September 27, 2012 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 885

Tehran Declares Intent To Enrich Uranium To 90% For Military Purposes – Nuclear Submarines

September 27, 2012 | By Yigal Carmon, A. Savyon, and Yossi Mansharof*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 885


In recent months, Iranian regime spokesmen have conducted a campaign of statements regarding Iran's intent to enrich uranium for use in nuclear-fueled ships and submarines – the latter a patently military use of nuclear power. Regime officials, regime dailies, and websites close to the regime issued no fewer than 12 such statements, in which they declared Iran's intent to enrich uranium for nuclear fuel to power both surface sea craft and submarines. It should be noted that while nuclear fuel for surface craft entails uranium enrichment of 50-60%, nuclear-powered submarines require enrichment of 90%, which is the same level needed for the production of a nuclear bomb.

From its inception, this campaign of statements was meant as a counterargument to heightened Western sanctions. The regime said that in the face of sanctions restricting its use of oil, Tehran had no choice but to develop an alternative source of energy to fuel commercial transport, in order to maintain its ties with the world.[1] However, in what would seem a strategic error, regime spokesmen in their statements conflated nuclear fuel for surface vessels for use in trade, with nuclear fuel for submarines which are categorically designated for military use, not civilian use.

For this reason, after realizing that these statements had exposed Tehran's intentions to attain the 90% enrichment needed for a nuclear bomb, the Iranian regime has over the past month issued no further declarations regarding nuclear submarines. Moreover, several regime spokesmen backed down from the declarations, stating that Iran has no need at this stage for uranium enriched beyond 20%, and that the country is nonetheless capable of higher enrichment.

The following report will review these statements and the attempts to back down from them:

Statements Declaring Iran's Intent To Enrich High Grade Uranium For Nuclear Powered Sea Craft

For Ships (Commercial Use, i.e. 50-60% Enrichment):

1. Majlis members prepared a draft bill requiring the government to design nuclear-powered merchant ships and provide them with nuclear fuel.[2]

2. Majlis member Allahoradi Dehqani explained, "The government must enrich uranium to the level needed to provide fuel for these ships, since we cannot end our trade relations with other countries due to Western sanctions. Because of sanctions leveled by Western countries against Iran, which include a ban on providing fuel to Iranian vessels, Iran will replace fossil fuel with nuclear fuel in order to bypass the need to refuel during long voyages."[3]

3. Another Majlis member involved in the initiative, Abolghasem Jarareh, said, "This [nuclear] fuel will undoubtedly [be enriched to a level] higher than 25%- to about 50-60%."[4]

4. In an analysis published July 16, 2012, the website Mashreg News, which is close to security circles in Iran, claimed, "Iran's nuclear industry will have to increase nuclear enrichment to the average level of new marine reactors, in the range of 50-60%. Considering the new sanctions and pretexts meant to prevent the transfer of fuel to Iran's oil tankers, this move could be a substantial step that will bring about the neutralization, uprooting, and bypassing of the sanctions..."[5]

5. The head of the Policy-Making Council of Iran's Friday Prayer Leaders, Hojjatoleslam Seyed Reza Taghavi, warned that Tehran would enrich uranium to 56% if the pressure on it continued.[6]

For Submarines (Military Use, i.e. 90%):

6. Iranian Navy Deputy Commander for Technical Affairs Rear Adm. Abbas Zamini declared, on June 12, 2012, that Iran had taken preliminary steps toward the construction of super-heavy nuclear-fueled submarines: "Right now, we are at the initial phases of manufacturing atomic submarines."[7]

7. Amir Mousavi, a former advisor to the defense minister, said that Iran has the necessary knowhow to enrich uranium to the 50-60% level needed to fuel nuclear ships and submarines, but added that it was prepared to discuss Western demands if the West recognized its right to develop civilian nuclear technology.[8]

8. The Iranian website, which is close to Iran's team of nuclear negotiators, claimed, "Producing [nuclear] fuel for submarines and ships entails raising the level of enrichment beyond 20%. However, it is extremely important to note that this is an entirely civilian move, as, according to the NPT, Iran has the right to enrich [uranium] to any level it wishes, for civilian use. This [comes as] a direct response to Europe and the U.S.'s recent sanctions against Iran..."[9]

9. The daily Etemad explained that the move would serve Iran in future nuclear talks: "According to several Western commentators, the issue of producing nuclear fuel for submarines will enable Iran to pave the proper way for nuclear progress, as it will [entail] enriching uranium to a grade higher than 20%. Under these conditions, Iran will benefit from a greater potential for progress in future talks with the 5+1."[10]

