Questions Surround Iran's Nuclear Program
Since its investigation of Iran’s nuclear programs began during the latter half of 2002, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has discovered a series of clandestine nuclear activities, some of which violated Iran’s safeguards agreement with the agency.
Others did not, but have nevertheless raised suspicions regarding Iran’s claim that its nuclear programs are exclusively for peaceful purposes. During the course of the investigation, Iran has failed both to disclose some of its nuclear activities to the agency and misled inspectors about others.
Iran, as a member state of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), has an IAEA safeguards agreement allowing the agency to monitor Tehran’s nuclear activities and facilities to ensure that they are not used for military purposes.
Based on interviews with knowledgeable officials, IAEA Deputy Director-Gen eral Olli Heinonen’s Jan. 31 report to the agency’s Board of Governors, and previous IAEA reports, this article describes some of the unresolved questions concerning Iran’s nuclear activities as of Feb. 24.
Iran ’s Nuclear Programs
Tehran is developing a gas-centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program and con structing a heavy-water moderated nuclear reactor. Both programs could potentially produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.
Gas centrifuges enrich uranium by spinning uranium hexafluoride gas at very high speeds in order to increase the concentra tion of the uranium-235 isotope. They can produce both low-enriched uranium (LEU), which can be used in nuclear power reac tors, and highly enriched uranium (HEU), which can be used in certain types of nuclear reactors and as fissile material.
Iran has a pilot centrifuge facility, which so far contains a cascade of 164 centrifuges, and is constructing a much larger commercial facility. Tehran has told the IAEA that the pilot facility will eventually contain approximately 1,000 centrifuges and the commercial facility will ultimately house more than 50,000 centrifuges.
Iran also has a uranium-conversion facil ity, which converts uranium oxide (lightly processed uranium ore) into several com pounds, including uranium tetrafluoride and uranium hexafluoride. Heinonen reported that the country’s current “conversion campaign,” which began in November 2005, is expected to end this month.
Tehran claims that it wants to produce LEU for its light-water moderated nuclear power plant currently under construction near the city of Bushehr, as well as additional power plants it intends to construct.
Iran says that its heavy-water reactor, which is being constructed in Arak, is intended for the production of medical iso topes. But the IAEA is concerned that Iran may use the reactor to produce plutonium, and the board has asked Iran to “reconsider” the project. Tehran has told the IAEA that the reactor is to begin operating in 2014.
The spent nuclear fuel from both light- water and heavy-water reactors contains plutonium—the other type of fissile mate rial in use. But clandestinely obtaining weapons-grade plutonium from light-water reactors is considerably more difficult.
Tehran has been conducting research on two types of centrifuges: the P-1 and the more advanced P-2. Iran acquired its cen trifuge materials and equipment from a clandestine supply network run by former Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan. Iran has not been fully forthcoming to the IAEA about either of these programs. The agency is concerned that Tehran may have conducted undisclosed work on both types of centrifuges and may also have an ongoing clandestine centrifuge program.
Iran ’s capability to produce enough centrifuges for its programs is unclear. A diplomatic source in Vienna close to the IAEA told Arms Control Today recently that Iran currently lacks the expertise to pro duce P-2 centrifuges. Tehran can build large numbers of P-1 centrifuges but not enough to meet the commercial centrifuge facility’s planned capacity, the source said.
The IAEA’s investigation of these efforts has been hampered by Iran’s lack of full cooperation. Tehran has both lagged in fulfilling IAEA requests for documentation and provided the agency with false information regarding its centrifuge procurement efforts.
Iran has acknowledged receiving centrifuge components and related materials dur ing the late 1980s and 1990s. Tehran has provided the agency with some informa tion regarding these acquisitions as well as related offers from foreign suppliers.
According to a November 2005 report from IAEA Director-General Mohamed El Baradei, Iran has recently provided the agen cy with substantial amounts of additional documentation regarding its P-1 procure ment activities. This information appears to have resolved some of the discrepancies in Iran’s previous accounts, but the IAEA has requested additional documentation. For example, Heinonen reported that “ Iran has been unable to supply any documentation or other information about the meetings that led to the acquisition of 500 sets of P-1 cen trifuge components in the mid-1990s.”
