Technology Sources for Iran's Nuclear Program
Since its inception, the Iranian nuclear and missile programs have received assistance from foreign governments, firms and individuals associated with numerous countries. The assistance—including technological, material and informational—has helped Iran develop indigenous capabilities for its nuclear and missile programs. Iran’s relationships with Pakistan, China, North Korea and Russia warrant particular attention.
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Pakistan’s relationship with Iran’s nuclear program development traces to the network led by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer (A.Q.) Khan, who developed and oversaw Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Without assistance from A.Q. Khan’s global nuclear trade network, “it is unlikely that Iran would have been able to develop the ability to enrich uranium using gas centrifuges.” A brief chronology of events dating back to the 1980s illustrates the significance of nuclear ties between Iran and Pakistan:
Mid-1980s: Iran approaches the government of Pakistan’s Zia ul-Haq and unsuccessfully requests nuclear cooperation
1986: A.Q. Khan reportedly visits Iran’s reactor at Bushehr
1987: Atomic energy commissions from both countries conclude formal agreement on nuclear cooperation – the deal allegedly calls for the training of six Iranians at Pakistan’s nuclear studies institutes; Khan network closes $3 million deal for centrifuge technology with Iran after being approached;
1988: First P-1 centrifuges arrive in Iran
1991: Pakistani General Mirza Aslam Beg and Iran reportedly agree on nuclear and conventional cooperation in exchange for oil; Pakistan’s government claims that no first-generation centrifuge parts and sub-assemblies were transferred after this year
1993: A.Q. Khan associate Buhary Syed Ali Tahir offers basic centrifuge components and advanced centrifuge drawings to Iran
1994: Iran begins to receive components for 500 basic centrifuges and drawings for advanced centrifuges
1995: The A.Q. Khan network reportedly completes the transfer of 2,000+ components and sub-assemblies for first and second generation centrifuges to Iran
1997: A.Q. Khan’s network sends three advanced centrifuges to Iran, according to Khan’s associate B.S.A. Tahir who previously supplied first-generation centrifuge components (“unconfirmed”)
1999: Last acknowledged meeting between A.Q. Khan network and Iranians
2002: Iran reveals to the IAEA that it received help with enrichment activities from foreign intermediaries beginning in 1987
2004: A.Q. Khan confesses to providing nuclear technology and equipment to Iran 
Pakistan’s government has maintained that Pakistani individuals who assisted in the transfer of nuclear technology to Iran did so of their own accord, “for their own personal financial gain,” and without involvement by “any government or military personality.” Nonetheless, speculation persists over the extent to which Pakistan’s government and elements of its military and intelligence apparatus knew of Khan’s dealings.
Dr. Hassan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani military analyst, makes a distinction between nuclear design “know-how” and the physical components and equipment associated with nuclear technology. He asserts that while it is plausible that resources such as design drawings may have been transferred without the military’s knowledge, any movement of hardware out of Pakistan would indicate some level of implicit support, and therefore direct involvement, from the Pakistani army.
A U.S. congressional report adds that Khan “could not have functioned without some level of cooperation by Pakistani military personnel, who maintained tight security around the key nuclear facilities, and possibly civilian officials.” Indeed, Khan told Pakistani investigators that senior military commanders, including the Pakistani army’s chief of staff from 1988-1991, knew of the assistance Khan lent foreign nuclear programs.
Official state-to-state contacts between Pakistan and Iran faded by the early 1990s. The Iran-Pakistan nuclear relationship beyond this period appears to revolve around the Khan network. A 2004 IAEA report based on information provided by Iran confirmed that Iranian officials held 13 meetings in the mid-to-late 1990s with a “clandestine supply network” believed to be the A.Q. Khan ring. This opaque transition from official, peaceful nuclear cooperation between Pakistan and Iran to the emergence of an Iranian relationship with Khan’s network makes it difficult to evaluate the depth of Pakistan’s official participation in the Iranian nuclear program.
After the Chinese president visited Washington in 2006, President George W. Bush stated that the U.S. believes in “a common goal [with China], and that is that Iran should not have the nuclear weapon, the capacity to make a nuclear weapon, or the know-how” to build a nuclear weapon. The complex nuclear and weapons ties between China and Iran, however, reveal more nuance than that suggested by the rhetorical convergence of American and Chinese interests on the Iranian nuclear issue.
