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Overview Last updated: December, 2013

Iran has been a non-nuclear weapon state party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) since 1970, and has an advanced nuclear program, ostensibly for peaceful purposes. The nuclear program has progressed significantly in the past decade, in line with Iran's 2006 announcement that it would begin enriching uranium. Tehran's failure to report significant parts of its program to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and insistence on developing all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, has led many states to worry that Iran's true intention is to acquire nuclear weapons. It has also invited intensified international pressure and sanctions. Iran is not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), and is actively working to acquire, develop, and deploy a broad range of ballistic missiles and space launch capabilities. The scope and status of Iran's chemical and biological activities are unknown, but the most recent Western intelligence estimates have downgraded the likelihood that Iran maintains significant offensive chemical and biological weapons programs.

Nuclear

Mohamed Reza Shah initiated Iran's nuclear program during the 1950s with assistance from the U.S. Atoms for Peace Program. Establishing the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) in 1974, the Shah had ambitious plans to construct 20 nuclear power reactors, a uranium enrichment facility, and a reprocessing plant for spent fuel. [1] However, after the 1979 Iranian Revolution deposed the Shah, Ayatollah Khomeini deemed the nuclear program "un-Islamic" and ordered it terminated. In 1984, Khomeini reversed course on the issue of nuclear power and sought international partners to continue building the Bushehr reactors. [2] Currently, Iran has a robust nuclear infrastructure, including uranium mining, milling, conversion, and enrichment capabilities. [3] As of the August 2013 IAEA Board of Governors report, Iran had produced an estimated 9,704 kg of uranium enriched up to 5% U235, and 372.5 kg of uranium enriched up to 20%. [4] On 12 September 2013, Iran announced that it had reduced its stockpile of uranium enriched up to 20% "from around 240 kg to around 140 kg" by converting it into fuel; this assertion was challenged by some experts as misleading, as the uranium was reportedly only sent to Iran's conversion plant rather than converted into fuel rods. [5]

The UN Security Council has passed multiple resolutions demanding that Iran halt its uranium enrichment activities. In 2009, concerns over Tehran's nuclear program increased when Iran disclosed to the IAEA that it was constructing a second enrichment facility close to the city of Qom, now known as the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant. [6] In November 2011, tensions escalated further when the IAEA released a report with a 14-page annex outlining the "possible military dimensions" of Iran's nuclear program, though most activities described dated to the pre-2003 period. [7] While Iran questioned the evidence in the report and the IAEA's legal authority to investigate non-nuclear activities, the report provoked a series of new sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union.

Negotiations to resolve the nuclear issue between the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, China, Germany (P5+1), and Iran have so far failed to produce a solution to the crisis. A series of talks between the P5+1 and Iran began in April 2012, and later continued at the technical level without resolution. [8] The IAEA and Iran held another round of talks in Tehran in the winter of 2012-2013, but were unable to reach an agreement on access to Parchin, a site suspected of hosting weaponization-related activities. [9] High-level talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, took place in spring 2013, but also did not result in an agreement. [10] A possible reset in Iran's relations with the West was signaled by Iran's newly elected President Rouhani. On 27 September 2013, President Obama and President Rouhani held the first direct talks between U.S. and Iranian leaders since the 1979 revolution. [11] Building on this overture, Iran and the P5+1 held a round of talks in Geneva from 15-16 October 2013. The U.S. Department of State issued a background briefing on the negotiations on October 16 which described the talks as having encompassed “detailed technical discussions at a level [they had] not had before.” [12] The participants agreed to a new round of talks, described by the Chinese foreign ministry as a "detailed" follow-up, which will take place in Geneva on November 7 and 8, 2013. [13] An experts meeting will convene beforehand. [14]

Tehran maintains that it has no interest in nuclear weapons, but that as a member of the NPT it has an inalienable right to peaceful nuclear technology. Critical parts of Iran's nuclear infrastructure include a VVER-1000 MWe light water reactor at Bushehr, a uranium conversion facility at Esfahan, enrichment facilities at Natanz and Qom, a heavy water production plant, and a heavy water research reactor under construction at Arak.

Biological

There is very little publicly available information to determine whether Iran is pursuing a biological weapons program. Although Iran acceded to the Geneva Protocol in 1929 and ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) in 1973, the U.S. government in the past has accused Iran of pursuing a biological weapons program; however, more recent intelligence estimates do not suggest that such a program currently exists. The report to Congress by the Director of National Intelligence for the year 2011 assessed that "Iran "probably has the capability to produce some biological warfare (BW) agents for offensive purposes, if it made the decision to do so. […] Iran continues to expand its biotechnology infrastructure and seek dual-use technologies that could be used for BW." [15] This qualified assessment likely indicates that U.S intelligence does not have conclusive evidence of a current Iranian BW program. Historically, Iran has denied the acquisition or production of biological weapons.