Heinonen’s report also says that Iranian officials’ accounts of “events leading up to” the mid-1990s centrifuge deal offer “are still at variance” with accounts provided by “key members of the [secret procurement] net work.” The report provides no details about these discrepancies but does note Iran’s claims that “there were no contacts with the network between 1987 and mid-1993.”
Iran claims that it conducted no work on its P-2 centrifuge program between 1995 and 2002, but the IAEA is skeptical of this claim.
Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s permanent representative to the IAEA, told Arms Control Today Jan. 23 (see page 9) that Iran suspended work on the program dur ing those years because Iran had not yet “achieved mastery” of the P-1 centrifuge.
However, this response does not appear to address the basis for the agency’s con cern. According to ElBaradei’s September 2005 report, the agency suspects that Iran may have conducted undeclared centrifuge work because an Iranian contractor was able to make modifications for certain centrifuge components “within a short period” after first seeing the relevant drawings.
Additionally, ElBaradei reported in No vember that the agency is assessing documentation provided by Tehran indicating that an Iranian contractor who had worked on the program obtained related materials that the government had apparently not disclosed to the IAEA.
Heinonen’s report states that the IAEA, after sharing with Tehran information “indicating the possible deliveries” of P-2 centrifuge components, asked Iran in No vember “to check again” whether it had received additional components after 1995. Both the Vienna source and a former De partment of State official familiar with the issue confirmed that the IAEA’s information originated with Buhary Syed Abu Tahir, a businessman who has been detained by Malaysia for his role in the Khan network.
Both sources also noted that Tahir only recently revealed this information, although he has been in custody since the spring of 2004. Tahir had no documentation for his claim, the former U.S. official added.
Enriched Uranium Particles
According to Heinonen’s report, the IAEA is still investigating the origin of some LEU and HEU particles found in Iran by agency inspectors in 2003. Iran has admitted to enriching uranium to 1.2 percent uranium-235, but the presence of LEU particles enriched to higher levels has suggested that Iran may have conducted other centrifuge experiments that it concealed from the IAEA. Tehran claims that the particles in question came from imported centrifuge components.
IAEA inspectors took environmental samples from a location in the United Arab Emirates where centrifuge components from the Khan network were stored before being shipped to Iran. The samples showed no “traces of nuclear material,” according to ElBaradei’s November report.
A Western diplomat told Arms Control Today in November that the sample results indicate that the LEU particles did not come from these components—a finding that could contradict Iran’s account. But according to interviews with a State Department official, Washington is almost certain that all the LEU particles found in Iran originated in Pakistan and believes that any further discoveries of undeclared Iranian-produced LEU would likely reveal previously concealed P-1 experiments, but no similar P-2 experiments.
ElBaradei reported in September 2005 that “most” HEU particles found in Iran by agency inspectors came from imported centrifuge components. Both the source in Vienna and a State Department source says that, for all practical purposes, the HEU issue has been resolved.
The IAEA is investigating questions about the ownership and operation of Iran’s Gchine uranium mine. U.S. and European officials have told Arms Control Today that Iran’s military or an affiliated organization might have been working at the mine in an effort to obtain an independent uranium source.
ElBaradei first reported in November 2003 that Iran had conducted plutonium-separation experiments. Iran first said that it completed this work in 1993 but later admitted continuing experiments until 1998. The agency is still investigating the matter.
ElBaradei stated in September that the IAEA has not received requested informa tion regarding Iran’s efforts to obtain equipment for hot cells, which are facilities that can be used to produce medical isotopes as well as separate plutonium from spent reactor fuel. ElBaradei reported that Iran has attempted to procure hot cells with specifications more consistent with plutonium separation than medical isotope production.
Iran says it is no longer attempting to build hot cells.
Possible Nuclear Weapons Research
The IAEA is also investigating several activi ties and documents suggesting that Iran may be attempting to develop nuclear weapons.
According to Heinonen’s report, Iran has shown agency inspectors a 15-page document detailing the procedures for re ducing uranium hexafluoride to “metal in small quantities” and “casting…enriched, natural and depleted uranium metal into hemispheres.” But the document did not “include dimensions or other specifications for machined pieces for such components,” the report says, reiterating information ElBaradei first reported in November.
This revelation has generated additional concern about Iran’s nuclear program be cause shaping uranium into hemispheres is used in developing explosive cores for nuclear weapons. The report acknowledges that the procedure is “related to the manufacture of nuclear weapon components.”
