Nuclear arms, in the mullahs’ view, are "the most strategic guarantee" for their survival in the future of the region. In 1991, Ata’ollah Mohajerani, one of Rafsanjani’s deputies, also laid emphasis on the need to obtain atomic weapons. "Since the enemy has atomic facilities," he said, "Islamic countries must be armed with the same capacity." As the majlis speaker in 1989, Rafsanjani underscored the need to obtain an atomic arsenal, stressing that Iran cannot ignore the reality of the modem world’s atomic weapons.
The efforts by the mullahs’ regime to develop a nuclear arsenal date back to 1985, when Tehran revived the nuclear program that was abandoned with the fall of the shah in 1979. A special section within the Revolutionary Guards Corps was assigned the task of overseeing scientific research and of securing nuclear technology for military use. To that end, the facilities of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization (IAEO) were placed under the control of the Guards Corps, whose first order of business was to set up new installations hidden from the view of international observers.
The mullahs reached agreement with Argentina in 1987 to obtain a supply of 20-percent enriched uranium to be used in Tehran’s Amirabad research center, which has a five-megawatt nuclear reactor. They also struck deals with both Argentina and Pakistan for the training of nuclear specialists. In 1988, when the regime reluctantly accepted the ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq War, the Guards Corps accelerated the IAEO’s activities. It launched a top-secret project code-named the "Great Plan." Its initial budget was $200 million, and the project has been extensively funded ever since. In 1992, they allocated $800 million to the project. In addition, a department in the Ministry of Defense was put in charge of acquiring nuclear-related technology from abroad. Two Iranian nuclear experts supervised the project.
Following Khomeini’s death in 1989, Rafsanjani aggressively pursued the development of Iran’s nuclear capabilities, attempting to attract nuclear scientists and specialists back to Iran by offering them substantial salaries. He also sought to secure nuclear equipment and technology from foreign countries. Nevertheless, the Guards Corps encountered serious difficulties because the efforts to obtain fuel and technology made little progress. Subsequently, a meeting was held in early 1990 between Rafsanjani, Mohsen Rezaii, the Guards Corps commander in chief, and other senior officials involved in the nuclear project, to assess the progress and prospects of Iran’s nuclear program. Afterward, Rafsanjani issued directives to step up the efforts to obtain technology and other necessary equipment from a variety of countries, including China, Pakistan, Argentina, and France.
In the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, when Germany informed Tehran that it would no longer continue its nuclear assistance to the mullahs’ regime, Rafsanjani intervened personally. He vowed in public that the Islamic Republic would pursue its bid to acquire nuclear technology and warned Germany of losing Iran’s markets.
In 1992, Rafsanjani met with a visiting official from China’s Council of Science and Technology, the Chinese organization responsible for nuclear programs. Subsequently, a ten-year pact was signed between the two countries for scientific cooperation and the transfer of military technology. Trusted Iranian experts were also dispatched to Europe and elsewhere to infiltrate nuclear research institutions and later repatriate their knowledge to Iran. By mid- 1992, Tehran had succeeded in signing an agreement with the Russian Federation to obtain two 440-megawatt nuclear reactors and buying a Calutron-type uranium-enrichment device from China. It also obtained a Cyclotron from the Belgian firm Ion Beam Applications. Although the company maintains that the equipment is generally used in medical research, nuclear industry experts say that "it could be adapted to enrich uranium."
On his trip to China in September 1992, Rafsanjani took along ten Iranian nuclear experts. These experts have been undergoing training since. In addition, another twenty specialists are completing their training in China.
The primary objective of this trip was to obtain greater Chinese cooperation on technology and equipment and the dispatch of more Chinese nuclear experts to Iran. Rafsanjani’s key nuclear goal during this trip and meetings with the Chinese president and officials was to speed up the completion of a nuclear center in southern Iran called the Darkhovin Site. On September 10, the regime’s officials signed an extensive secret nuclear cooperation pact with China, only parts of which were revealed.
Tehran has also been seeking to hire foreign experts. At least fifty-four experts from foreign nations, including China, have been hired. The actual number of experts, however, is much greater. Dozens of Chinese and Russian experts also regularly travel to and from Iran. These experts are engaged in nuclear research, training Iranian specialists, supervising the construction of facilities, and setting up nuclear reactors.
In addition to the foreign nuclear experts mentioned above, the regime has managed to engage-at very high salaries-two Russian scholars, one expert from Kazakhstan, and one specialist from Turkmenistan to work in the training and research department of the Atomic Energy Organization in Tehran. These individuals are involved in research to speed up the "Great Plan." In addition, three specialists from Hungary are working in the GAMA Energy Center in Banab in north-eastern Iran.
To keep the nuclear program a secret, several parallel but independent and self-sufficient installations, including laboratories, workshops, and plants, are already under way in different parts of the country.
A glance at the mullahs’ weapons procurement program and their high military budget shows that Tehran’s arms purchases far exceed its defense needs. The arms build up is motivated by Iran’s enormous domestic political and economic crises. "They are in rather desperate shape, and the answer is to look outside aggressively," said one Western expert. The offensive nature of the arms build up, in light of the clerics’ continuing efforts to export fundamentalism, is a source of grave concern for regional and global peace. Western analysts worry that "Iran is conspiring to build a strategic strike capability."
Tehran’s stockpiling of weapons has already changed the regional balance of power; the situation can only get worse if no international action is taken to ban arms sales to Iran. The mullahs’ renewed assertive, ness in bilateral relations with their neighbours–including their intimidating treatment of the United Arab Emirates on the ownership of a Persian Gulf island-is an ominous sign that more trouble lies ahead. *