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IAEA Iran Probe Winding Down; Dispute With U.S., EU Countries

Paul Kerr

In advance of a meeting beginning Sept. 13, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei is to present the agency’s Board of Governors with a report describing progress in the two-year investigation of Iran’s nuclear programs.

In contrast to several past reports, ElBaradei will not reveal any undisclosed Iranian nuclear activities, a diplomat close to the Vienna-based agency told Arms Control Today Aug. 20. The report will resolve, or nearly resolve, most outstanding issues that the agency has been called upon to investigate with regard to Iran’s nuclear activities, the source added.

However, the meeting is unlikely to resolve the controversy surrounding Iran’s nuclear activities or diminish U.S. pressure on Tehran to give up its nuclear program. Questions regarding Iran’s nuclear intentions remain, and Tehran has not taken most actions the board called for in a June resolution, the latest of several that have criticized Iran’s lack of cooperation with the IAEA. (See ACT, July/August 2004.)

IAEA Investigates

In particular, the June resolution emphasized concerns about Iran’s uranium-enrichment activities, especially questions concerning its advanced centrifuge program and the IAEA’s previously reported discovery of enriched uranium at several locations in the country. Gas centrifuges can produce civilian nuclear reactor fuel as well as highly enriched uranium for use in nuclear weapons.

Iran’s clandestine centrifuge program has sparked concern that it has a secret nuclear weapons program. Countries party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) are permitted to enrich uranium, but they must do so under IAEA safeguards agreements. These accords empower the IAEA to ensure nuclear facilities are used solely for civilian purposes. Iran covertly tested some of its centrifuges with nuclear material—a violation of its agreement.

The resolution called on Iran to implement fully its October 2003 pledge to suspend its uranium-enrichment program, a pledge that was part of an agreement with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. (See ACT, November 2003.) However, irritated by the Europeans’ support for the June resolution, Iran stated later that month that it would resume making centrifuge components and assembling centrifuges.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi told reporters July 31 that Tehran had started building centrifuges, Reuters reported. Iran’s centrifuge work is taking place under IAEA supervision, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations Mohammad Javad Zarif told the Financial Times Aug. 9. Iran has not resumed actual uranium enrichment.

Such activity has caused controversy before. Iran continued to manufacture components and assemble centrifuges even after it suspended activities at its other enrichment facilities late last year. Iran agreed in February to stop both component manufacturing and centrifuge assembly, but ElBaradei reported in June that Iran had not stopped manufacturing components. (See ACT, March 2004.)

The resolution also called on Iran to refrain from producing uranium hexafluoride—the feedstock for gas centrifuges—in its uranium conversion facility. Iran told the agency it would begin testing the facility in May, but the Vienna diplomat said Iran has not yet done so.

The board further called on Iran to “voluntarily…reconsider its decision to start construction” of a heavy-water nuclear reactor. Iran was supposed to start construction in June but has not yet done so, a Department of State official said Aug. 27. The United States views this reactor as a proliferation concern, arguing that it is well suited for producing plutonium, which also can be used in nuclear weapons.

As for the enriched uranium particles that the IAEA reported earlier this year, the agency’s investigation has apparently made progress. Iran claims that the particles originated from imported centrifuge components, but previous IAEA reports have questioned that explanation. This uncertainty suggested that Iran had either obtained or produced enriched uranium that it did not report. However, the Vienna diplomatic source stated that, despite these earlier reports, the imported components can probably account for all of the particles in question, but cautioned that this will not be confirmed for some time.

Specifically, the source confirmed press reports that uranium enriched to 54 percent U-235 came from centrifuges imported from Pakistan. Uranium particles enriched to 36 percent U-235 apparently came from equipment originating in the former Soviet Union and reaching Iran via China and Pakistan. Iran’s use of a network run by former Pakistani nuclear weapons official Abdul Qadeer Khan to acquire materials for its centrifuge program has been known for some time. (See ACT, March 2004.)

This, however, does not explain other outstanding issues such as Tehran’s experiments with polonium, an element with limited civilian uses that can be used to trigger a chain reaction in a nuclear weapon.

The IAEA also is investigating allegations that Iran tried to cover up undisclosed nuclear activities by demolishing buildings located at a site called Lavizan Shian. Despite the fact that satellite images appeared to show that Iran razed buildings and scraped topsoil from the site, there is no evidence that Iran removed the soil or undertook prohibited nuclear activities there, the Vienna source said. (See ACT, July/August 2004.)