Whether the document is evidence of a previously unknown Iranian capability is unclear. Iran has previously acknowledged that it was offered equipment for casting uranium but maintains that it has never received any such equipment. Tehran claims that the document had been “provided on the initiative of the procurement network,” rather than at Iran’s request.
During a January 2006 visit, Iran allowed agency inspectors to “examine the docu ment again and to place it under IAEA seal,” Heinonen’s report says. Tehran, however, declined the IAEA’s request to provide a copy of the document, according to the report.
Parchin Military Complex
According to ElBaradei’s November report, Iran granted IAEA inspectors ac cess to Iran’s Parchin military complex Nov. 1, the inspectors’ first visit since January 2005. The inspectors “did not observe any unusual activities in the buildings visited,” but the IAEA is awaiting the results of environmental samples taken during the visit before assessing whether Iran conducted any nuclear activities there.
The United States and the IAEA have both expressed concern that Iran has been testing conventional high explosives at Parchin for use in an implosion-type nuclear weapon.
The report also says that the IAEA seeks additional visits to the site but does not say why. However, a State Department official told Arms Control Today in November that the agency may still have “suspicions” about Iranian activities at the site. The official also confirmed a November Agence France-Presse report that the inspectors saw a high-speed camera during their visit. Such cameras can be used to monitor experiments with high explosives, such as those used in an implo sion-type nuclear weapon.
Other Possible Military Projects
The former State Department official confirmed press reports Feb. 22 that the United States acquired a laptop computer, believed to be of Iranian origin, contain ing information documenting what appear to be several related projects that may constitute evidence of a nuclear weapons program. The United States has provided this intelligence to the IAEA, the Vienna source said.
According to Heinonen’s report, the agency received information describing the “Green Salt Project.” “Green salt” is another name for uranium tetrafluoride, the precursor for uranium hexafluoride. The former State Department official also confirmed that the computer contained designs for a “small-scale” facility to produce green salt. The most recent documents related to the project are dated 2003, but it is not known whether the project ended at that time, the official added.
The intelligence also indicates that Tehran has conducted “tests related to high-explosives and the design of a missile re-entry vehicle,” Heinonen said. A State Department official told Arms Control Today in August 2005 that the United States has what it believes to be documentary evidence suggesting that Iran is attempting to develop a nuclear-weapon payload for its medium-range Shahab-3 ballistic missile. (See ACT, September 2005.)
But whether and to what extent such a re-entry vehicle design would improve Iran’s ability to deliver a nuclear weapon is unclear. The former State Department official said that a nuclear warhead built according to a design that Libya obtained from the Khan network would be too large to fit in the re-entry vehicle that Iran may have designed. (See ACT, March 2004.) That acquisition has sparked concern that Tehran also may have obtained similar designs, but no evidence has emerged that Iran has actually done so.
Nevertheless, the official cautioned that “[n]ot enough is known about the Iranian bomb-making capabilities” to determine whether Iran is capable of building a warhead suitable for the re-entry vehicle described in the laptop documents.
Tehran responded to a December IAEA request for a meeting by dismissing the agency’s recently acquired intelligence as “related to baseless allegations.” But Iranian officials later agreed to meet with Heinonen Jan. 27.
During that meeting, IAEA inspectors pro vided Iranian officials both with a diagram “related to bench-scale conversion” as well as communications related to the Green Salt Project. The Iranians promised to “provide further clarifications [about the project] later” but “declined to address the other topics during that meeting,” Heinonen’s report says.
Apparently calling into question Iran’s claims that its nuclear program has no military dimension, the report says that the uranium project, high-explosives tests, and re-entry vehicle design all have a possible “military nuclear dimension and appear to have administrative connections.” This claim is based partly on the fact that the relevant documentation was all found on the laptop.
Lavizan-Shian Physics Research Center
According to Heinonen’s report, Iran has increased its cooperation with the IAEA’s investigation of a physics research center that operated between 1989 and 1998 at a site called Lavizan-Shian that had been connected to the Iranian Ministry of Defense.
Iran razed the site in late 2003 and early 2004, a move that raised suspicions that Tehran might be trying to cover up evidence of undeclared nuclear activities. However, ElBaradei reported in September that Iran provided information consistent with the government’s explanation for this action.
ElBaradei reported in November that the IAEA wished to take samples from a trailer that had been located at the site and contained dual-use nuclear equipment. The agency also sought to interview Iranian officials who had been involved in the center’s efforts to obtain equipment related to uranium enrichment, he said.
