Iran Nuclear Sub Plan Could Spike Outside Worries on Enrichment

The nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Charlotte, shown last year. Iran's plan for an atomic-propulsion submarine could be used in making the case for producing weapon-usable nuclear material (AP Photo/Greg Baker).
The nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Charlotte, shown last year. Iran's plan for an atomic-propulsion submarine could be used in making the case for producing weapon-usable nuclear material (AP Photo/Greg Baker).

Iran's stated intent to field an atomic-propulsion submarine could be cause for worry about the nation's potential pursuit of weapon-usable nuclear material, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday (see GSN, June 12).

The Persian Gulf regional power could pursue a rationale for manufacturing uranium with an enrichment level of 90 percent, according to past concerns aired by Washington, Tel Aviv and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Tehran maintains its atomic ambitions are strictly peaceful.

Discussions within the Middle Eastern nation over initiating preparation of a atomic-powered underwater craft have raised red flags for a number of outsiders, according to the Journal. The country is in "the initial phases of manufacturing atomic submarines," Iranian state media quoted a high-level Iranian navy officer as saying on Tuesday.

The U.S. State Department said it knows of the development and is still concerned over Iranian plans.

The submarine declaration might be aimed at bolstering Iran's bargaining power prior to a planned multilateral nuclear meeting next week, according to Iran specialists and U.S. government personnel. Diplomats from Tehran are scheduled meet in Moscow on June 18 and 19 with counterparts from China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States in an effort to resolve suspicions that Iranian atomic efforts are geared toward establishment of a nuclear-weapon capability.

Still, construction of such a vessel is considered far beyond Iran's technical capacities, according to the Journal. The necessary systems for assembling such submersibles exist only in a handful of countries, including China, Russia and the United States.

"One of the few if only civilian pretexts for weapon-grade uranium are nuclear submarines, so it was fairly predictable that Iran would announce its desire to build them," according to Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The gap between Iran's bluster and its capabilities, especially prior to negotiations, is wider than the Strait of Hormuz" (Jay Solomon, Wall Street Journal, June 12).

"If Iran moves forward on this project it would be for political reasons," said Mark Hibbs, another expert with the think tank. "Iran could easily defend itself with conventional submarine technology," Reuters quoted him as saying (Zahra Hosseinian, Reuters I, June 12).

Atomic submarine propulsion systems rely on uranium enriched to levels between 20 percent and in excess of 90 percent, the Journal reported. The United States operates a significant quantity of underwater vessels with 96 percent-refined material.

Iran is now refining 20 percent-enriched uranium; Tehran insists the ongoing process is aimed at fueling a medical reactor, but Washington and other governments fear it could enable faster production of bomb-usable material (Solomon, Wall Street Journal).

Iranian navy Rear Adm. Abbas Zamini in his Tuesday remarks added Iran's atomic progress enables it to "think of manufacturing nuclear-fueled submarines," suggesting such an effort remains in an early planning phase, according to Wired magazine. Carrying out the effort would require the lengthy preparation of a new submarine as well as a viable atomic propulsion system sufficiently small for the vessel.

“I’m sure the Iranians are in the early stages of [atomic-propulsion combat submarine] development, if indeed they’re serious about this,” Naval War College analyst Jim Holmes said. “It is relatively easy to install nuclear propulsion in a carrier, chiefly because you have lots of space to work with. By contrast, you in effect construct the submarine hull -- a tube -- around the nuclear plant. This poses huge problems, simply because the confines of a submarine are very cramped.”

“There’s a lot of variation in how ‘highly’ enriched the fuel needs to be," Holmes said. "It depends on the design, the ship type and the navy.”

Tehran might “need to enrich an excess of fuel for their first naval reactor -- if only because they’re bound to make mistakes and be less efficient than they would be after going through the experimentation and learning process. Not an easy thing with (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors occasionally snooping around,” the expert said.

Still, atomic substances with "nonexplosive military purposes such as naval propulsion" do not need to receive U.N. nuclear watchdog oversight under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Monterey Institute of International Studies specialist Cole Harvey wrote in a 2010 Nuclear Threat Initiative analysis.

The treaty language could enable Iran to repurpose atomic submarine fuel for “bomb cores in a cheating or breakout scenario,” Harvey said (Robert Beckhusen, Wired, June 12).

