Iran's nuclear submarine: cui bono?

With senior figures in Iran's Navy making noise again about pursuing a nuclear-powered submarine program, we here at Redline promised we would dig a little further into this expensive enterprise. So we thought we'd take a look behind the scenes at the Iranian organizations who will be elbowing each other out of the way to get some nuke sub cash.


Iranian plan to build nuclear powered submarine is a fig-leaf cover for enrichment uranium above 20% to 60% or more research nuclear weaponisation program Iran


Redline has been following the nuclear sub story since 2012, when Iran's navy first announced that Tehran was spinning up plans to "design and build nuclear submarine propulsion systems". We said back then that the purported submarine plan was a fig-leaf to allow Iran to start enriching uranium to 60% - the point where uranium looks less like nuclear fuel for reactors and more like something you stick in a bomb. Thankfully, that hasn't happened yet, even if Iran did announce its intentions to enrich to 20%, already far beyond the 3.67% cap allowed by the JCPOA.


But the allure of a nuclear-powered submarine still seems strong in certain Iranian circles, and there are probably a handful of people in Tehran - particularly high-ranking officers in the Navy - who genuinely think that Iran could design, build and sail a nuclear-powered sub. Or at the very least, there are a handful of high-ranking people who think that such an idea has sufficient political backing that it proves to be a nice way to boost organizational budgets and fill individuals' pockets.


What we want to look at today is the age-old question - cui bono? Just who in Iran would benefit from the country pursuing a nuclear submarine project?


Answer: It's the Iranian people! Just kidding. They'll benefit from an Iranian nuclear submarine to about the same extent that lips benefit from herpes.


The actual answers to the question of who benefits lie somewhere in the murky world of the military-industrial Research & Development organizations who work for Iran's armed forces and Revolutionary Guards. Indeed, we're confident that right now there is a turf war going in within Iran's military and IRGC research establishment to determine just who gets to pocket the trillions of Rials that even basic R&D on a nuclear submarine will cost. And in this post, we're going to show you our top five candidate Cui Bonos, who we're sure are already lining up to suckle on the cold, metallic teat of a nuclear submarine program.


Let's count them down!


5. The IRGC Navy SSJO


Coming in at number five is the IRGC Navy (نیروی دریایی سپاه پاسداران انقلاب اسلامی), the B Team of Iran's naval forces, and specifically the Self-Sufficiency Jihad Organization of the IRGC Navy. 


Hold up! Who's that? To explain: Iran has two navies: one is the "regular" Navy, and the second is the IRGC Navy, also known as NEDSA after its Persian acronym (ندسا). If you've seen TV footage of Iranian fast-boats pissing about in the Persian Gulf, harassing oil tankers and kidnapping hapless sailors, then you've seen NEDSA in action. Indeed, NEDSA's area of operations is strictly within the Persian Gulf, and their boats literally aren't big enough to go further out to sea than the Strait of Hormuz.


The IRGC Navy are basically the Venice gondoliers of Iran's military - dudes in sunglasses whose biggest contribution to regional stability is measured in units of suntan.


There are some boffins in NEDSA as well, and we're sure that NEDSA management will be putting its hand up for some nuclear submarine funding. Like virtually every military branch in Iran, the IRGC Navy has its very own Self-Sufficiency Jihad Organization, or SSJO: an R&D institution staffed with IRGC scientists and engineers, working exclusively on development of weapon systems for NEDSA. The IRGC Navy SSJO very likely has absolutely zero expertise in nuclear physics, and probably not much talent for submarine design. But that won't stop them trying to wangle a few dollars out of any nuclear submarine project that's established in Iran.


We're not convinced that there's much of a case for operating nuclear submarines in the Persian Gulf, though, so NEDSA SSJO might have to find some more money for sunglasses and tanning oil elsewhere.


4. Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (NEDAJA) SSJO


At number four in our nuclear submarine dash for cash is the SSJO of the regular Iranian Navy.


For those Iranian young men who are looking to sail the seven seas in a real Navy, there's only one way to put their minds at ease: the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy, also known as NEDAJA (نیروی دریایی ارتش جمهوری اسلامی ایران or نداجا). NEDAJA is the naval forces of Iran's regular (non-IRGC) military, and it fulfils the blue-water mission of naval operations beyond the Persian Gulf.