Chemical

Iran suffered severe losses from Iraq's use of chemical weapons between 1982 and 1988 during the Iran-Iraq War. Consequently, Iran has significant experience with the effects of chemical warfare (CW). Iran ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in November 1997 and has been an active participant in the work of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Iran has publicly acknowledged the existence of a chemical weapons program developed during the latter stages of the 1980 to 1988 war with Iraq. After ratifying the CWC, Iran opened its facilities to international inspection and claimed that all its offensive CW activities had been terminated and the facilities destroyed prior to the treaty's entry into force.

Nevertheless, throughout the late 1990s and the early 2000s, the United States continued to claim that Iran maintained an active program for the development and production of chemical weapons. This program was alleged to include stockpiles of blood, blister, choking, and possibly nerve agents. [16] Evidence could not be found to confirm these accusations. Reflecting this uncertainty, since 2003 the U.S. intelligence community has substantially downgraded its public assessments of Iranian chemical warfare capabilities. In its unclassified report to Congress covering the year 2011, the Director of National Intelligence asserted that Iran "maintains the capability to produce chemical warfare (CW) agents and conducts research that may have offensive applications." [17] Iran denies producing or possessing chemical weapons in violation of its treaty obligations. [18]

Missile

Following the Iran-Iraq war, Iran committed itself to the development of one of the most sophisticated ballistic missile programs in the Middle East. Iran has pursued a dual track strategy, developing both liquid and solid-fueled systems. As a first step, Tehran acquired Soviet R-17/R-300 (Scud-B) and R-17M (Scud-C) missiles and production lines from North Korea (renamed Shahab-1 and Shahab-2). [19] On 22 July 1998, Iran tested a single-stage liquid-fueled Shahab-3 with a range of 1,000km. [20] Tehran declared the Shahab-3 operational in July 2003. The Shahab-3, including its guidance system and engine design, is identical to North Korea's Nodong missile. [21] With foreign assistance Tehran produces considerable quantities of the Shahab family of missiles. [22] Seeking a longer range missile, on 11 August 2004 Iran test-fired a modified Shahab-3, the Ghadr-1, with a range of 1,600km. [23] The development of the Ghadr-1 represented the threshold and limit for modifying the existing Scud-based Shahab missiles.

Marking a significant shift in Iranian missile development and capabilities, in November 2008 Tehran successfully tested a two-stage, solid-propellant 2000km medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), the Sejjil. [24] Since 2008, Iran has conducted five additional tests of the Sejiil, two successfully. [25] The Sejjil has not been officially accepted into service, and technological hurdles remain before it could be used as an effective military weapon. Solid-propellant missiles offer numerous advantages over liquid-propellant missiles, and it is likely that Tehran will continue to develop the Sejjil and other solid-fueled missiles as its program moves forward.

In addition to its missile program, Iran is actively developing a space launch capability. Iran successfully launched three satellites into space in February 2009, June 2011, and February 2012 aboard the Safir space launch vehicle (SLV). [26] Some analysts fear that the Safir represents the technical basis for Tehran to develop long-range ballistic missiles. [27] However, Tehran would need to significantly modify the second stage of the Safir before it could be used as an ICBM. [28] Iran has not yet demonstrated that it can make the needed modifications for this to occur, and has not developed the requisite reentry vehicle for an ICBM. Expert debate concerning Iran's technological capacity to develop ICBMs in the near future is significant and ongoing. [29]

