In recent months Iran has made large strides toward mastering nuclear technology. Alarmed by these advances, the Bush administration and its European allies have stepped up their hostile actions and threats, specifically:
- Attempting to prevent the entry into service of Iran’s first nuclear power plant at Bushehr. The Bushehr reactor will use nuclear fuel imported from Russia.
- Attempting to prevent Iran from developing the capacity to produce its own nuclear fuel.
- Preparing to impose harsh new economic sanctions on the country.
- Threatening to attack Iran militarily if other means fail to achieve their aims.
Technician working at Esphahan (Isfahan)
The imperialist powers are particularly incensed by their failure to halt Iran’s steady progress in learning how to enrich uranium, the key challenge in manufacturing fuel for a nuclear reactor.
The focus of the campaign against Iran is the accusation that it is developing nuclear weapons, something that Iran vehemently denies. The country has been subjected to years of intense scrutiny through intrusive on-site inspections of key nuclear facilities and surveillance by satellite and other means. These have produced not an iota of proof to support the accusation.
In fact, the attempt to deprive Iran of access to nuclear energy is part and parcel of imperialism’s effort to restrict Iran’s economic progress. This campaign against Iran has gone on ever since the Iranian revolution of 1979.
For many years, Iranians had chafed under the tyrannical dictatorship of the shah, a regime supported by Washington that slavishly applied policies favoring the U.S. and its Western European allies. In 1978 and 1979, millions of Iranians rose up in a massive revolutionary uprising, overthrew the shah, and established a government that is not beholden to Washington. Their revolution has set a powerful example for all oppressed peoples. The imperialists have never forgiven the Iranians for their “crime,” and to this day they continue to display a particular hatred of Iran and its people.
The government that emerged from the 1979 revolution has pursued the narrow interests of Iran’s capitalist class, and over the last three decades this has imposed a particularly heavy price on the country’s toilers. Workers, students, women’s rights advocates, and national minorities have often suffered harsh repression by the regime, as have those whose social and political views differ from those of the rulers.
Nevertheless, the revolution and its aftermath profoundly altered Iranian society, opening new avenues for the participation of the masses in social and political life and the achievement of some major social gains. These advances are reflected in aspects of the Iranian government’s international and domestic policies. For example, Iran stands in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, and it is a key obstacle to imperialism’s campaign of military conquest in the Middle East. Above all, imperialism aims to crush the working people of Iran and their ability to continue struggling for their demands, in solidarity with other fighters around the world.
A Long Struggle to Harness Nuclear Energy
The striking advances in nuclear technology that Iran has made recently are important achievements not only for the Iranian people but also for all those who have an interest in seeing this technology cease to be the exclusive property of a handful of powerful states and their chosen friends.
Iran’s attempt to harness nuclear energy predates its 1979 revolution.
During the shah’s rule, the U.S. and its Western European allies induced Tehran to embrace nuclear power. An extensive program was begun with the goal of eventually building more than 20 nuclear reactors to generate electricity. Steps were also taken toward developing nuclear weapons. Shortly after the shah was overthrown, the Iranian government halted all of these projects.
Before long, Iran, now an Islamic republic, became the target of U.S.-led economic sanctions; these sanctions have had a particularly crippling effect on Iran’s oil industry. Today Iran produces 4.0 million barrels of oil a day, well below the total of 5.5 million produced before 1979. A 1998 study concluded that 57 of Iran’s 60 major oil fields need major repairs and upgrading. This will require investments of some $40 billion over a 15-year period.1 Moreover, despite its large energy resources, Iran is a net importer of gasoline and other refined petroleum products.
Some 38% of the country’s oil output is consumed domestically, primarily to generate electricity.2 While the country’s oil production has declined since 1979, its population has more than doubled, to 70 million today. The need for electrical power is acute; demand is growing by 7% to 8% annually.
