The secret nuclear weapons program of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards
On May 8, President Donald Trump declared that the United States was withdrawing from the nuclear accord with Iran. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed by Iran, the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany on July 14, 2015, was meant to freeze Iran’s ability to produce fissile material for 10 to 15 years in exchange for the lifting of all sanctions and United Nations arms embargoes imposed on Iran.
However, the nuclear deal with Iran was never going to achieve what its promoters claimed. Why? Because it did not address the centerpiece of Iran’s ambition to become a nuclear power: the comprehensive nuclear-weapons program of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Initiated in 1984, this secret program proceeds in military installations that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) cannot access. Iran’s civilian nuclear program, led by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), is merely a smokescreen.
Iran’s nuclear program emerged in the 1960s. The Shah wanted to build 20 nuclear power plants with a total investment of US$30 billion. The entire nuclear program was managed by the AEOI and has been regularly monitored since 1974 by IAEA inspectors. But the Shah undoubtedly had ambitions that went beyond a civil program. Speaking at a press conference in 1974, when asked about a military option, he said that Iran would have nuclear weapons “without a doubt, and sooner than one would think..
Iran under Khomeini
When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power in Iran in 1979, he inherited a well-developed civilian nuclear program, which the Shah had intended to modernize the country with. At the time, two nuclear power plants were under construction in Bushehr and Ahwaz.
At first Khomeini showed no interest in this heritage, as he considered the nuclear program to be an evil ploy to make Iran dependent on the West. Consequently, he stopped the work on the nuclear power plants.
However, Khomeini’s nuclear abstinence lasted only a few years. When Iraq used chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and rumors were spreading that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons, Khomeini felt compelled to respond.
In April 1984, Iran’s then-president Ali Khamenei, the highest political and military leader, announced in a secret meeting that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, had decided to reactivate the nuclear program, including the development of nuclear weapons. According to Khomeini, this was the only way to ensure the survival of the Islamic Revolution in the struggle with its enemies: the US and Israel. Khamenei himself later stated that a nuclear arsenal would serve Iran as a “deterrent” in the hands of God’s soldiers.
The task to develop nuclear weapons was given to the Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran), an elite religious militia Khomeini had founded in 1979 and which was only subordinate to him. The Revolutionary Guards were the “Islamic Army” that Khomeini had already envisaged during his years in exile: an elite unit to protect the Islamic Revolution.
Khomeini’s appreciation of his militia was almost limitless: “If the Revolutionary Guards did not exist, the country would not exist.” With regard to the nuclear-weapons program, the Revolutionary Guards lived up to their reputation. Already in 1983 they founded an organizational unit for nuclear research and technology.
Separate nuclear programs
Immediately thereafter, the separation of civil and military nuclear activities was completed. The AEOI was henceforth the official face of the Iranian nuclear program and responsible for the dialogue with universities, research institutes and international control agencies such as the IAEA. By contrast, the Revolutionary Guards operated the top-secret nuclear weapons program predominantly in military installations. This separation of Iran’s nuclear activities has remained unchanged ever since.
Western intelligence services had been tracking this important development. As early as 1984, the West German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) concluded that Iran was pursuing a top-secret nuclear-weapons program and had already made considerable progress in enriching uranium. By 1990, Western intelligence services mostly agreed that the Revolutionary Guards were running a program hidden behind Iran’s openly declared nuclear program.
One additional clue was Iran’s negotiations with Pakistani nuclear smuggler A Q Khan in the mid-1980s. These talks about the possible delivery of nuclear equipment were conducted exclusively by members of the Revolutionary Guards. Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, too, became an accidental witness to the “division of labor” in Iran on the nuclear dossier. She reported that during an official trip to the country in 1995, she was told during a private conversation that the Revolutionary Guards were running the Iranian nuclear program.
There were reports too that by 2006, Mossad had determined that there are two parallel nuclear programs in Iran – one that has been publicly declared vis-a-vis the IAEA and another, secret program managed by the Revolutionary Guards.
Strangely, perhaps, the increasing amount of intelligence on Iran’s secret nuclear program did not translate into a clearer picture for Western governments or the IAEA. The IAEA consistently reported that Iran had fulfilled all the obligations imposed on it by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. All “declared sites” were accessible. In short, Iran had a program for the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and nothing else.