Sources:
[1] Judith Perera, "Iran's Nuclear Industry," Middle East and North Africa, January 2006.
[2] "Iran's Nuclear Program: 1950s and 60s: Atoms for Peace," Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), www.isisnucleariran.org.
[3] "Iran's Nuclear Fuel Cycle," Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), www.isisnucleariran.org.
[4] "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and Relevant Provisions of Security Council Resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Report by the Director General, the International Atomic Energy Agency, (GOV/2013/27), 28 August 2013.
[5] David Albright, Christina Walrond, "Misleading Statement on Iran's 20 Percent Low Enriched Uranium Conversion," Institute for Science and International Security, September 13, 2013, http://isis-online.org.
[6] David Sanger, Helen Cooper, "Iran is warned over nuclear 'deception'," The New York Times, 25 September 2009.
[7] "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and Relevant Provisions of Security Council Resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Report by the Director General, the International Atomic Energy Agency, (GOV/2011/65), 8 November 2011.
[8] "Istanbul to Host Next Iran-Six Nuclear Talks July 3," RIA Novosti, 19 June 2012; Julian Borger, "Iran Nuclear Talks Downgraded," The Guardian, 19 June 2012; Julian Borger, "Iran Nuclear Talks Downgraded," The Guardian, 19 June 2012; Vanessa Mock, "EU Plans to Continue Nuke Talks With Iran," The Wall Street Journal, 4 July 2012; "EU-Iran officials hold talks on nuclear row," AFP, 24 July 2012.
[9] "Statement on IAEA-Iran Talks," International Atomic Energy Agency, 14 December 2012, www.iaea.org; Fredrik Dahl and Yeganeh Torbati, "No deal seen clinched in U.N. nuclear talks," Reuters, 17 January 2013; Fredrik Dahl, "U.N. atom talks with Iran fail, no new meeting set," Reuters, 14 February 2013.
[10] Justyna Pawlak and Yeganeh Torbati, "Powers and Iran fail to end nuclear deadlock in Almaty," Reuters, 6 April 2013.
[11] Dan Roberts, "Obama Holds Historic Phone Call with Rouhani and Hints at End to Sanctions," The Guardian, September 27, 2013, www.theguardian.com.
[12] Senior Administration Official, "Background Briefing on P5+1 Negotiations," U.S. Department of State Background Brief, October 16, 2013, www.state.gov.
[13] "Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying's Regular Press Conference on October 17, 2013," Consulate General of the People's Republic of China in New York, www.nyconsulate.prchina.org.
[14] Senior Administration Official, "Background Briefing on P5+1 Negotiations," U.S. Department of State Background Brief, October 16, 2013, www.state.gov.
[15] Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, Covering 1 January to 31 December 2011, Director of National Intelligence, www.dni.gov.
[16] Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, 1 January through 30 June 2002, Central Intelligence Agency, www.fas.org.
[17] Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, Covering 1 January to 31 December 2011, Director of National Intelligence, www.dni.gov.
[18] Joseph Cirincione, Jon Wolfsthal and Miriam Rajkumar, "Iran," in Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats (Washington, DC, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), p. 295.
[19] Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment, Dossier, London: IISS: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2010, pp. 14-17.
[20] Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment, Dossier, London: IISS: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2010, p, 22.
[21] Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment, Dossier, London: IISS: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2010, pp. 17-22.
[22] Theodore Postol, "A Technical Assessment of Iran's Ballistic Missile Program," Technical Addendum to the Joint Threat Assessment on Iran's Nuclear and Missile Potential, 6 May 2009,, www.ewi.info; Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment, Dossier, London: IISS: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2010, pp. 26-31.
[23] Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment, Dossier, London: IISS: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2010, p. 23.
[24] Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment, Dossier, London: IISS: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2010, pp. 54-63; Ted Postol, "Technical Addendum to the Joint Threat Assessment on Iran's Nuclear and Missile Potential – The Sejjil Ballistic Missile," EastWest Institute, 31 May 2009, www.ewi.info; "Sejil (Ashoura)," Jane's Strategic Weapon Systems, 12 February 2012, www.janes.com.
[25] Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment, Dossier, London: IISS: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2010, pp. 54-63; Ted Postol, "Technical Addendum to the Joint Threat Assessment on Iran's Nuclear and Missile Potential – The Sejjil Ballistic Missile," EastWest Institute, 31 May 2009, www.ewi.info; "Sejil (Ashoura)," Jane's Strategic Weapon Systems, 12 February 2012, www.janes.com.
[26] Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment, Dossier, London: IISS: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2010, pp. 26-31.
[27] Nazila Fathi and William J. Broad, "Iran Launches Satellite in a Challenge for Obama," The New York Times, 3 February 2009.
[28] Uzi Rubin, "New Developments in Iran's Missile Capabilities: Implications Beyond the Middle East," Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, August 2009, www.jcpa.org; "Iran's Nuclear and Missile Potential: A Joint Threat Assessment by U.S. and Russian Experts," The East-West Center, May 2009, http://docs.ewi.info/JTA.pdf.
[29] Theodore Postol, "A Technical Assessment of Iran's Ballistic Missile Program," Technical Addendum to the Joint Threat Assessment on Iran's Nuclear and Missile Potential, 6 May 2009, www.ewi.info; Uzi Rubin, "New Developments in Iran's Missile Capabilities: Implications Beyond the Middle East," Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, August 2009, www.jcpa.org; "Iran's Nuclear and Missile Potential: A Joint Threat Assessment by U.S. and Russian Experts," The East-West Center, May 2009, http://docs.ewi.info/JTA.pdf.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.

Get the Facts on Iran

  • Nuclear program condemned and sanctioned under multiple UN Security Council Resolutions
  • Possesses ballistic missiles with a range of at least 1,500 km
  • Produced 95.4 kg of UF6 enriched up to 20% as of February 2012