By Cindy D. Tan
Cindy D. Tan ’08, a History of Art and Architecture concentrator from Eliot House, graduates from Harvard College this year.
Iran’s April 8 announcement that it plans to install 6,000 centrifuges at its main enrichment site at Natanz comes without surprise given the regime’s flagrant posturing in recent years. After breaching its October 2003 agreement with France, Britain, and Germany to suspend all enrichment activities,  Iran has taken to boasting openly about its rapid nuclear developments and its aim to enrich and process uranium. Restating on multiple occasions its unwavering intentions to pursue nuclear technology, Iran is eager to advertise its gains, and even overstate the speed and scale of its nuclear program. Iran’s public exaggeration of its nuclear capabilities allows it to make valuable, short-term political gains. Iran believes it can purposefully embellish its nuclear progress without provoking a military response because it believes that the United States and Israel are unlikely to wage preemptive military strikes. Moreover, Iran’s minimal cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also allows it to exploit the indecisive and ineffective response by the international community. Regardless of whether Iran will divert its civilian nuclear program into a weapons program, creating the impression that it has an uncontrollable and rapidly advancing nuclear industry brings Iran closer to its aspiration of achieving regional hegemony.
Iran’s Nuclear Crisis
Iran operates key nuclear sites at Arak, Bushehr, Isfahan, and Natanz, with several additional research and laboratory facilities across the country.  Of central concern to the international community is the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP), where Iran resumed assembling and testing centrifuge components in 2004, when it defiantly removed seals placed by the IAEA. Nuclear experts believe the Natanz site is comprised of a small pilot plant, which performs centrifuge tests and small enrichment functions, and a larger, commercial-scale plant that can house up to 50,000 centrifuges.  The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an exiled Iranian dissident group, first discovered covert underground operations at the site in August 2002 and exposed what many insist is a nuclear weapons program.  The NCRI’s disclosure forced the government to admit, in a public statement by Iranian Vice President Rahim Aghazadeh, that Iran was “embarking on a long-term plan to construct nuclear power plants with a total capacity of 6000 MW within two decades.”  Although, according to the IAEA, Iran was not under obligation to disclose its nuclear facilities at the time, the reports attracted public criticism and speculation about the program’s intentions. Since the IAEA’s 2003 discovery that Iran had been conducting undisclosed uranium-conversion and plutonium experiments,  Iran has taken limited steps toward making its program more transparent and it has minimally cooperated with international agencies. Iran contends that its civilian program does not violate the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and it has responded to UN sanctions with boastful public announcements about its nuclear achievements.  The November 2007 United States National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) corroborated the IAEA’s finding and claimed that Iran had a nuclear weapons program in 2003. In order to evade such accusations, Iran has shrouded its current nuclear activities in mystery and performed propagandist media stunts that complicate efforts to understand its intentions.
The reality of Iran’s nuclear progress is probably far too inglorious to warrant Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s claims of a “nuclear victory.” His announcements are often at odds with the findings of the United Nations and the IAEA. Iranian officials have frequently avoided addressing the UN reports that expose the primitiveness of their nuclear program. Nuclear analysts and experts frequently remark that the public portrayal of Iran’s nuclear progress is vastly inaccurate and overblown.  David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security and a former UN weapons inspector, says that Iranian claims are “little more than vacuous political posturing meant to promote Iranian nationalism and a sense of atomic inevitability.” 
In a nationally televised broadcast, the Iranian President declared that April 8 would be a “national day of nuclear achievement.”  Standing at a podium before an Iranian flag imprinted with the atomic symbol, Ahmadinejad said, “today we have started the installation of 6,000 new centrifuges,” pausing in suspense before adding, “I will announce more achievements tonight.”  If Iran succeeds in installing the new generation of centrifuges, it will triple its current operating capacity.  However, little is known about the new centrifuges or how long it will take before they will begin operation. Ahmadinejad did not specify the model or the capacity level of the new centrifuges, arousing speculation that they are the same P-1 centrifuges currently in use, and a far cry from the “breakthrough” that he claims marks the “beginning of a speedy trend to eliminate the big powers.” 