According to one expert, if current trends in energy consumption continue, within a few years Iran will become a net importer of oil. He notes that this would be “a gigantic catastrophe for a country which relies on oil for 80% of her foreign currency and 45% of her total annual budget. If that happens, how will Iran be able to feed her population, estimated to reach 100 million by 2025, and also spend on her development and national security? The fact is that, despite considerable efforts over the past 30 years, Iran’s industrial output, aside from her oil industry, accounts for only 15% of her gross domestic product.”3
Nuclear power is not Iran’s only option to increase its supply of electricity. The country has the second-largest reserves of natural gas in the world, and gas-fired generation plants can be built relatively quickly and cheaply. But Iranian authorities emphasize that their country needs to diversify its sources of energy and to limit the consumption of hydrocarbons, both for environmental reasons and to conserve these resources for sale on the international market. In the long term, Iran, like other major energy exporters, aims to develop value-added industries that use its oil and gas as feedstock.
Iran’s policy of energy diversification through nuclear power is no different from the routine practice of other, more powerful states. Russia and the United States are the world’s first and third largest producers of crude oil respectively, yet they use nuclear power to produce between 15 and 20% of their electricity. Canada, another major oil producer, generates 16% of its electricity from nuclear plants.4 By these standards Iran’s goal is relatively modest: it aims to produce approximately 10% of its electricity, 7,000 megawatts, through nuclear power by 2020. This would require building six nuclear power plants in addition to the one at Bushehr.
To meet its acute need for more electricity, Iran must choose from the technologies currently available. Nuclear power certainly has its costs and hazards, but so do other large-scale energy sources. As a sovereign country Iran has every right to make its own policy choices in this field. Its right to develop nuclear power is affirmed by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty whose signatories include Iran and the major world powers (among them the very powers that are attempting to block Iran’s access to nuclear energy).
Iranian society contains within it a diverse spectrum of opinions on many issues. But there is a broad national consensus on the country’s need for nuclear power and on its sovereign right to this technology.
The Battle for Bushehr
Bushehr nuclear power plant
Iran’s first nuclear power plant at Bushehr is nearly ready to go into service. The inauguration of the plant will mark a major step forward for the Iranian people who have invested a great deal of effort and large sums of money over many years to bring it to fruition. Victory is tantalizingly close, yet the outcome still hangs in the balance. In fact, the saga of this plant illustrates the many obstacles that imperialism has erected to prevent Iran’s progress.
Work began on the Bushehr complex on the Persian Gulf coast some 30 years ago under the shah. In 1975 Siemens signed a contract to build two nuclear reactors on the site at a cost of US$4 billion-$6 billion. But the German firm halted work and withdrew from the project after the 1979 revolution. At that point one reactor was 85% complete; the other was 50% complete. The following year Iraq invaded Iran, sparking a long and bloody war during which Iraq repeatedly bombed the Bushehr plant, destroying much of the key infrastructure. When the war ended in 1988, Iran asked Siemens to complete the project, but it refused because of American pressure. Siemens would not even provide Iran with the blueprints of the work that had been done and paid for. U.S. opposition to Bushehr made it impossible for Iran to induce any other Western company to undertake the project.
Finally, in January 1995 Russia agreed to help Iran build a 915 megawatt light water reactor for the plant. The cost to Iran was an estimated US$800 million-$1 billion. The plant was scheduled to begin operating in 2000. A separate contract signed in August 1995 provided for Russia to supply nuclear fuel to the Bushehr reactor for 10 years. To allay fears of proliferation of weapons-grade material, Iran agreed to return the spent reactor fuel to Russia under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency, an agency of the United Nations. (Spent fuel contains the element plutonium which can serve as fuel for an atomic bomb.)
Construction of the plant has been beset with many technical problems and delays, but the work is now nearly complete. Last year Russia agreed to ship uranium reactor fuel to Bushehr by March 2007 and to open the plant in September. Electricity generation was scheduled to begin in November. Russia subsequently announced that the fuel for Bushehr was in storage and could be shipped to Iran within days of a decision by the relevant authorities. Everything seemed to be aligned for a successful launch of the power plant before the end of this year.
U.S. Threats against Bushehr, Moscow’s Betrayal
But in recent months, as work on Bushehr neared completion, the U.S. has pulled out all the stops to prevent its operation. It refuses to accept the assurances from Iran and Russia concerning the spent fuel. The international media have carried many deliberately leaked reports about plans by the U.S. or Israel to bomb the site before the reactor is loaded with nuclear fuel and begins operation. (The consequences of attacking an operating reactor are so extreme that under present circumstances such an operation seems rather unlikely.)