In 1991, when the Iranian resistance group People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK) revealed that the Revolutionary Guards were working on nuclear weapons, the head of the IAEA at the time, Hans Blix, remained incredulous. However, when the representatives of some states invited him to verify the MEK’s statements on the ground, he was forced to take action. He put together a team to check several plants.
Blix told his inspectors to exercise utmost restraint; after all, this was not a tough “challenge inspection,” but only a “familiarization” with localities and staff. Incidentally, inspections had to be announced several days in advance, as was the regular procedure at the time. Predictably, the inspection of six plants did not reveal anything suspicious.
This practice of IAEA inspections lasted from 1984 to 2002, when MEK disclosed the Natanz enrichment plant, the Arak heavy-water reactor and other critical facilities. It now had become undeniable that Iran had lied and had sought to betray the international community for 18 years.
In these 18 years, the civilian nuclear program moved ahead at a leisurely pace, while the Revolutionary Guards were making rapid progress in developing nuclear weapons. Because of the growing criticism of the work of the IAEA, the risk of the secret program being uncovered was increasing, yet the risk of the work actually being stopped remained low.
Western intelligence services accumulated information on the role of the Revolutionary Guards, yet they informed their governments only “if required” or upon request. No Western government wanted to address this aspect of the Iranian nuclear program, since doing so would have compelled it to act. Accordingly, there was no public discussion, either.
The Israeli government tried in vain to communicate its latest findings about Iran to Western governments, and to call for countermeasures. The reactions were odd, however, as shown by the example of Germany.
When General Moshe Ya’alon, head of Israeli military intelligence, visited Germany in the second half of the 1990s, the German foreign minister told him that Germany also knew about the Iranian nuclear program, but should just accept it. Ya’alon was furious and later handed over some of his material to the MEK, which went public in 2002.
Highly efficient centrifuges
After the revelations in 2002, a turbulent time began. On the one hand, in 2003 negotiations commenced between Iran and the UK, France and Germany over the nuclear program, focusing mostly on the installations that were reported by Iran. The key issue was the number of P-1 centrifuges, which Pakistan had delivered starting in 1985, or which Iran had built from Pakistani blueprints. On the other hand, unaffected by the negotiations, modern P-2 centrifuges were running at full speed in several military installations.
The P-2 centrifuges, which are four times as effective as the P-1, had allowed the Revolutionary Guards to operate multiple small enrichment plants, thus diversifying their enrichment capacity. For many years, Iran had been arguing that it had never implemented the plans for P-2 centrifuges purchased from Pakistan in 1995. By now, however, it has become clear, in particular by testimony from A Q Khan’s former employees, that P-2 blueprints as well as prototypes had been shipped to Iran.
Since Iran, via proxy companies, had procured thousands of ring magnets for P-2 centrifuges and large quantities of martensite-hardened steel in the late 1990s, it is obvious that Iran is producing P-2 centrifuges in considerable numbers. However, Iran still refuses to provide information about the whereabouts of its P-2 centrifuges.
For about 20 years now, these P-2 centrifuges have run in military facilities that the IAEA does not control, and which are producing the highly enriched uranium required for nuclear bombs.
Breakthrough on warhead design
Moreover, while the negotiations – or rather, fictitious negotiations – between the Europeans and Iran were dragging on, Tehran, with the help of a Russian specialist, achieved a decisive breakthrough in weaponization, namely warhead design. Iran had been working in this area since the 1990s. Since those years, Iran had been in possession of Chinese blueprints, later modified by the Pakistani, for a compact warhead that would fit on to a Shahab-3 missile.
Amazingly, the first public reports about this appeared in the Japanese press. In August 2003, the paper Sankei Shimbun reported about the presence of Iranian nuclear scientists and technicians in North Korea during the past three years. The same newspaper quoted information from military sources according to which there had been discussions between Iranians and North Koreans about nuclear warheads.
In June 2004, the Sankei Shimbun reported that Iranians and North Koreans were planning joint tests of key components for the ignition of a nuclear device. The latter was a clear indication of Iran’s intention to carry out a “cold test” of a nuclear warhead at short notice.
Shortly thereafter, information from Western intelligence services revealed that Iran had conducted a cold test in the facilities operated by the military and the Revolutionary Guards. A cold test means the triggering of a warhead that has no fissile material inside. The triggering of a warhead based on the implosion principle is the most difficult step in building a nuclear weapon. If the cold test is passed, the way to the bomb is only a matter of days – if the necessary fissile material, that is, highly enriched uranium or weapons-grade plutonium, is available in sufficient quantities. This should not have been a problem for Iran in the period between 2002 and 2005.
