IAEA to Visit Two 'Secret' Nuclear Sites in Iran

Paul Kerr

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has postponed its first visit to two Iranian nuclear sites until February after Tehran asked it to delay a previously scheduled December visit. According to a nongovernmental report released December 12, Iran has been developing the sites in secret, possibly as part of a nuclear weapons program.

IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei is scheduled to visit the sites with a team of technical experts February 25-26, an IAEA official said January 3. IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said that the scope of ElBaradei’s visit is still to be determined and that it is possible he might visit other facilities as well, Agence France-Presse reported December 18.

ElBaradei was originally scheduled to visit the two sites in December, but Iran asked that his trip be rescheduled, according to a December 12 IAEA statement. An IAEA official interviewed January 2 said Tehran did not give a reason for its request. In its statement, the IAEA said that Iran informed the agency in September 2002 that “it was building new facilities as part of its programme to develop a nuclear fuel cycle.” It is unclear when the IAEA first decided to visit the sites.

The rescheduling of the IAEA visit came just before the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a Washington organization promoting nonproliferation, issued a report December 12 stating that Iran is building “secret nuclear fuel cycle facilities” at the two sites the IAEA plans to visit.

The ISIS report raised alarm in media reports that Iran is using the sites to develop nuclear weapons. One of the sites, located near a town called Arak, “appears to be a heavy water plant under construction,” the report said. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said December 13 that the plant “could support a reactor for producing weapons-grade plutonium.” The ISIS report, however, states that it does not have evidence that Iran has or is building such a reactor.

The other site, called Natanz, “possibly has a uranium enrichment plant,” according to ISIS. Boucher said that such a plant “could be used to produce highly enriched uranium for weapons.”

The report states that ISIS acquired commercial satellite images of the two sites after the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an Iranian opposition group, publicly declared the sites’ existence in August 2002. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said August 14 that he could not comment on the group’s accusations because they involved intelligence matters.

ISIS said in its December 12 report that it based its conclusions about the Arak site on “photo interpretation.” Its conclusions about Natanz were based on the satellite images and “other sources,” the report said.

Iran acknowledges that the two sites in the report are being developed for nuclear activities but says its nuclear program is strictly for civilian purposes. Iran is also building a light-water nuclear reactor, which is less suitable for producing weapons-grade plutonium, near the city of Bushehr. That reactor is being built with Russian assistance and is subject to IAEA safeguards. (See ACT, Jan/Feb 2003.) Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi stated December 14 that Iranian nuclear activities are for “peaceful ends” and are needed to generate electricity.

According to Boucher, Iran’s nuclear program “is not peaceful and is certainly not transparent…. We have reached the conclusion that Iran is actively working to develop nuclear weapons capability.” Boucher added that Tehran has been attempting to conceal nuclear activities at the sites in Arak and Natanz by hardening and burying portions of the facilities. He also rebutted Iran’s claim that its nuclear program is for electricity generation, arguing that its fossil fuel reserves are such that there would be no economic benefit to a nuclear program.

Washington also criticized Iran’s failure to disclose the existence of its nuclear facilities earlier. In 1992, the IAEA Board of Governors “asked all states to provide information about the design of new facilities as soon as the decision to construct, or to authorize construction was taken,” according to the agency’s December 12 statement. Boucher added in his December 13 statement that “all other [IAEA] states,” with the exception of Iran, “have accepted this obligation to provide complete design information on new facilities no later than 180 days before the start of construction.”

Although Iran is a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and has concluded a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA, it has not concluded an Additional Protocol to its agreement. The Additional Protocol would provide for more rigorous inspections, including inspections of undeclared nuclear facilities. On December 13, ElBaradei called upon Iran to conclude such a protocol. Iran, however, is not required to allow visits to the Arak and Natanz sites under its current agreements with the IAEA.

Boucher indicated that Washington will wait for the IAEA to visit the two sites and issue its report before deciding on future action. He also said that the United States will continue its efforts to “get agreement from all countries to refrain from nuclear cooperation with Iran and to thwart Iran’s covert efforts to buy or acquire sensitive nuclear equipment and expertise.” John Wolf, assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, asserted that Iran is acquiring its fuel cycle program “through false trading companies” and other means, according to a November 20 Newsday article. He did not name any countries as suppliers.