The source also revealed that the IAEA has completed its preliminary assessment of Iran’s May declaration under the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement. As part of its October 2003 agreement, Iran agreed to sign an additional protocol and act as if it were in force until the Majlis (Iran’s parliament) ratifies it. The board urged Iran in June to ratify the protocol, but the Majlis has yet to do so.

Next Steps
Diplomatic efforts since the June meeting have failed to moderate Iran’s provocative behavior. A July 29 meeting between the European governments and Tehran failed to persuade Iran to stop its centrifuge activity. According to a European diplomat, Iran had agreed in October to an unwritten “understanding” to eventually dismantle its nuclear fuel facilities in return for a guaranteed external fuel supply. However, Iranian officials continue to insist that they will not accept such an arrangement, although Zarif indicated that Iran wished to “address the legitimate concerns” of the United States and the Europeans regarding its nuclear program.

A State Department official interviewed Aug. 17 said Washington believes that the European governments’ diplomacy “has run its course” and that more pressure needs to be applied to Tehran. The June resolution did not set a deadline for Tehran to cooperate or mandate any consequences to be imposed if it did not.

Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton conveyed a sense of urgency regarding Iran’s nuclear program to a Hudson Institute audience Aug. 17, asserting that, “[i]f we permit Iran’s deception to go on much longer...Iran will have nuclear weapons.” He added that Iran told its European interlocutors in July that it could “enrich enough uranium for nuclear weapons within a year.” Bolton told Reuters two days later that Iran further claimed “it could possess nuclear weapons within three years.” But foreign diplomats familiar with the meeting contradicted these reports.

Bolton also alluded to recent press reports suggesting that Iran is acquiring additional materials with possible nuclear weapons applications (see sidebar).

The current estimate for when Iran might acquire nuclear weapons is unclear. A February 2003 Defense Intelligence Agency estimate says Iran will have a nuclear bomb by 2010 if it acquires the necessary technology and fissile material. Israeli intelligence estimates that Iran will be able to develop a nuclear weapon by 2007, according to July press reports.

The Bush administration has not yet decided whether to try and persuade the board to find Iran in noncompliance with its safeguards agreement at the September meeting. Such a finding requires the board to refer the matter to the UN Security Council, which may then take measures, including economic sanctions, against Tehran. The United States failed to persuade the board to adopt such a stance in a November 2003 resolution and has not attempted to do so since.

The official acknowledged that the tone of ElBaradei’s report will play a large factor in determining whether Washington will be able to get a noncompliance finding. “We have our work cut out for us,” the official said, adding that the European governments are still deciding on their position.

Kharazi said on state television that Iran wants the board to resolve the issues concerning its nuclear program at the upcoming meeting, Agence France Presse reported Aug. 19. Zarif said that Iran may not follow through on its commitment to ratify the additional protocol if the matter is referred to the Security Council.

Bushehr Delay
Meanwhile, Assadollah Sabouri, deputy head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, announced Aug. 22 that Iran’s nuclear reactor under construction near the city of Bushehr will not begin operating until 2006, Agence France Presse reported. This marked yet another delay from its scheduled 2003 beginning date.

Sabouri also stated that Iran will begin using domestically produced nuclear fuel for its reactors after a 10-year fuel-supply agreement with Russia ends. Moscow is building the reactor and has agreed to supply fuel for it. Russia promised the United States that it would take back the reactor’s spent fuel to prevent Iran from extracting plutonium from it. The agreement is not yet concluded, and Russia has refused to send nuclear fuel to Iran until it is.

The announcement that Iran eventually plans to provide its own fuel for the Bushehr reactor could exacerbate U.S. concerns. Bolton stated Aug. 17 that the reactor “would produce enough plutonium each year for about 30 nuclear weapons.”

Steps to Developing a Nuclear Weapon: The Uranium Route

Paul Kerr

Along with plutonium, highly enriched uranium (HEU) is one of two key materials that can be used as the explosive material in nuclear weapons. For two years, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been probing Iran’s covert use of uranium enrichment technologies to determine whether Tehran has a secret program to build nuclear weapons in violation of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Enrichment is the process of increasing the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope, which fissions far more readily than the more common uranium-238 isotope. Natural uranium is only 0.7 percent uranium-235. Uranium that contains uranium-235 (low-enriched uranium) is used as fuel in power reactors.

But the same technologies that produce weapons-grade uranium, also can produce low-enriched uranium for civilian nuclear power plants, complicating the IAEA’s task.

In July, new information emerged suggesting that Iran is attempting to develop nuclear weapons. Western diplomatic sources, as well as a U.S. official, confirmed press accounts of intelligence describing Iranian attempts to purchase deuterium (or heavy water) and high-speed electronic switches. Both are dual-use materials, which can be used to produce a more advanced nuclear weapon. Undersecretary of State John Bolton stated Aug. 17 that the United States wants the IAEA to investigate these “procurement attempts.”