Parallel to these threats, the U.S. and its European allies have worked fiercely behind the scenes to dissuade Russia from collaborating with Iran on Bushehr. For some time Moscow resisted the pressure, while attempting to force Iran to bend to imperialist demands, particularly those related to Iran’s production of nuclear fuel. However, as the U.S. escalated its threats and pressure in recent months, the Kremlin changed course. It decided to placate Washington by reneging on its signed agreements with Iran.
On March 17 the New York Times reported that “Russia has informed Iran that it will withhold nuclear fuel for Iran’s nearly completed Bushehr power plant unless Iran suspends its uranium enrichment as demanded by the United Nations Security Council. European, American and Iranian officials said. . . .
“Russian officials have acknowledged that Russia is delaying the delivery of fuel to the reactor in the port city of Bushehr. The officials attributed the delay to the failure of Iran to pay what it owes, not on nuclear proliferation concerns.
“But last month, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov informed some European officials that Russia had made a political decision not to deliver the fuel, adding that Russia would state publicly that the sole reason was financial, European officials said.”5
This report was confirmed on July 25 when a Russian firm working on Bushehr announced that the reactor would not be ready before autumn 2008. The public announcement, made on the day that an Iranian delegation arrived in Moscow for further negotiations over Bushehr, preempted the negotiations. Iranians naturally reacted to the news with shock and anger.
The Russian claim that the delay is due to a dispute over payments is ludicrous. There is no conceivable reason why Iran, having invested so much effort and money in the project, would stop paying its bills just as the plant neared completion. The Iranians flatly deny the claim and say that they are prepared to publish the record of their payments to the Russian nuclear subcontractors.
The ultimate fate of Bushehr is now unclear. It is already seven years behind schedule. Iran’s need for more electric power is urgent and the inability to add new power from Bushehr to the national grid for some time to come is a serious blow to the Iranian economy. Iranian authorities are quoted in some reports as saying that they are prepared to complete the construction of the plant without Russian participation. Even if this is technically feasible, in the short term there appears to be no other source to which Iran can turn to obtain fuel for the reactor.
Iranian commentators have also drawn a link between Russia’s decision on Bushehr and an offer that it made to the U.S. a few months earlier. To dissuade Washington from installing antimissile systems in Eastern Europe close to Russia, Russian president Vladimir Putin offered to share information on Iran’s missile capabilities with the U.S. The source of the data is a giant Russian-operated radar station in Azerbaijan, a country on Iran’s northern border. Iran sharply protested the Russian proposal which would have undermined the country’s ability to defend itself. Unwilling to abandon his antimissile plans for Eastern Europe, President George W. Bush declined Putin’s offer.
The Other Flash Point: Iran’s Production of Nuclear Fuel
The second major point of contention between Iran and the imperialist powers has been Iran’s insistence that it has the right to manufacture the fuel for nuclear reactors domestically. Through years of negotiations with many twists and turns, Iran has steadfastly insisted on this right as a matter of principle.
Iran’s experience with Russia on the Bushehr project certainly illustrates the risks of depending on outside sources to provide fuel for its reactors. It makes no sense for Iran to build seven Bushehr-type reactors by 2020 without ensuring a reliable source of fuel for them. There is also an economic consideration. The small number of suppliers who control the world market for nuclear fuel charge high prices because of their virtual monopoly. One of Iran’s long-term goals is to become an exporter of nuclear fuel.
Iran has all of the prerequisites for producing nuclear fuel: domestic sources of uranium, a highly skilled workforce of engineers and technicians, and an economy large enough to support the necessary investments in plants and equipment.
To manufacture fuel for a reactor like the one at Bushehr, the uranium found in nature must undergo a sequence of complex industrial processing. The key step is enriching the uranium — that is, increasing the proportion of the U-235 isotope in uranium from 0.7%, the amount found in nature, to at least 3.5%. The process poses some extremely difficult technical challenges.
The most common technique for enrichment is to feed a uranium compound in gaseous form into a large number of centrifuges which spin the gas at an extremely high speed. Because of the slight difference in weight of the two uranium isotopes, U-235 and U-238, centrifugal forces tend to separate the gas containing the different isotopes. The proportion of U-235 increases very slightly in each operation. To attain the desired level of concentration, thousands of centrifuges must be connected together and their operation carefully coordinated.