Pakistan’s nuke program
In order to put these developments into their proper context, one needs to look at Pakistan. In 1987, when an implosion warhead passed a cold test, Pakistan – in the view of its government – had become a nuclear power, even if it took years to admit it publicly and demonstrate it even later by a series of “hot” tests.
Pakistan made the decisive move toward becoming a nuclear power – “crossed the line”, as the Pakistani chief of staff of those years put it later – with a successful cold test of the warhead and the knowledge of having enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.
In a letter to the president of Pakistan at the time, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, A Q Khan – who later became famous as the “father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb” – proudly declared that Pakistan was now in a position to detonate a nuclear device on short notice. If one applies this definition of a “nuclear power” to Iran, the country has been a nuclear power since 2005/2006. Indeed, the public rhetoric of the Iranian leadership changed significantly in those years. In April 2006, president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran was now a member of the “nuclear club.” A little later, he described Iran as “a nuclear country.”
It is moot to ask whether Iran had become a nuclear power through successful cold tests and sufficiently highly enriched uranium in 2005/2006. More than 10 years have passed since then – years in which the Iranian nuclear program has seen dramatic turns.
North Korea steps in
On January 24, 2007, an article in Britain’s The Daily Telegraph titled “North Korea helping Iran with nuclear testing” set the stage. Written by Con Coughlin, the article stated that North Korea was helping Iran to prepare for an underground nuclear test similar to the one it had conducted in October of the previous year. In the run-up to these concrete preparations, North Korea was allegedly providing Iran with all the data that the successful test had provided. This could deepen the knowledge that Iran had already gained through the presence of several specialists during the North Korean test.
Coughlin, who is known for his close ties to British intelligence, mentioned a “European defense official” as his source. Coughlin, the author of the book Khomeini’s Ghost, had not been over-interpreting his information. Several years before, Iran must have already considered conducting a hot test. This is the only way to explain why the laptop that an Iranian defector handed over to the German BND in 2003, which contained more than 1,000 pages of secret information, also contained a plan for a 400-meter-deep shaft to carry out a hot nuclear test.
This test never happened, presumably because the risk of discovery and subsequent military action by the US or the Israelis was too high even for the Revolutionary Guards.
However, there was another way by which North Korea could help Iran to carry out a much-needed test: by making its test site available to Iran. This happened on May 12, 2010, when an underground nuclear test took place in North Korea.
It was conducted in secrecy – and it remained secret for almost two years. On March 4, 2012, the German paper Welt am Sonntag published an article titled “Has Iran tested its bomb in North Korea?” This provocative article had been triggered by a report published in the renowned journal Nature in February 2012 by Swedish nuclear physicist Lars-Erik De Geer.
De Geer, who conducts research for the Swedish Defense Research Agency in Stockholm on radioisotopes in the atmosphere, had evaluated data from various monitoring stations in South Korea, Japan and Russia on behalf of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization. The CTBTO itself had not conducted an evaluation of its own. An analysis of various short-lived radioisotopes led De Geer to conclude that in 2010 North Korea had probably carried out two secret underground nuclear weapons tests based on highly enriched uranium.
Although other nuclear scientists disputed his findings, De Geer’s database was quite solid, not least because it could draw on extensive experience in interpreting data from Soviet nuclear tests during the Cold War. After two years of debate between De Geer and his critics, he published another analysis in which he reiterated his earlier conclusions, yet acknowledged that there was only one test: on May 12, 2010. He emphasized that the signals detected ruled out any conclusion other than a nuclear test.
Doubts about whether one could make such a far-reaching statement without seismic findings soon dissipated. In the January/February 2015 issue of a seismology journal, two Chinese scientists published solid seismic findings about the event on May 12, 2010. Their data had been provided by the China Earthquake Networks Networks Center. Overall, they confirmed De Geer’s findings, stating that their study provided seismic evidence for a small-caliber nuclear test in North Korea on May 12, 2010.
Yet even this new analysis did not end the debate about a secret nuclear-weapons test in North Korea in May 2010. Not everyone wanted to acknowledge the obvious. Hence, the critics proceeded from the rather daring assumption that the findings of De Geer and the Chinese scientists concerning the event of May 12, 2010, were only a coincidence of seismic and radiological data.
