(Reuters) – Iran’s announcement that it plans to build its first nuclear-powered submarine is stoking speculation it could serve as a pretext for the Islamic state to produce highly enriched uranium and move closer to potential atom bomb material.
Western experts doubt that Iran – which is under a U.N. arms embargo – has the capability any time soon to make the kind of sophisticated underwater vessel that only the world’s most powerful states currently have.
But they say Iran could use the plan to justify more sensitive atomic activity, because nuclear submarines can be fuelled by uranium refined to a level that would also be suitable for the explosive core of a nuclear warhead.
“Such submarines often use HEU (highly enriched uranium),” former chief U.N. nuclear inspector Olli Heinonen said, adding Iran was unlikely to be able source the fuel abroad because of the international dispute over its nuclear program.
It could then “cite the lack of foreign fuel suppliers as further justification for continuing on its uranium enrichment path”, Heinonen, now at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said.
Any move by Iran to enrich to a higher purity would alarm the United States and its allies, which suspect it is seeking to develop the capability to make nuclear bombs and want it to curb its nuclear program. Tehran denies any atomic arms ambitions.
It would also likely further complicate diplomatic efforts to resolve the decade-old row over Tehran’s nuclear program and may add to fears of a military confrontation.
Several rounds of talks between Iran and six world powers this year have so far failed to make significant progress, especially over their demand that the Islamic Republic scale back its controversial enrichment work.
“Iran is using this submarine announcement to create bargaining leverage,” Shashank Joshi, a senior fellow and Middle East specialist at the Royal United Services Institute, said.
“It can negotiate away these ‘plans’ for concessions, or use the plans as a useful pretext for its enrichment activity.”
Iranian deputy navy commander Abbas Zamini was last month quoted as saying that “preliminary steps in making an atomic submarine have started”.
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