Most recently, inconsistencies have surfaced between China’s ostensible policy towards Iran’s proliferation activities and ongoing Chinese trade ties with Iran. In 1997, the Chinese foreign minister expressed China’s commitment to end its involvement in supplying Iran’s nuclear program during a U.S.-China summit in Washington. China also agreed to cooperate with export control regimes, including the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), concerned with ballistic missile transfers. The Chinese government consolidated these efforts into an official policy declaration with its release of a 2003 white paper stressing its commitment to international nonproliferation efforts. China’s implementation of these policies has not been entirely effective. Specifically, Chinese arms companies continually bypass China’s export controls on the trade of nuclear-weapon-related material and technology.
The Chinese government’s cooperation with Iran on nuclear-related activities dates back to the 1980s. China and Iran cooperated on missile technology in the mid 1980s, a nuclear agreement in 1989, and a separate nuclear deal spurred by a senior Chinese official’s tour of Iran’s Esfahan facilities in 1991. In the field of uranium enrichment, Iran sought Chinese assistance for procuring equipment related to its laser enrichment experimentation. China also served as a source of raw supplies, providing Iran with nearly two tons of natural uranium in the early 1990s. Chinese nuclear specialists also assisted with nuclear program activities inside Iran—some as recently as 2003.
Much like the nuclear relationship between Pakistan and Iran, the 1990s witnessed a public decrease in official cooperation between China and Iran. Official nuclear-related contacts between China and Iran ended in 1997, according to U.S. assistant secretary for nonproliferation issues Robert Einhorn, when “China agreed to phase out all of its nuclear cooperation with Iran, even cooperation carried out under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.” Nonetheless, Chinese entities continued to deal with Iran in nuclear-and-weapons-related industries.
In 2002, U.S. assistant secretary for nonproliferation issues John Wolf noted the existence of Chinese missile development assistance to Iran and China’s failure to execute policies to end Chinese assistance for Iran’s proliferation activities:
"…China has failed to fully implement its commitments…firms in China have
provided dual-use missile-related items, raw materials, and/or assistance to
several other countries of proliferation concern -- such as Iran…There is a
continuing gap between the commitments China has made and its implementation of
these commitments. We remain concerned about gaps and loopholes in Chinese
export controls, as well as by exports by entities with and without government
In 2005, U.S. assistant secretary for arms control Stephen Rademaker highlighted China’s lack of lack of progress in denying Iran access to Chinese nuclear and weapons technologies:
"…persistent problems include the following: continued interactions by Chinese entities with Iranian and Pakistani entities with ties to nuclear establishments; transfers by Chinese entities of items destined for Iran’s chemical weapons (CW) and missile programs…Chinese entity supply of conventional weapons to Iran…Chinese entities have provided dual-use missile items, raw materials, and assistance that have helped Iran become more self-sufficient in the production of ballistic missiles, as well as dual-use CW-related production equipment and technology."
Before a U.S. congressional hearing on security threats confronting the U.S. in 2007, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) director stated that China appears to be adhering to a 1997 commitment to limit nuclear related cooperation, but, “Chinese entities continue to supply key technologies to countries with WMD and missile programs.” Specifically, missile cooperation from Chinese entities continues to aid Iran in building indigenous weapons capabilities. According to the U.S. director of central intelligence, assistance from Chinese entities has in part “helped Iran move toward self-sufficiency in the production of ballistic missiles.”
Notwithstanding the Chinese government’s official position, Chinese firms continue trading with Iran in technology related to ballistic missile, chemical and nuclear weapon programs. Between 2001 and 2007, the U.S. imposed sanctions in fifty-two instances against Chinese parties under the Iran Nonproliferation Act (INA) and the Iran and Syria Nonproliferation Act (ISNA) – accounting for nearly half of all sanctions activity under the two acts over the same period.
In the summer of 2007, Chinese shipments to Iran containing “sensitive” military technologies, including dual-use items on international control lists, apparently increased. As recently as January 2009, Iran reportedly attempted to acquire missile-related, dual-use resources from China, according to correspondence between Iranian companies and foreign suppliers.
North Korean cooperation with Iran centers on weapons sales and assistance – namely ballistic missiles that can be used to deliver a nuclear warhead. North Korea has been the principal supplier to the Iranian missile program. Pyongyang’s ballistic missile assistance to Tehran dates back to the war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s. During this period, Iran financed North Korea’s modified ballistic missile programs in exchange for completed missiles and assistance in developing the Iranian capacity to assemble and produce missile components. In large part, concerns over North Korea’s export of nuclear-weapons-related technology to Iran led to the development of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) program – a U.S.-led global program to “stop trafficking of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), their delivery systems, and related materials.”
In 2000, a report citing a U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) intelligence report linked North Korea to a sale of intermediate range ballistic missile engines to Iran. Additionally, in 2005, Iranian officials reportedly traveled to Pyongyang to offer North Korea oil in exchange for missile technology, according to German magazine, Der Spiegel.
For its part, Iran has apparently returned the gesture of cooperation in the field of missile technology. A former North Korean diplomat who defected in the early 1990s testified before a U.S. congressional committee that a North Korean official working for a firm responsible for North Korean missile exports claimed that Iran and North Korea were closely cooperating on joint missile development. Iran likely finances North Korea’s Nodong missile program, the basis for Iran’s Shahab missile program. More recently, Iran reciprocated North Korea’s missile technology assistance. For instance, in 2005, Iran reportedly shared intermediate range missile test data with North Korea for analysis.
In 2007, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Michael Maples identified North Korea as an exporter of missile technology to Iran. Indeed, North Korea has supplied Iran with missile technology, often through the use of decoy companies. For example, Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation and Korea Ryongbong General Corporation have sold ballistic missile technology to Iran under alternative names and through a series of complex financial transactions.
In 2006, a Los Angeles Times report citing Israeli intelligence sources indicated that North Korea sold intermediate range missiles to Iran. At an annual threat assessment hearing before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence two years later, national intelligence director Michael McConnell’s testimony confirmed Iran’s purchase of a modified North Korean intermediate-range ballistic missile.
Apart from direct missile sales, reports of related North Korean hardware exports to Iran have surfaced in recent years. In 2008, the Indian government reportedly denied clearance through its airspace to a North Korea state airline suspected of sending missile parts, including guidance system equipment, to Iran at the urging of American officials. Iran’s missile production industry relies on those imported missile parts. North Korean assistance, among other foreign contributions, has facilitated Iran’s progress in developing the indigenous capacity to produce ballistic missiles.
In addition to cooperation between North Korea and Iran on missile technologies, reports of direct nuclear cooperation have surfaced. In 2007, for instance, Iran and North Korea reportedly appointed a joint delegation to cooperate on nuclear weapons technology. This decision followed a 2007 report that North Korea invited Iranian nuclear scientists to examine the results of a nuclear weapon test conducted by North Korea in October 2006.
Proliferation security experts raise the point that Iran could potentially acquire North Korea’s nuclear development capabilities. North Korea’s varying degrees of knowledge and experience in the fields of uranium enrichment cycles, plutonium separation, weaponization, weapons design, and nuclear testing could advance Iranian progress toward a nuclear weapons capability.
North Korea’s weapons grade plutonium program, which affords an alternative to enriched uranium on the path to a nuclear weapon, is reportedly a point of potential cooperation between Iran and North Korea. Less than a year after Israel’s 2007 bombing of a suspected Syrian nuclear facility at al Kibar, German magazine Der Spiegel cited intelligence reports stating that North Korean, Iranian and Syrian scientists were working together at the site to build a weapons-grade plutonium reactor.
Russia’s potential revenue in supplying Iran’s military, industrial and nuclear programs is estimated to be ten billion dollars per year. In this context, Russia’s commercial interest has coincided with Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability and missile delivery systems. In 2008, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Gen. Michael Hayden cited Russia’s overt assistance with civil nuclear technology at the Bushehr nuclear power plant and Russian company transfers of ballistic missile resources and technological know-how in the annual report on WMD related acquisitions in 2008.
A similar report from 2004 indicated that Iran’s technological and material acquisitions from Russian firms aided Iran’s development of intermediate range ballistic missiles (Shahab-3) and that ongoing Russian-Iranian trade ties advance Iran’s indigenous missile production capabilities. Iran’s nuclear capabilities may also have benefited from the dissolution of the Soviet Union. For one, the post-Soviet Union transfer of nuclear technology could have led to potential leakage of nuclear-weapons-related material and technology as tracking became decentralized. In addition, freelancing Russian scientists, transient border security, and the less prominent role of intelligence and security in the post-Soviet Union era provided states seeking to expand their proliferation capabilities with ample opportunities. As Gary Samore and Robert Einhorn note, the Soviet Union of history was more effective in partnering with the U.S. to counter nuclear weapons proliferation than the Russian Federation of today.
Other former Soviet republics, having inherited nuclear and missile related technologies, have reportedly bolstered Iran’s missile arsenal. For example, in 2005, officials from Ukraine conceded that six medium-range cruise missiles, capable of supporting a nuclear warhead, were sent from Ukraine to Iran in 2001. The officials denied any Ukrainian government involvement in that missile transfer to Iran.
Russia, despite its commitments to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the MTCR, has failed to establish an export control regime that effectively curbs the transfer of nuclear weapons related technology to Iran. As the U.S. assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation John Wolf testified to in 2002:
"Notwithstanding this export control framework, [Russia’s] implementation and enforcement remains insufficient…proliferators continue to have access to a wide range of sensitive technologies from Russian entities…Russia’s policy on such exports [related to WMD and missiles] is generally to interpret its non-proliferation commitments narrowly…"
Russia and Iran also maintain ties in the field of nuclear energy. In 1995, Russia agreed to complete a light water nuclear power reactor plant near the Iranian city of Bushehr, at a cost of nearly $1 billion. The original deal included a uranium enrichment facility, up to two Russian reactor units, a smaller research reactor, 2,000 tons of natural uranium, and technical training.”
In July 2009, Russian nuclear official Sergei Kiriyenko stated that the Bushehr plant would be launched by the end of 2009. The operational launch of the facility has been delayed by political, technical and financial issues in Russian-Iranian cooperation. In 2005, Russia and Iran struck an agreement under which Russia would supply fuel for the reactor under IAEA safeguards over the course of ten years. The agreement would require Iran to return any spent nuclear fuel to Russia, presumably diminishing the potential risk that Iran would divert material from the plant to supply a nuclear weapons program.
By late 2007, Russia had shipped the initial stock of low enriched uranium fuel for the Bushehr reactor to Iran. At that time, more than 2,000 Russian specialists were expected to assist in the completion of the plant at Bushehr. Beyond assistance at Bushehr, Russia has previously signaled a long-term commitment to Iran’s nuclear program. In 2002, for instance, Russia agreed to a ten-year plan to build six nuclear reactors in Iran.
American intelligence officials have raised the issue that Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation has already progressed beyond the parameters of the Bushehr project. According to A. Norman Schindler, then deputy director of the CIA Nonproliferation Center, there is evidence “that Russian entities are interacting with Iranian nuclear research centers on a wide variety of activities beyond the Bushehr project” and that “many of these projects also have direct application to the production of weapons-grade fissile material.”
Indeed, a 2002-2003 survey of approximately six hundred Russian scientists with expertise in WMD-related technologies, including nuclear weapons, revealed that nearly six out of ten Russian scientists viewed “dual-use work for a foreign firm as acceptable under certain circumstances” and, further, that one in five Russian scientists would consider job opportunities in one or more “rogue states” – to include Iran, North Korea, Iraq and Syria.
Either through its covert procurement networks in Russia or under the guise of civilian nuclear cooperation, Iran has had access to Russian nuclear weapons-related material and knowledge. Iranian scientists have received training and education in Russia and, consequently, the IAEA has detected Russian-sourced technology and material at Iranian nuclear facilities, including Natanz.
The combination of Russia’s vast nuclear complex, ineffective safeguards, and a lack of resolute action towards nonproliferation commitments renders Russia a significant source for nuclear weapons material and knowledge. In addition to Russian assistance for Iran’s nuclear development, Russia’s transfer of missiles, and related material and technology, has enhanced Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapon delivery systems.