Meanwhile, the multilateral atomic dialogue has favorable prospects, Reuters quoted the Iran's top diplomat as saying on Wednesday.

"This is a complex issue and we need to be patient but we're on the right track," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said during an appearance with Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart.

"Sometimes the process slows down and sometimes it accelerates but overall I'm optimistic about the final outcome," Salehi said (Marcus George, Reuters II, June 13).

The Russian foreign minister said Tehran "is interested in coming up with solutions which would contribute to the settlement of the nuclear issue," Agence France-Presse reported.

Lavrov issued the remark after speaking with Salehi on Wednesday, and Iranian government sources said the top Russian diplomat would also confer with senior Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili before concluding a short visit to Tehran (Marc Burleigh, Agence France-Presse I/Google News, June 13).

Next week's meeting in Moscow should be aired publicly as it takes place, Deutsche Presse-Agentur quoted Jalili as saying on Wednesday.

“Our strength is our logic and this is why we said the (nuclear) talks should be broadcast live so that public opinion would judge by itself,” he said (Deutsche Presse-Agentur, June 13).

Legislators in Tehran are telling diplomats “they don’t have the right to make concessions on Iran’s rights under the NPT (Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty).” Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani said on Wednesday in comments reported by AFP.

“Nevertheless, concerning the level of uranium enrichment, Iran can define it according to its needs and desires, but that cannot be a rule limiting Iran’s nuclear activities," the former top atomic envoy said (Agence France-Presse II/Dawn, June 13).

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday said "there is a unified position being presented by the [five permanent U.N. Security Council member nations and Germany] that gives Iran, if it is interested in taking a diplomatic way out, a very clear path that would be verifiable and would be linked to action for action."

"I am quite certain that they are under tremendous pressure from the Russians and the Chinese to come to Moscow prepared to respond. Now whether that response is adequate or not we will have to judge," Clinton said.

"The Russians have made it very clear that they expect the Iranians to advance the discussion in Moscow. Not just to come, listen and leave. We will know once it happens," the official continued.

"We are dealing with a regime which has hegemonic ambitions," she said. "The continuing effort by the Iranians to extend their influence and to use terror as a tool to do so extends to our hemisphere and all the way to East Asia. So the threat is real" (Agence France-Presse III/Times of India, June 13).

Computer-based attacks and the targeted killing of Iranian nuclear specialists would bolster Iran's "determination to pursue its nuclear rights," Iranian Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency Ali Asghar Soltanieh said in comments reported on Tuesday by the nation's Fars News Agency.

A number of scientists have been killed or injured in attacks in recent years, while at least two cyber strikes have been identified against its atomic operations (Fars News Agency I, June 12).

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast on Tuesday said "the way we can benefit fully from our rights and the measures which can help soothe the [International Atomic Energy Agency's] technical and legal concerns should be specified in a general framework of cooperation," Fars reported.

"We are fully ready for that (finding proper mechanism and framework); good negotiations have been held (between Iran and the IAEA) and we hope that we can reach an agreement with the agency officials (in this regard)," Mehmanparast said (Fars News Agency II, June 12).

"Different countries might be eager to take part in" a cooperative atomic energy facility construction effort, the spokesman added. "If they offer their proposals, they will be studied by relevant authorities" (Fars News Agency III, June 12).

Elsewhere, an autonomous U.N. panel has amassed "substantial evidence" of a Syrian connection to weapon shipments to Iran, AFP quoted Washington as saying to the Security Council on Tuesday. Damascus is tied to two of three illicit deliveries of armaments included in a recent analysis by U.N. specialists, according to envoys.

"Over the last two years, the panel has assembled substantial evidence proving Syria's role as a repeat violator of U.N. sanctions on Iran," U.S. Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Rosemary DiCarolo said. "Syria's refusal to implement its U.N. obligations should be a matter of central concern to this council"  (Agence France-Presse IV/FOCUS Information Agency, June 13).

The Iranian firms Yas Air and SAD Import-Export should join a group of entities under international penalties, Reuters quoted U.N. analysts as saying in an unreleased assessment (Louis Charbonneau, Reuters III, June 12).

[Editor's Note: The Nuclear Threat Initiative is the sole sponsor of Global Security Newswire, which is published independently by the National Journal Group.]

June 13, 2012

Iran's stated intent to field an atomic-propulsion submarine is a cause for worry among observers about the nation's potential pursuit of weapon-usable nuclear material, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday.