Iran and Uranium Enrichment

In one of my previous posts I talked about the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. In this post I am going to expand a bit more on the history of what is going on with Iran. This post is not about whether Iran has a nuclear weapons programme but to give some background on some of the reasons it is seeking its own source of enriched uranium.

The Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT)

The cornerstone of non proliferation is the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons1 which is often just called the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This has three parts to it:

  • that non-nuclear weapons states will not seek to develop nuclear weapons
  • that the nuclear weapons states (USA, Russia, China, United Kingdom and France) shall get rid of their nuclear weapons
  • that signatories to the treaty have an inalienable right to research and develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes and that “All the Parties to the Treaty undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy”

So basically the deal is that if countries agree not to develop nuclear weapons then they will be helped with developing their nuclear energy programme. If it looks as if a country is developing nuclear weapons then the cooperation in developing nuclear power can be halted. There is very little else that can be done within the treaty since signatories to that treaty can simply withdraw as North Korea has done.

If a non nuclear weapons state is found not to be complying with the NPT (i.e. it is trying to develop nuclear weapons) one of the main ways that this ‘cooperation’ can be halted is to cut off the supply of enriched uranium. If a country can produce its own enriched uranium then there is little within the treaty that other states can do particularly if it has already obtained a reasonable amount of nuclear technology.

History of Nuclear Power in Iran

For a complete history have a look at the wikipedia entry2. However, in summary many countries, including USA, France and Germany, were very keen to help the Iran  develop nuclear power from the 1960s until the revolution in 1979. This included building power plants and even plans for providing reprocessing technology so that Iran would be able to separate the plutonium from spent fuel3 even though security agencies (including the CIA) had warned that “If [the Shah] is alive in the mid-1980s … and if other countries [particularly India] have proceeded with weapons development we have no doubt Iran will follow suit”4. One could wonder if some countries would not be too worried about a friendly, nuclear armed Iran on the south west borders of the USSR.

Not only did Iran look to develop nuclear power at home Iran under the Shah also loaned over a billion dollars for the development of the enrichment facilities in France and also owns 15% of one of the largest uranium mines – Rössing in Namibia5.  Even today Iran still has a 10% share in the European reprocessing company Eurodif and has been able to maintain its shareholding in Rössing6.

After the Revolution

Immediately following the revolution supplies of highly enriched uranium from the USA and enriched Uranium from Europe were stopped. This was not due to any violations of the NPT at the time but simply because the US and many European countries did not like the new regime – so much for the ‘inalienable right” under the NPT.

At the time the new regime in Iran was not interested in nuclear power however, they did want their money back. A long court case ensued which was eventually won by Iran and France paid back $1.6billion. However, Iran is still considering further action over its investment7.

If Iran is developing nuclear power for peaceful purposes then there are reasons why it might not want to rely on sourcing its enriched uranium from other states.

Forty years ago when the NPT was signed it may have been reasonable to assume that only the nuclear weapon states – USA, Russia, China, United Kingdom and France would be able to provide the technology to build nuclear power stations and supply the fuel and would therefore be able to control the spread of nuclear weapons. Since then India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea have developed nuclear weapons and most countries would have the ability to build a weapon if they had a nuclear power plant.

Iran learnt after 1979 that nuclear power does not give you security of energy supply if you rely on enriched uranium and nuclear technology from other countries despite them being signatories to the NPT. Whether Iran later did not comply with some of the safeguards under th NPT (which does not necessarily mean they have violated the NPT) and whether they have a nuclear weapons programme is not what I am discussing here – perhaps it will be the subject of a later post.


1 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Infcircs/Others/infcirc140.pdf)

2 Nuclear program of Iran, Wikipedia, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_program_of_Iran)

3 Past Arguments Don’t Square With Current Iran Policy, Washington Post, March 27, 2005 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A3983-2005Mar26.html)

4 Prospects for the Further Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB240/snie.pdf)

5 Rössing Uranium Limited Working for Namibia 2010 Report to Stakeholders, Rio Tinto (http://www.riotinto.com/documents/Rossing2010SDreport.pdf)

6 Iran Allowed to Keep 15% Stake in Namibia’s Rossing Uranium Mine, Rio Says, Bloomberg Oct 27, 2010 (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-10-27/iran-allowed-to-keep-15-stake-in-namibia-s-rossing-uranium-mine-rio-says.html)

6 Iran to pursue investment in French Eurodif, Press TV, Aug 12, 2012 (http://www.presstv.ir/detail/255902.html)

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