10. The website, which is close to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), claimed that "according to authoritative reports published by scientific sources, producing fuel for nuclear submarines or ships necessitates uranium enrichment to a level of 90%, but technical experts in Tehran say that not all nuclear submarines require [fuel] enriched to 90%, and that fuel [enriched] to 52-57% will be sufficient."[11]

11. A September 5, 2012 article by international affairs expert Mirza Reza Leilani discussed several scenarios entailing "Iranian opportunities and threats as part of a coalition with China and Russia." Among them, Leilani raised an optimistic scenario in which Iran would force Europe to recognize it as a nuclear state: "According to this scenario, Iran will emphasize its nuclear capabilities to enrich uranium to 60% for medical nuclear reactors, and to enrich uranium to 90% for nuclear submarines. The Fordow [uranium enrichment] facility will be completed, there will be chaos in the Strait of Hormuz that will raise oil prices, and this, in turn, will pressure Washington and harm the world economies. It will cause Europe to officially recognize a nuclear Iran..."[12]

12. The daily Vatan-e Emrooz, which is close to the government of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, claimed that "the new wave of oil sanctions on Iran by [the countries] of the West has once again placed Iran on the path of acquiring preferable technology, [this time] by producing ships and oil tankers [powered] by nuclear fuel; and Iran is [only a few] steps away from this astounding achievement. While European countries have followed the U.S.'s unilateral sanctions against Iran and instated an oil boycott, Iran never considered relinquishing the nuclear path, but rather planned to continue on this path and achieve nuclear fuel [enriched to a level] above 53% and up to 90% for intercontinental ships... The 5+1, which until now were unwilling to submit to Iran's undeniable right to enrich uranium [to a level of] 20%, will now be forced to watch Iran achieve fuel enriched to a level needed for nuclear-powered oil tankers."[13]

Regime Officials Back Down: Iran Currently Has No Need For Enrichment Beyond 20%

In an apparent belated realization that the statements regarding nuclear submarines and 90% had incriminated Iran in intending to enrich uranium for military purposes beginning in early August 2012, Iranian media and regime mouthpieces are now refraining from mentioning the demand or the ability to enrich uranium to a level beyond 20%. Furthermore, since late July 2012, regime officials have stressed that Tehran does not at this stage require enrichment beyond 20%.

On September 19, 2012, Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) director Fereydoon Abbasi stated, following a meeting with IAEA chief Yukiya Amano at a gathering of the IAEA Board of Governors: "Iran has no intention of enriching uranium beyond 20%."[14]

Majlis speaker Ali Larijani was interviewed by the Financial Times on September 22, 2012. Asked about Iran's decision to build nuclear submarines, which require enriched uranium beyond 20%, he said: "If the IAEA allows us to have some products for peaceful technology and under its supervision, then we can do it. But for now, we do not need it. If the IAEA had met its obligations and had provided the Tehran nuclear reactor with fuel plates, we would not have produced [even] 20% enriched uranium..."[15]

*A. Savyon is director of MEMRI's Iranian Media Project. Y. Carmon is President of MEMRI. Y. Mansharof is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] In this vein, the director-general of Iran's Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution for International Affairs, Javad Mohammadi, said that Iran would accelerate its nuclear program if the West heightened sanctions against it. Fars (Iran), July 29, 2012.

[2] Fars (Iran), July 17, 2012.

[3] Fars (Iran), July 17, 2012.

[4] Fars (Iran), July 20, 2012.

[5] Mashriq News (Iran), July 16, 2012.

[6] Entekhab (Iran), July 22, 2012.

[7] Fars (Iran), June 12, 2012.

[8] Al-Alam TV (Iran), July 23, 2012.

[9], July 17, 2012.

[10] Etemad (Iran), July 18, 2012.

[11], July 28, 2012.

[12], September 5, 2012.

[13] Vatan-e-Emrooz (Iran), July 29, 2012.

[14] It should be noted that Abbasi had made similar remarks as early as late July 2012, saying: "Iran has the ability to design nuclear fuel for ships and submarines, but we have no intention at this stage to enrich [uranium] beyond 20%... If the Iranian government so decides, and the people so desire, we at the AEOI have no problem promoting this plan." Mehr (Iran), July 22, 2012. This statement, however, was the only one of its kind at that time.

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