If in some parallel universe Iran was actually to successfully build and launch a nuclear submarine into the Indian Ocean, we're 99% sure that it would be crewed by sailors from NEDAJA and come under NEDAJA's operational command. And that's what gives NEDAJA a big stake in claiming that its own SSJO should take a role in R&D for the nuclear sub program. The NEDAJA SSJO has research agreements with universities including the Iran University of Science and Technology (IUST) and is much better postured than the IRGC Navy SSJO to actually develop systems that might be use-able in a heavyweight, complicated submarine platform.


We are confident that the Nedaja SSJO will be making a play for some nuke sub cash - possibly for design of non-reactor systems; development of weapon platforms; and other R&D work for things outside the nuclear reactor.


3. Malek Ashtar University's University Complex for Submarine Science and Technology, aka Subsurface Research Institute


As close to a sure bet as we can recommend in the nuclear submarine Cui Bono stakes is Malek Ashtar University (دانشگاه صنعتی مالک اشتر), the research university belonging to Iran's Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL - وزارت دفاع و پشتیبانی نیروهای مسلح).


This bet is a sure thing because we know that Malek Ashtar University of Technology (MUT) is already involved in submarine R&D. At its Shahin Shahr campus in Esfahan, MUT already has a dedicated research institute for subsurface systems, including submarines. It's called the University Complex for Submarine Science and Technology (مجتمع دانشگاهی علوم و فناوری زیردریا), aka the Subsurface Research Institute. Here it is:


Image of Malek Ashtar submarine center location - University Complex for Submarine Science and Technology (‎مجتمع دانشگاهی علوم و فناوری زیردریا), aka the Subsurface Research Institute, a dedicated research institute for subsurface systems at the Malek Ashtar University Shahin Shahr campus in Esfahan


If you only look at English language sources, you'll won't have heard of this institution before. Indeed, we can't find a single English language reference to it on the internet! So we're going to use the opportunity to christen it MADOVAFAZI after the acronym for the institute's Persian name (trust us, it works!) 


While they keep a low profile, MADOVAFAZI has been around for nearly 20 years. And some open source research shows that they've been thinking about nuclear submarines since at least 2008, when two MADOVAFAZI researchers Mohammad Monsan (محمد مونسان)  and Omid Khani (امید خانی) published a paper explicitly on the subject: a consideration of the architectural specifications of nuclear submarines powered with Pressurized Water Reactors (PWRs). You can't fault the ambition of these two authors, given Iran's lack of such a program at that time, and we can now recognize these authors as truly ahead of their time.


Ahead of their time, but a little too optimistic. And it's for that reason that we have to declare that our favorite Malek Ashtar submarine researcher is actually someone else - a guy named Vahid Ghabishavi (وحیده غبیشاوی) who in 2006 wrote a paper titled "Management of water risks from unexpected nuclear submarine accidents". Knowing Iran's poor track record of nuclear safety, we think that planning for a meltdown of the first Iranian nuclear submarine that ever sails is about the most useful thing an Iranian researcher can do.


2. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) (سازمان انرژی اتمی)


A boring but important prediction for the nuclear submarine cash grab is Iran's civil nuclear agency, the AEOI (سازمان انرژی اتمی). Even though they're a bunch of civilians with about as much shipside experience as Cher, the AEOI is the organization that controls Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium, operates Iran's nuclear reactors, and in strict terms is responsible for all nuclear-related R&D. The AEOI's head Ali Akbar Salehi (علی‌اکبر صالحی) has also been one of the loudest hint-droppers regarding Iran's plans for a nuclear-propelled fleet, and probably is angling for the AEOI to develop shipboard reactors for oil tankers (LOL) or icebreakers (double LOL), which wouldn't be controlled by any naval force.


1. SPND (سپند)


And now our number one pick for the organization with the sharpest elbows when it comes to nuclear submarine funding - SPND!


There is absolutely zero chance that any nuclear submarine project would ever be established in Iran without SPND trying to elbow its way into the funding. SPND (سپند) - the secretive Iranian nuclear R&D organization - sees itself as the premier institution working in the intersection of military and nuclear matters. It would never let a military mega-project sail by without trying to latch onto it like a remora on a whale shark...



We are confident that SPND will have already established organizational structures to capitalize on naval nuclear power development. And that they will be engaged in some sly jockeying against their bureaucratic rivals (hello DITRI!) to make sure that SPND is the number one beneficiary in the rainfall of Rials that will accompany any nuclear submarine program.


We'll keep our eyes on this topic, as we expect there to be some public jockeying over the nuclear submarine field over the next few months. In the meantime, enjoy some quality footage that we think sums up pretty well what life will be like for an Iranian submariner.


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