Step 1 Mine and process uranium
WIDE CIVILIAN USE

• Iranian President Mohammad Khatami announced Feb. 9, 2003 that Iran had started mining uranium near the city of Yazd.

Step 2 Convert uranium oxide into uranium hexafluoride for enrichment
WIDE CIVILIAN USE

• On March 3, 2003 Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Rowhani declared Iran’s uranium conversion facility operational.
• A June 6, 2003 report from IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei revealed that Iran had imported uranium compounds such as uranium hexafluoride, uranium tetrafluoride, and uranium dioxide in 1991.
• ElBaradei presented a report Aug. 26, 2003, which included Iran’s admission that it had conducted uranium conversion experiments in the early 1990’s.
• Iran informed the IAEA April 29 that it would begin “hot tests” of the facility’s uranium hexafluoride production line beginning May 6, but there is no public indication that it has done so.

Step 3 Enrich Uranium
WIDE CIVILIAN USE

Gas Centrifuges: Precision rotors containing uranium hexafluoride gas spin at very high speeds. Heavier isotopes concentrate toward the wall of the rotor, where they can be removed.

• During a Feb. 21-22, 2003 visit, ElBaradei reportedly expressed surprise at the progress of the Iranian gas centrifuge facility. Iran was operating a small pilot facility with more than 160 centrifuges and planning to install up to 50,000 centrifuges at a commercial facility located at the same site. Iran suspended work at the site last December after agreeing to do so in October 2003.
• The subsequent IAEA investigation revealed that Iran had covertly tested centrifuges with nuclear material. Under
the NPT, states are permitted to possess enrichment facilities, but they must allow the IAEA to monitor their operation. Iran publicly tested a single centrifuge June 25, 2003 and began to test 10 more centrifuges two months later. On Feb. 24, 2004 ElBaradei stated that Iran had continued to manufacture centrifuge parts and assemble entire centrifuges. Iran agreed in February to suspend this activity, but it never entirely stopped manufacturing components. Tehran then announced June 24, 2004 that it would resume making components and assembling centrifuges.
• ElBaradei also revealed in February that Iran had conducted research and development on a centrifuge more advanced than the type it had disclosed to the IAEA. He further reported June 1 that a private Iranian company had made inquiries about procuring components for thousands of centrifuges.

Laser Enrichment: Laser-based enrichment technologies utilize small differences in light frequencies to ionize lighter uranium-235 from heavier uranium-238. The weapons-grade atoms are then collected on a negatively charged plate.

• In late October 2003, Iranian officials admitted to pursuing and making significant progress on laser technology but said it no longer has operating laser enrichment facilities.

Step 4 Bomb design and development, computer simulation, and non-nuclear high-explosive testing
* LIMITED CIVILIAN USE

• Intelligence reports described in July press accounts indicate that Iran has attempted to obtain high-speed electronic switches, although it is unclear when these attempts took place or whether Tehran is still attempting to do so. Such switches are used to ensure that conventional high explosives in implosion weapons detonate simultaneously.
• The February 2004 report from ElBaradei stated that Iran had conducted experiments with polonium, which can be used as a neutron initiator to trigger a nuclear chain reaction.
• Intelligence reports also indicate that Iran is attempting to acquire deuterium from Russia. Deuterium, along with tritium, is used as the “boost gas” in a certain type of nuclear weapon. Additionally, deuterium and tritium are used as neutron initiators in modern nuclear weapons. The boost gas greatly increases the yield of a given amount of fissile material. Deuterium also can be used as a moderator in heavy-water nuclear reactors (heavy water is another name for deuterium). Iran has said it is constructing such a reactor, along with a heavy-water plant.

Step 5 Fabricate highly enriched uranium into a bomb core or “pit,” and assemble the weapon
NO CIVILIAN USE

• No evidence.

Possible Step Nuclear testing.*
NO CIVILIAN USE

• No evidence.

* HEU can be used to make two fundamentally different types of weapons: gun-type weapons and implosion weapons. Gun-type weapons (such as the “Little Boy” bomb used in the 1945 attack on Hiroshima, Japan ) require more HEU, but are far simpler to design and build. Such weapons require neither a neutron trigger, nor high-explosive testing or assemblies. These weapons also allow manufacturers very high confidence that the devices will explode, even without testing. Implosion weapons use one-third as much HEU (or less), but are much more difficult to design and build.