The “achievements” Ahmadinejad mentioned most likely refer to an enigmatic claim he made later in his speech that Iranian scientists are testing a new type of centrifuge which works five times faster than the P-1 centrifuges at Natanz.  It is highly unlikely that Iran actually possesses such technology. In early 2006, the IAEA investigated Iran’s acquisition of designs for a modified, thinner centrifuge called the P-2 and Iran voluntarily provided details about the new model’s improved capabilities.  The P-2 was more difficult to produce and sustain, leading Iranian engineers to develop their own version, called IR-2. Diplomats familiar with the inspections believe that Ahmadinejad was alluding to this specific model. The IR-2 centrifuge, a modified and more reliable version of the P-2, can spin uranium hexafluoride gas at two or three times the speed of the P-1.  According to the most recent IAEA report released in February 2008, Iran reported that it was in the process of planning its first subcritical centrifuge and it provided designs for an IR-2 test cascade. At that time, Iran had not yet successfully processed uranium in the IR-2 and was still running mechanical tests on the P-1 generation, thereby contradicting its own public statements. Earlier this year, according to the IAEA report, the IR-2 had still not reached operational capacity and the series of P-1 cascades still required new testing due to repeat malfunctions. 
U.S. intelligence sources have been aware of the IR-2 technology since January 2008 when Iran announced that it was using ten of the new machines.  However, the report issued by the IAEA a month later found that only one machine had been fed uranium.  Contrary to Ahmadinejad’s earlier claims, the IAEA reported that the 10-machine IR-2 centrifuge was not operating and that uranium was being tested in only one P-1 machine cascade. This finding implies that fewer than two hundred of the 3,000 centrifuges Iran has installed are actually functional.  Given that Iran is still testing the IR-2 model and is experiencing significant difficulties operating the P-1 generation, it is unlikely that the country will possesses technology capable of operating faster centrifuges than the IR-2. Some IAEA officials have leaked that “Iran has exaggerated its progress and seen problems operating the 3,000 centrifuges already in place.”  Unannounced inspections at multiple facilities throughout the country document numerous schedule setbacks and technological malfunctions that present a vastly different image of Iran’s nuclear progress from that painted by its firebrand president.
Ahmadinejad’s pattern of unsubstantiated rhetoric regarding the nuclear enrichment program makes the veracity of his recent claims improbable. The April 8 announcement follows Ahmadinejad’s April 2007 proclamation that Iran had reached enrichment capacity at an “industrial scale.” He claimed that Iran had begun installing 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz and would ultimately reach 50,000.  Ahmadinejad appeared before a similarly oversized billboard of the Iranian flag encircled by the nuclear symbol, stating: “with great pride, I announce as of today our dear country is among the countries of the world that produces nuclear fuel on an industrial scale.”  The following day, government-owned newspapers ran headlines reading “Nuclear Power.”
The National Nuclear Technology Day, as it was called, did not actually herald any tangible accomplishment. On 17 April 2007, days after Ahmadinejad’s international broadcast, Mohamed ElBaradei, the Director General of the IAEA, said that Iran was only operating several hundred centrifuges, not the 3,000 which it reported to have activated.  A confidential IAEA document produced later that month reported that Iran had installed only 1,300 centrifuges and was unable to complete the full installation due to technical setbacks. The IAEA report was produced after a short-notice inspection. A diplomat speaking on anonymity added, “They are at the stage where they are doing one cascade a week.” At this significantly reduced pace, Iran was projected to complete installation by June and to reach 8,000 by the end of the year. 
Reza Agazadeh, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, responded to the report by “confirm[ing] that our technical efforts are going ahead appropriately,” restating that “improving nuclear technology and the installation and operation of 50,000 centrifuges are our aim.”  However, he never stated explicitly the actual number of functioning machines at the facility.
