014. Iran claims the remaining stockpile of 20% enriched uranium is intended only for the purpose of manufacture of fuel for research reactors.
    • As of the June 2014 IAEA report, the amount of 5% enriched uranium in Iranian facilities is currently 8,475 kg. Of this amount, 107 kg has been produced from downblending of 20% enriched uranium, in accordance with JPOA standards.
  • >
  • In February 2014, 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 1.9-2.2 months using the currently installed centrifuges and with the interim steps in place.
  • The ‘breakout’ time frame limit is currently a sticking point in the negotiations leading to a final comprehensive deal between the P5+1 and Iran. While ISIS estimates a current breakout time of up to 3 months, maximum, a recent Iranian report cites a time frame six times longer.
  • 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.”
  • If Iran were to decide to ‘break out’ without the risk of 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.
    • ISIS has estimated that the Arak reactor could produce up to 9 kilograms of plutonium-239 every year if it were to become fully operational and a reprocessing facility to separate out the plutonium-239 had been built. 9 kilograms of plutonium-239 is enough to develop two nuclear weapons per year.
    • Iran has committed, as of November 2013, 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 latest IAEA report confirmed that Iran has not made any further advances to the Arak reactor, including the manufacture and testing of fuel. Iran has also provided design information on the Arak reactor and has agreed with agency safeguard measures.
      • Iran has not, however, suspended work on all heavy water related projects. While the Arak reactor operates under IAEA safeguards, the Heavy Water Production Plant (HWPP) is not under IAEA safeguards. The IAEA monitors the status of the HWPP through satellite imagery and has determined that the plant has been operating intermittently.

    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.
    • Challenges in building the warhead include making it small and light enough to fit into the cone of a delivery vehicle; nevertheless, Michael Elleman, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), stated that “all of these tasks are likely within Iran's capabilities" as of April 2014.

    3) The Delivery Vehicle

    • The US Director of National Intelligence has argued that he believes Iran would choose a ballistic missile as its preferred method of dispatching nuclear bombs. Furthermore, he said, “Iran’s ballistic missiles are inherently capable of delivering WMD.”
    • In its 2014 Annual Threat Assessment, the Defense Intelligence Agency stated that “In addition to its growing missile and rocket inventories, Iran is seeking to enhance lethality and effectiveness of existing systems with improvements in accuracy and warhead designs […] Iran’s Simorgh space launch vehicle shows the country’s intent to develop intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology.” Iran has invested at least $1 billion in its missile programs since 2000, according to “Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment.”
    • • Iran has developed and deployed Shahab-1, -2, and -3 ballistic missiles in addition to shorter-range missiles such as the Fateh A-110; the Shahab-3 has the greatest range at an estimated 800-1000 km and weighs 1,300 kg. 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.
    • The Shahab-3 missile would likely be the prime delivery vehicle for a nuclear warhead; despite its longer-range, the Sajjil-2 program appears frozen due to technical problems.
    • In February 2014, Iran successfully test-fired a new, domestically made, long-range ballistic missile: the Bina missle. According to Iranian Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehqan, this laser guided missile can evade enemies’ anti-missile defense systems.
    • Under Security Council Resolution 1929, Iran is prohibited from activities related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads. However, Iran consistently maintains that its ballistic missile capabilities constitute a sovereign right and a branch of conventional weaponry, unrelated to a potential nuclear threat. It refuses an interpretation of the JPOA that includes limitations of ballistic missile capabilities.

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