According to Heinonen, Iran provided IAEA inspectors with some requested information Jan. 26 regarding Tehran’s efforts to acquire equipment with poten tial uranium-enrichment applications. The inspectors, however, were not allowed to interview a key official involved in the center’s procurement efforts.
Iran did provide the IAEA with informa tion regarding other dual-use acquisition efforts and allowed the inspectors to take environmental samples of some dual-use equipment, Heinonen said. The report says nothing about the trailer discussed in ElBaradei’s report.
According to the former State Department official, the United States has “good reason” to believe that Iran has moved the research center elsewhere but added that Washington has no “evidence” that Tehran actually did so.
The IAEA has also not been able to resolve residual uncertainties regarding Iran ’s experiments involving the separation of polonium-210, which is a radioisotope that can help trigger a nuclear chain reaction in certain types of nuclear weapons. ElBaradei reported in November 2004 that the IAEA is “somewhat uncertain regard ing the plausibility” of Iran’s claim that the experiments were not for nuclear weapons because the civilian applications of polonium-210 are “very limited.”
Corrected online August 29, 2008. See explanation.
In its Feb. 4 resolution on Iran’s nuclear program, the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors said that “a solution to the Iranian issue would contribute to global nonproliferation efforts and to realizing the objective of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, including their means of delivery.” Following are key excerpts from the resolution.
1. Underlines that outstanding questions can best be resolved and confidence built in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s programme by Iran responding positively to the calls for confidence building measures which the Board has made on Iran, and in this context deems it necessary for Iran to:
• Re-establish full and sustained suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development, to be verified by the Agency;
• Reconsider the construction of a research reactor moderated by heavy water;
• Ratify promptly and implement in full the Additional Protocol; pending ratification, continue to act in accordance with the provisions of the Additional Protocol, which Iran signed on 18 December 2003;
• Implement transparency measures, as requested by the Director General, including in GOV/2005/67, which extend beyond the formal requirements of the Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol, and include such access to individuals, documentation relating to procurement, dual-use equipment, certain military-owned workshops and research and development as the Agency may request in support of its ongoing investigations;
2. Requests the Director General to report to the Security Council of the United Nations that these steps are required of Iran by the Board and to report to the Security Council all IAEA reports and resolutions, as adopted, relating to this issue;
3. Expresses serious concern that the Agency is not yet in a position to clarify some important issues relating to Iran’s nuclear programme, including the fact that Iran has in its possession a document on the production of uranium metal hemispheres, since, as reported by the Secretariat, this process is related to the fabrication of nuclear weapon components; and, noting that the decision to put this document under Agency seal is a positive step, requests Iran to maintain this document under Agency seal and to provide a full copy to the Agency;
4. Deeply regrets that, despite repeated calls from the Board for the maintaining of the suspension of all enrichment related and reprocessing activities which the Board has declared essential to addressing outstanding issues, Iran resumed uranium conversion activities at its Isfahan facility on 8 August 2005 and took steps to resume enrichment activities on 10 January 2006;
5. Calls on Iran to understand that there is a lack of confidence in Iran’s intentions in seeking to develop a fissile material production capability against the background of Iran’s record on safeguards as recorded in previous Resolutions, and outstanding issues; and to reconsider its position in relation to confidence-building measures, which are voluntary, and non legally binding, and to adopt a constructive approach in relation to negotiations that can result in increased confidence;
6. Requests Iran to extend full and prompt cooperation to the Agency, which the Director General deems indispensable and overdue, and in particular to help the Agency clarify possible activities which could have a military nuclear dimension;
7. Underlines that the Agency’s work on verifying Iran’s declarations is ongoing and requests the Director General to continue with his efforts to implement the Agency’s Safeguards Agreement with Iran, to implement the Additional Protocol to that Agreement pending its entry into force, with a view to providing credible assurances regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and to pursue additional transparency measures required for the Agency to be able to resolve outstanding issues and reconstruct the history and nature of all aspects of Iran’s past nuclear activities;
8. Requests the Director General to report on the implementation of this and previous resolutions to the next regular session of the Board, for its consideration, and immediately thereafter to convey, together with any Resolution from the March Board, that report to the Security Council; and9. Decides to remain seized of the matter.
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