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Iran's Quest For Maritime Nuclear Propulsion, Easier Said Than Done

Iranian Navy Warship "Neyzeh P231" patrols in Iran's waters, undated.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has recently raised the prospect of designing and building nuclear reactors for merchant ships and submarines.

This is not the first time Iran claims to have such an intention.

In 2012 also Tehran raised the prospect of maritime nuclear propulsion. But on that occasion, tensions between Iran and the P5+1 (the UN Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany) over its nuclear program was quite high.

Iran’s latest declaration that it intends to build nuclear reactors for ships while staying within the limits set by its nuclear deal with the P5+1, is tantamount to firing a diplomatic warning shot at Washington when a dark cloud is hanging over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

It is Iran’s reaction to President Trump’s stance, who in January this year said that he was extending sanctions relief for Iran for one last time unless Europe and the US can fix the nuclear deal’s “terrible flaws”.

Talking to ISNA, Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said that expediting the work on nuclear propulsion is linked to the US stance towards the JCPOA.

However, prior to starting work on nuclear propulsion by Iran, as noted by the IAEA, the country is required to submit its plan for building such reactors and their use, as well as acquiring the IAEA’s agreement.

Building reactors in itself is not in contradiction of the JCPOA. However, Iran has not yet responded to the IAEA’s request for “further clarifications and amplifications”.

In spite of this, under the current circumstances, the application of nuclear reactors by Iran in the military domain, being ships or submarines, would be problematic.

Moreover, building seaborne reactors by Iran while its economy is in such a dilapidated state and its shipbuilding industry totters towards the precipice makes no sense. Only last year the Islamic republic signed a contract with South Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries for delivery of 10 commercial ships to Iran.

Building nuclear-powered merchant ships and their maintenance is costly and the specter of environmental damage always counts against them. The insurance for such ships are quite high as well.

In the past, several industrial countries made nuclear-powered cargo-passenger ships, but in the end due to a plethora of factors they opted for non-nuclear means of propulsion.

Germany commissioned the Otto Hahn nuclear-powered cargo vessel in 1970, but after nine years, it deactivated the ship and removed its nuclear propulsion. It was replaced with standard marine diesel.

The use of nuclear propulsion in submarines, as declared by some Iranian officials including Rear-Admiral Gholam-Reza Khadem-Bigham, the then deputy commander of the regular navy in 2012, is unlikely for many years to materialize, due to technological reasons, as well as the high cost of building marine nuclear reactors.

In addition, Iran is at the early stage of building submarines. So far, the country has been able to make a number of 120-ton mini-submarines, derived from the North Korean Yono class, specifically designed for cruising within the shallow waters of the Persian Gulf.

Based on satellite imagery, Iran’s biggest achievement in this respect has been the launching in 2013 of a semi-heavy submarine with a displacement of no more than 600 tons (Fateh class) for coastal defence. A second one is under construction at Bandar Anzali Naval Base on the Caspian Sea.

Iran has the ambition of becoming a blue-water navy in a not too-distant future, but it has a very long way to go before it can make submarines powered by nuclear reactors.

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    Hossein Aryan

    Hossein Aryan, a regular contributor to Radio Farda, is a military analyst and former Iranian naval officer, who resides in Great Britain.