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Iran: Stepping up laser-enrichment program, cooperation with EU?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(November 13, 1998) Western intelligence agencies believe that Iran is trying to procure Western laser equipment and technology for its secret uranium- enrichment program. Laser enrichment has been under development for over 30 years now, and it is advanced enough to be of interest for countries seeking to make nuclear weapons. The EU is looking for closer cooperation with Iran.

(502.4948) WISE Amsterdam - Iran's interest in laser-enrichment started under the Shah in the late 1970s, based on imported lasers from the US. After the 1991 Gulf War, Iran was suspected to be involved in similar clandestine nuclear weapons research as Iraq. Officials from the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) denied it had any enrichment research.
But according to the US CIA and the German BND, the AEOI is doing laser-enrichment research and that the Iranian procurement firms are trying to buy foreign laser equipment. The AEOI is working on both Atomic Vapor Laser Isotope Separation (AVLIS) and Molecular Laser Isotope Separation (MLIS) methods as well as on centrifuge enrichment.
The laser research and development (R&D) is centered at the Laser Research Center (LRC) in Teheran, which is part of the Teheran Nuclear Research Center (TNRC). Now Iran produces its own laser crystals which could be operated in the blue-green spectrum, which is the wavelength to enrich uranium using AVLIS. The LRC is headed by the Iranian scientist Dr. Seddiqi. Both LRC and TNRC are cooperating with the Sharif University of Teheran. This university is also doing other enrichment research, including centrifuge development. Iran is expected to sign the IAEA Part II protocol for reformed safeguards and has then to declare all its nuclear activities and sites to the IAEA, also in the area of laser enrichment. IAEA officials visited the Sharif University several times but failed to find any clues that it is engaged in clandestine nuclear activities. To make progress in laser enrichment, Iran must rely on clandestine imports. In 1992, the LRC tried to import modern laser systems. It is not known where Iran got centrifuge equipment and know-how.
Recently the German government warned key laser equipment producers that AEOI and Iranian procurement firms would seek to buy equipment to develop its laser R&D further.

At the same time the German government is pushing the European Union (EU) to restart nuclear cooperation with Iran in exchange for Iran's signing and implementation of the 93+2 Part II protocol for more intensive IAEA safeguards inspections. Such an agreement would give Siemens the opportunity to complete the nuclear reactors under construction at Bushehr. This deal had been informally discussed with Iran. Iran is not very satisfied with the way Russian firms are completing Bushehr: nearly no progress during the last six years. But in early October, Iran earmarked US$140 million and signed an agreement with Russia for completion of Bushehr-1 in 62 months (see WISE News Communique 501 In brief, "Iran:US$140 million for Busher-1)
The EU sees the deal between the US and North Korea as an example for the EU-Iran nuclear deal. North Korea has pledged to stop its nuclear weapons program in exchange for two civil nuclear reactors to be build by KEDO (Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization), in which the US, South Korea and Japan participate. North Korea rejects IAEA safeguards inspections under the Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The US wants the EU to pay more money to KEDO. But the US also wants the EU countries not to sell nuclear equipment to Iran, which is an NPT member with a good reputation. The US clearly wants to isolate Iran, but not North Korea.
Officials of the AEOI visiting Vienna in October said they were interested in nuclear cooperation with the EU. The European Council working group on proliferation, CONOP, has discussed renewed nuclear cooperation with Iran since the election of the moderate Khatami as president last year. In CONOP discussions, Austria, Belgium, Finland and especially (the old government in) Germany favored restarting EU-Iran nuclear cooperation. Other states, particularly the Netherlands, objected due to doubts about Iran's nonproliferation status. The IAEA also favors a deal which should give the IAEA full access to all Iranian nuclear sites and activities for safeguards and inspections. The IAEA would be much less worried if Germany were in charge of Bushehrþs completion instead of Russia as regards the possible smuggling of nuclear materials and sensitive technology to Iran. However, the new German minister of foreign affairs, Joschka Fischer, of the Greens, is less positive towards this deal as was the former minister, Klaus Kinkel.


  • Nuclear Fuel,23 November 1992, 28 March 1994, 5 October 1998
  • Nucleonics Week 8 October 1998

Contact: WISE Amsterdam