Iran: The Back Door to Enrichment

It would seem that Iran holds the cards in the nuclear negotiation with the P5+1, primarily because the U.S. is the overeager suitor.  The Framework agreement, the basis for the final deal, does not prevent Iran from designing nuclear warheads or building delivery systems.  There is also increasing evidence that the language has been configured so Iran could also either enrich uranium or produce plutonium for weapons – even without cheating.  But although the deal appears heavily weighted toward Iranian nuclear interests, the mullahs appear convinced they need a back as well as a front door.

So cheat they do.

Earlier this year, the U.N. reported that the government of the Czech Republic had stopped the sale of a large number of axial flow compressors sought by the Iranian government through an intermediary using phony documents.  The sale, estimated to be worth $61 million, was a blatant violation of U.N. sanctions on Iran.  One Czech source said the intermediary claimed that Iran wanted the compressors to move natural gas; they can also enrich uranium.

Iran is known to be using Zippe-type cascades of gas centrifuges for enrichment, a process that does not require compressors. Iran was not known to be using gas diffusion and Helikon ASP, two processes that do require compressors.  Gas diffusion is one of the oldest known methods for uranium extraction; however, its use is declining because it requires large amounts of energy and has relatively low output.  Helikon, enrichment using uranium hexafluoride, consumes about the same amount of energy but is somewhat more efficient and is easy to conceal.  On the other hand, Helikon is highly caustic and dangerous.  In particular, if "hex" gas comes in contact with water or water vapor, corrosive hydrogen fluoride will result.  Interestingly, the Czech compressors were optimized for caustic environments.

There are three reasons every country known to have pursued nuclear weapons development has tried concurrent solutions.  The first – practical – reason is that should a problem arise at any point in the chain, the program could be delayed.  In the famous race between the United States and Germany during World War II, the U.S. invested massively in different solutions for fear the Germans might get the bomb first and change the outcome of the war.  Even after Germany surrendered, there was a rush to collect enough uranium and plutonium to attack Japan before the U.S. was obliged to initiate a massive invasion of the Japanese mainland.

Iran has to contend with the United States and Israel, one an actual and one a presumed nuclear power.  With proven nuclear weapons, the calculus changes, and Iran's push for regional control improves dramatically.  Already behind, the first reason can help ensure that they can make up ground.

The second reason is to protect the nuclear infrastructure from a determined enemy.  There have been a number of attacks on Iranian installations, including an explosion in November 2011 at the Shahid Modarres missile base, which satellite imagery confirmed destroyed large parts of the base, and what appears to have been a large explosion at Parchin in October 2014, where nuclear warhead testing was said to be underway.  There have been bombings and assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists.  There have been virtual attacks designed to take out Iran's gas centrifuges, including the Stuxnet worm, alleged to have been a joint U.S.-Israel operation.  Thus, a nuclear "wannabe" will want multiple locations for weapons development and, if possible, redundancy in case any attack is successful.

The third reason is secrecy and the risk that operations might be discovered.  The Manhattan Project, despite its massive industrial scale, was secret, as was the British Tube Alloys Program – except for the Soviet spies.

What we know about in Iran is what the Iranians have been willing to say – officially or otherwise – or what spy agencies and surveillance have been able to show.  But it is highly unlikely that the entire Iranian nuclear infrastructure is completely known.  Indeed, the almost-shipment of axial flow compressors strongly suggests there is a lot more going on than meets the eye.  Add to this reports that Iran is working on missile warhead testing and, according to the London Guardian, is developing two-point implosion bombs, it follows that Iran has a complex and sophisticated program much of which remains hidden.

It is widely reported that Iran has received significant help from Russia, China, North Korea, and Pakistan and tons of vital supplies from Western Europe and even the United States, making the scope of their program clearer. Just this year, the British government reported to the U.N. that Iran maintains a large clandestine technology acquisition operation funneling hardware and technology to Iran's bomb program.  There is tantalizing evidence that Iran got help from South Africa. 

South Africa calls its uranium enrichment facility "Valindaba," which is Zulu, meaning "we don't talk about this at all."  The nuclear weapons program and the plant at Valindaba were closed down, but South Africa retains the technology it developed.  Initially supplied by Germany, the South Africans say they improved the uranium enrichment process known as ASP into the Helikon vortex separation system.  From this system, South Africa produced at least eight working atomic bombs and was seeking to develop or acquire technology to produce smaller warheads that could be mounted on their RSA-2 multi-stage missiles, which were knock-offs of Israel's Jericho II missile.  Late last year, South Africa was thinking of restarting Valindaba for uranium enrichment. 

Strong confirmation of South African-Iranian cooperation comes from intelligence documents prepared by South Africa's National Intelligence Agency and leaked to Al Jazeera.  In the documents, the NIA comments in depth on how Iran had penetrated South Africa at multiple levels and started cooperation on nuclear technology, including a reported meeting between Hassan Rouhani, then-head of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran and now Iran's president, and South African president Thabo Mbeki.  Rouhani asked the South African government to assist Iran with its nuclear program.  The press reported that South Africa responded in part by offering uranium oxide that could be converted into uranium hexafluoride, but the Iranians also wanted technology.  What they might have gotten is unclear, but Helikon know-how would certainly been on the list of possibilities.  Helikon vortex separation system modules each require two axial flow compressors. 

Was that the objective of trying to bring compressors illegally to Iran from the Czech Republic?

Naturally, the State Department tried to downplay the transfer.  If Iran was well along on uranium enrichment systems other than those already known – in other words, if Iran was proven to be cheating even before the Framework becomes a deal – the whole American-led house of cards could collapse. 

The Obama administration and the P5+1 claim to be seeking to restrict uranium enrichment, but there is growing evidence that loopholes in the deal make it possible for Iran to continue its main programs.  Thus far, Iran's "red lines" are the ability to continue enriching uranium and putting military installations, other than those already identified in the deal, off limits to inspectors.  That leaves a great many military sites off limits – including, perhaps, one where the Czech compressors would have been housed had the ruse been successful.

Iran is working on atomic weapons and advanced implosion technology so it can make a small enough weapon to fit on its North Korean-supplied ballistic missiles.  Because the P5+1 Framework agreement covers only a small and exposed part of Iran's nuclear weapons program, and cannot account for that we do not know, Iran can be expected to emerge as a nuclear power at any time.