Not surprisingly, Iran began its uranium enrichment activities in secret. According to various sources, in 1987 it began buying drawings and parts for centrifuges from Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani nuclear expert. International inspectors say the deals eventually included parts for about 500 primitive used centrifuges.
But Tehran apparently was dissatisfied with their quality, so in 1995 it bought an entire plant of thousands of centrifuges from Russia. Moscow subsequently cancelled the deal, responding to pressure from the Clinton administration. Iran then set out on the more difficult route of developing the technology on its own. It began reproducing and enhancing large numbers of centrifuges based on Khan’s designs. It also started building a large uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. The pilot factory there was to house 1,000 centrifuges; the main plant would shelter 50,000 machines. This facility has been built deep under ground to protect it from aerial attack.
Iran still faces many technical hurdles before it can enrich sufficient quantities of uranium to power a reactor. But the speed with which it has overcome obstacles has surprised many observers. This demonstration of scientific and engineering prowess is a source of pride for many Iranians.
On May 15 the New York Times reported that “inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency have concluded that Iran appears to have solved most of its technological problems and is now beginning to enrich uranium on a far larger scale than before, according to the agency’s top officials. The findings may change the calculus of diplomacy in Europe and in Washington, which has aimed to force a suspension of Iran’s enrichment activities in large part to prevent it from learning how to produce weapons-grade material.”
The Times quoted the director general of the international energy agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, as saying, “We believe they pretty much have the knowledge about how to enrich. … From now on, it is simply a question of perfecting that knowledge. People will not like to hear it, but that’s a fact.”6
A subsequent report cited a UN official as saying that by mid-June Iran had 2,000 centrifuges on line and was on pace for 3,000 by July.7 This would be a giant step toward enriching uranium on the industrial scale necessary to fuel a nuclear reactor. On July 6, ElBaradei reported that the pace of expansion had slowed. There are likely further technical challenges to be overcome, but as ElBaradei noted, the overall direction is clear: Iran is increasingly acquiring the necessary expertise. Time does not favor those who want to deprive Iran of access to nuclear technology.
Growing Threat of Imperialist Aggression
For this very reason, the threat of an imperialist attack on Iran is very real. The July 19 issue of The Economist, a magazine that is an influential voice in shaping imperialist policy, expressed its concerns in these terms: “The mild sanctions imposed so far are not working, and now the technological clock in Natanz is outrunning the diplomatic clock at the United Nations. Iran may soon work out how to spin its centrifuges at full speed for long periods; and once it learns how to do that the odds of stopping it from building a bomb will rapidly lengthen. This suggests that a third sanctions resolution, with sharper teeth, needs to be enacted without delay.”8
Iranian soldiers at an anti-aircraft defense position inside the uranium enrichment facility in Natanz. The facility would be a prime target of any military strike by the U.S. or Israel.
Harsh new economic sanctions such as a ban on shipments of gasoline to Iran could potentially devastate the country’s economy. But this is not the only threat facing Iranians. Notwithstanding the crisis the U.S. faces over its occupation of Iraq and the widespread antiwar sentiment in the American population, Washington and Tel Aviv are seriously considering a military attack on Iran if that is the only way that they can reverse Iran’s nuclear progress. The consequences of such aggression, whether economic or military — or both — are likely to be far-reaching. But so too, from their perspective, are the consequences of failing to act and allowing Iran to achieve its goals.
The stakes are equally large for working people. We must vigorously defend Iran’s right to nuclear energy. We must also be vigilant and ready to mobilize against the threat of new measures against Iran, whatever their form.
(A forthcoming article will discuss the claim that Iran is attempting to develop nuclear weapons.)
1 Muhammad Sahimi, “Iran’s Nuclear Program: Part II: Are Nuclear Reactors Necessary?” Payvand 3 October 2003.
3 Sahimi, op. cit.
6 David E. Sanger, “Inspectors Cite Big Gain by Iran on Nuclear Fuel,” New York Times 15 May 2007.
7 “IAEA Warns Of Iran Atomic Risk Amid EU-Tehran Talks,” Reuters, 11 June 2007.