Why would they hang on to such a flimsy argument? At least one explanation was obvious. By deliberately keeping the issue open, they did not have to think through the implications of of a secret underground nuclear-weapons test in North Korea in May 2010. However, one possible explanation for the test in North Korea was obvious: It was a foreign test for Iran. After all, by 2010 Iran had generated enough fissile material for a nuclear device and urgently needed a real test.
Moreover, there was the close military cooperation between North Korea and Iran on the implementation of the cold tests, as well as the North Korean offer in January 2007, as claimed by Coughlin, to help Iran with a test of a small-caliber warhead.
Obama: silence the order of the day
Despite this rather solid chain of evidence, Washington remained quiet for very long. Normally, the US capital’s liberal media would not have let such a story go by. However, these were not normal times. After all, president Barack Obama was about to conclude a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran that would block Iran’s path to nuclear power for 10 years. A proven “hot” nuclear test that Iran could no longer credibly deny would have made these negotiations collapse like a house of cards.
Hence silence was the order of the day, dictated by the US government and the intelligence agencies, and willingly implemented by the pro-Obama media.
Obama’s situation was tricky. At the beginning of his term in office, he had issued the motto “No war with Iran, no Iranian nuclear weapon.” However, as a leading member of George W Bush’s secret “Iran Task Force” put it privately shortly after Obama’s inauguration, “Either the intelligence services continue to lie, or it will turn into a catastrophe for Obama.”
The intelligence services informed their new president at the beginning of his term in autumn 2008 about the details of the Iranian nuclear program. Obama learned that Iran had not reported about a dozen IAEA military installations. He also learned that the Revolutionary Guards had carried out Iran’s nuclear weapons development since the early 1990s, using a lot of money and state-of-the-art technology.
Moreover, a concurrent secret report by the IAEA provided Obama with the unfortunate revelation that Iran had “enough information” to build a nuclear weapon, and that it had probably already tested the “most important part” of a warhead. The latter was a clear indication that Iran had already conducted a cold test.
And there was more. During a meeting of the National Security Council in spring 2009, Obama asked the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Hayden, how much fissile material Iran had stored at Natanz. Hayden responded: “Mr President, I actually know that but let me offer you a different frame of reference. In one sense, it almost doesn’t matter. There isn’t an electron or neutron at Natanz that’s ever going to end up in a nuclear weapon. They will spin that uranium at some secret military facility beyond the eyes of the IAEA.”
Against the background of this information, and in view of the motto that in his term there should neither be a war with Iran not should Iran get nuclear weapons, Obama apparently made the decision to put the available intelligence aside and to create new “facts” that would omit any reference to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ nuclear-weapons program. The Obama administration concocted a superficial threat analysis – in essence focusing on the number of centrifuges operating in Natanz and Fordo – and the intelligence services complied.
The media went along as well, although it remains unclear why. Did they not know about the real danger of the parallel nuclear-weapons program of the Revolutionary Guards? Or were they just trying to help Obama’s policies succeed?
Iran already a nuclear power
The preliminary end of the story is currently on display. The US, some Western Europeans, Russia and China signed a nuclear deal with Iran that would make it impossible for that country to produce nuclear weapons for the next 10-15 years. However, that train had already left the station a decade earlier. By 2005/2006, at the latest, all Western intelligence services had agreed that Iran had conducted cold tests with original warheads, in installations owned by the Revolutionary Guards. This was an important threshold: Iran, which from then on was able to conduct a hot test at any time, had become a virtual nuclear power.
All intelligence services also knew that cold testing was a preparatory act for a hot test, which in turn would be followed immediately by the production phase. This is what happened. Through its underground test in North Korea in May 2010, Iran became a real nuclear power.
Since then, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have been able to build an arsenal of nuclear weapons – while the rest of the world believes that freezing the potential of centrifuges at Natanz and Fordo has arrested Iran’s ambitions and made the Middle East safer.
Of course, there are still doubters who insist on a “smoking gun” as conclusive evidence of a nuclear-weapons program. For them, the “smoking gun” only exists when a mushroom cloud appears. That would be nothing more than political suicide – the end of all politics with their fundamental claim to avert danger as a precaution and to minimize risks.
Against this background, it is clear that the nuclear deal with Iran has been a farce from its very beginning. It simply does not address the real danger: the parallel nuclear-weapons program of the Revolutionary Guards.