In the face of skeptical responses from nuclear analysts at the IAEA, Iran did not issue another public statement regarding its nuclear program until September 2007, when it again claimed that it had installed 3,000 centrifuges. However, the September 2007 IAEA report, released a few days after the announcement, found that only 2,000 centrifuges were functioning, significantly short of the claims made months earlier.  The November 2007 IAEA report also noted that the P-1 machines that had been installed were operating intermittently and enriched minimal amounts of uranium. Only two of the planned six groupings of centrifuge cascades were actually in use. 
Former Iranian government official and political analyst Saeed Laylaz remarked in April 2007 that “the president’s announcement was mostly important from a propaganda and political standpoint.” But he also noted that “that doesn’t mean the centrifuge goal is not reachable.” He argued that Iran could potentially have 3,000 operating centrifuges “in a matter of months.”  His statements are symptomatic of the general ambiguity and confusion surrounding Iran’s nuclear activities.
As the international community continues to debate the long-term aims of Iran’s nuclear program, it has underestimated Iran’s short-term strategy. Simply by exaggerating Iran’s capacity to build nuclear warheads, the regime has gained the country honor and political influence, and it has come closer to achieving its geopolitical goals. Ahmadinejad’s public exaggerations, which have been flippantly disregarded by nuclear specialists as empty boasting, serve to propel Iran into a position of political and strategic strength, even at the cost of international isolation. In February 2007, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei proclaimed that “nuclear energy is the future and destiny of the country”  and he was quoted earlier this year as saying that God will punish Iranians who do not support the country’s nuclear program. 
Iran exaggerates its nuclear progress because it believes it can make short-term political gains. The appearance of a highly advanced nuclear program with potential military capabilities bolsters deterrence by intimidating weak regional neighbors. As Iraq’s new government focuses on establishing internal order, Iran is in a strong position to assert its control over the region, namely by fueling, funding, and arming Shi’ite militias, most importantly those in Iraq. Iran will continue to extend its influence in Afghanistan and Iraq as it gains greater support among the Shi’a resistance groups in both of these countries.
Moreover, Iran can spread its influence by instigating intra-Muslim conflict in the Gulf Arab states, where many of the Shi’ite populations there identify with Iran’s Shi’ite majority. In 2006, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2006, said “most of the Shi’ites are loyal to Iran and not to the countries they are living in.”  By developing a base of support in other states, Iran can undermine the economic and technological superiority of the Gulf states and politically threaten several governments in the region.
The Iranian government also stands to gain significant domestic. Ahmadinejad’s ideological rhetoric and boastful announcements serve to inspire confidence in the government and pride in the country’s defiance of international sanctions. Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rohani, says, “Our people feel great pride because our young Iranian scientists can produce nuclear fuel, the most important part of the fuel cycle, despite all of the sanctions and pressure from the West.”  This sense of nationalism is driven by Ahmadinejad’s claims that “every problem we [Iranians] have will be solved by global Islamic rule.” The desire for nuclear technology forms only part of Ahmadinejad’s call for expanded power. On multiple occasions he has told the Iranian people, “we must prepare ourselves to rule the world.”  To maintain the credibility of its expansionist aims, Iran must demonstrate constant progress in its pursuit of nuclear technology.
Iran is also eager to convince the international community that its acquisition of nuclear power is inevitable. If Iran can demonstrate that its nuclear program has already reached advanced degrees of development, then it can fend off demands to shut down the program. The idea of “atomic inevitability” contributes to widespread concern that Iran intends to develop nuclear weapons. While there is no explicit evidence that Iran has plans to build a bomb, it is approaching a ‘nuclear threshold,’ at which point it will have enriched enough uranium to be able to divert nuclear material from its civilian program to weapons manufacturing with speed. Israel’s Military Intelligence predicts that Iran will reach the ‘nuclear threshold’ by 2009.  However, Iran can only reach this ‘point of no return’ once it has resolved its technical issues. In the meantime, Iranian officials effectively deny the reports that its program is underdeveloped and continue to announce milestones on a yearly basis. The resolution deadlines issued by the UN Security Council pass without significant penalties, only further encouraging support for Iran’s nuclear industry. Even when the program fails to achieve tangible results, Iran will work to display its technical competency and enhance its renegade status on the way to its inevitable acquisition of nuclear power.
Iran’s political aspirations are intertwined with its deep-seated antagonism toward Western powers, especially the United States and Israel. Iran believes that it will not be able to compete with the West for influence unless it has nuclear weapons, although it is already exploiting political and ethnic conflict across the region. Iran antagonizes the West and destabilizes the Middle East through a combined approach of using propagandist rhetoric and terrorist sponsorship. Iran’s readiness to project as great a nuclear threat as possible and transgress the limits of a semi-transparent civilian program is based on its calculation that there is a low risk of preemptive attacks from the West.
Iran has determined that it can afford to risk provoking a preemptive military attack because it believes that the United States is politically and operationally constrained by the lukewarm domestic support for such a move and existing military engagements. Because of the intelligence failures in Iraq, the U.S. government will struggle to convince Americans of the need for preemptive military strikes against Middle Eastern states assumed to possess weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, the U.S. may already have drafted preliminary plans for attack.  In May 2004, the House of Representatives passed a resolution allowing the U.S. government “to use all appropriate means to deter, dissuade, and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”  Despite some support within the Bush administration for the use of military force against Iran, a preemptive strike is likely impossible, given the overextension of U.S. forces already deployed in the region. Moreover, an attack on Iran would invariably put the large number of U.S. troops in the Middle East in danger of direct Iranian retaliation as well as by militias within Iraq. In 2007, Admiral William Fallon, former commander of the United States Central Command, rejected plans to send a third aircraft-carrier strike group to the Gulf as a threat to Iran.  He expressly stated that war against Iran “will not happen on my watch.”  Furthermore, Iran has buried its main enrichment facility, intended to house 50,000 machines, deep underground in order to avoid attacks similar to the 1981 Israeli air raid on the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor or the 2003 American “Shock and Awe” opening to the Second Gulf War.
Iran has also generated a multi-pronged strategy that it thinks will deter Israel from striking its nuclear facilities. First, Iran has invested heavily in its ballistic missile capabilities in order to demonstrate that it can attack Israel with its 1,200-mile range Ashura ballistic missiles.  Second, Iran employs the Shi’ite terrorist organization Hezbollah in Lebanon as a proxy force, which threatens to bombard or invade Israel from the north. For now, Israel has adopted a reticent public stance. Israeli President Shimon Peres has expressed emphatically, “I would prefer to stop the development of the atomic bomb without getting thrown into a war.”  While Israel could be waiting for further developments before making a decision, Iran currently exercises great liberties in its implementation of its “civilian” nuclear program and can continue to taunt and confuse the international community.
Staying the Course
Currently, Iran is in violation of three UN Security Council resolutions that demand the suspension of all nuclear enrichment activities.  It vehemently defends its right to develop nuclear technology under the NPT and defiantly advertises each stage of the process, however minor. For the Iranian government, defending the right to own nuclear technology has taken on such dramatic importance that political considerations have overshadowed the facts, and government officials have become adept at exaggerating nuclear developments instead of disclosing its actual setbacks.
Although the intentions of Iran’s nuclear program remain unclear, the political and cultural significance of a nuclear Iran has enormous international ramifications. Any evidence of Iran’s encroaching regional domination further inspires its growing militant Shi’a base, both domestically and internationally. Hassan Abbasi, the Director of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps says “approximately 40,000 Iranian estesh-hadiyun (martyr-seekers)” will carry out suicide attacks against “twenty-nine identified Western targets,” should the U.S. strike any Iranian nuclear facility.  National prestige and the promise of regional power drive the regime’s ambitions. It therefore chooses to employ such rhetoric in the short term as long as the risks of actual military strikes remain low.
In defiance of international sanctions, Iran will continue to pursue this short-term strategy because it perceives high payoffs and only minor risks. However, this strategy is predicated on the belief that Iran’s sensitive nuclear sites, oilrigs, refineries, and military facilities are safe from attack. As long as the international community is disinclined to threaten or undertake military action, Tehran will race toward regional domination based on both rhetorical and real nuclear power.
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