IAEA Presses Iran to Comply With Nuclear Safeguards

Paul Kerr

Increasing pressure on Iran to come clean about its nuclear program, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Board of Governors issued a statement June 19 expressing “concern” that Tehran has failed to report nuclear “material, facilities, and activities as required by its safeguards obligations.”

The statement stops short of saying that Iran is in violation of its safeguards agreement. Such agreements are required under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to ensure that member states do not divert civilian nuclear programs to military purposes. But the board urged Iran to remedy its failures and “resolve” open questions about its nuclear activities.

The board also called on Iran to conclude and implement an Additional Protocol to its existing safeguards agreement. The Additional Protocol would provide for more rigorous inspections, including visits to facilities Iran has not declared to the IAEA, to check for clandestine nuclear programs. The foreign ministers of the European Union also called on Iran to conclude the agreement in a June 16 statement. (See ACT, July/August 2003.)

The United States, which welcomed the board’s statement, has long had concerns that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program and has objected to Russia’s construction of a light-water reactor at Bushehr. Those concerns were exacerbated last August, when an Iranian opposition group revealed the existence of a uranium enrichment facility at the Iranian town of Natanz and a heavy-water reactor program at Arak. Washington publicly confirmed the existence of those facilities in December, and Tehran has since declared that it is mining uranium and pursuing a complete nuclear-fuel cycle. (See ACT, March 2003.) Iran maintains that it is not developing nuclear weapons and that its nuclear program is for producing energy, but the United States has repeatedly dismissed this explanation.

The Board of Governors statement that Iran has engaged in clandestine nuclear activity has heightened concern about the situation. The statement was based on a June 6 IAEA report, produced as the result of a series of inspections in Iran, and a February visit by the agency’s director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei.

The report identified several areas in which Iran has not complied with its safeguards agreement: Tehran failed to disclose its importation of nuclear material; the use of that material in various nuclear activities; and the facilities where the material, as well as nuclear waste, was stored and processed. The report acknowledged that Iran has now declared much of this activity and provided some relevant information about the facilities in question but said, “The process of verifying the correctness and completeness of the Iranian declarations is still ongoing.”

The Specifics

Among the report’s chief findings was that Iran imported 1,800 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride, uranium tetrafluoride, and uranium dioxide in 1991, an action it never reported to the IAEA. Iran acknowledged the imports but says it did not believe it was obligated to report such a small quantity of material. The report stated that Iran was, in fact, obligated to do so. China supplied the material, a State Department official said last month. (See ACT, June 2003.)

Significantly, the report said that some of the uranium hexafluoride—the material introduced into gas centrifuges for processing into reactor-grade fuel—has not been accounted for, suggesting that Iran has been pursuing covert nuclear activities in violation of its safeguards agreement. Although the matter is still under investigation, a State Department official interviewed June 19 said that Iran may have used some of the material to test centrifuges in its uranium enrichment program at Natanz. Uranium enrichment has civilian applications, but it can also produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.

During his February visit, ElBaradei discovered that the Natanz facility, which consists of a pilot plant and a larger commercial plant, was more advanced than the agency had realized. Iran told the IAEA that the pilot enrichment plant is scheduled to start operating in June 2003 and that centrifuges are to be placed in the commercial plant starting in early 2005. The pilot plant, which had more than 100 centrifuges installed when ElBaradei visited the facility in February, is to contain 1,000 centrifuges by the end of 2003. The commercial plant will ultimately contain “over 50,000 centrifuges,” enough to produce fissile material for at least 25 nuclear weapons per year.

Constructing the centrifuges and facility buildings has not violated Iran’s safeguards agreement, but testing the centrifuges without declaring such tests to the IAEA would. According to the IAEA report, Iran has denied doing so, claiming that it tested the centrifuges via simulations. The State Department official called Iran’s explanation “extremely implausible,” adding that there is no precedent for testing centrifuges through simulations.

The question could be resolved through further examination of a site known as the Kala Electric company, where, according to the June report, Tehran acknowledged that it had produced “centrifuge components.” The IAEA asked to conduct inspections and environmental sampling to verify “the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities,” which would help determine if Iran has tested centrifuges with nuclear material. After some hesitation, Iranian officials allowed the inspectors to visit the facility but have not yet allowed environmental sampling.

Additionally, the report provided details about Iran’s heavy-water reactor program. Iranian Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh publicly disclosed the program in a speech the day after Iran notified the IAEA in a May 5 letter that it plans to construct a heavy-water research reactor at Arak. Construction of the reactor is to start in 2004. Iran has also been constructing a heavy-water production plant at Arak. (See ACT, January/February 2003.)

The State Department official said the reactor may be part of a nuclear weapons program because its small size will not contribute significantly to a civilian energy program (it will produce only 40 megawatts) but could generate plutonium for reprocessing into fissile material. Another State Department official interviewed in May said heavy-water reactors pose a greater proliferation risk than the proliferation-resistant light-water reactor being built at Bushehr because their spent fuel is easier to reprocess into weapons-grade plutonium. Additionally the Iranian reactor’s design uses natural uranium for nuclear fuel, which will allow Iran to bypass the uranium-enrichment process and use indigenous uranium. It could also complicate efforts to monitor the diversion of nuclear fuel.

The report also provided a number of other pieces of information that Iran had not previously made public: In addition to the gas centrifuge program, Iran has acknowledged “a substantial” laser-based uranium enrichment program, which the IAEA is also investigating. The IAEA report also questioned Iran’s claim that it is building a facility that would convert uranium oxide into uranium hexafluoride without having tested it with nuclear material. Finally, the report added that Iran told the agency it converted most of the imported uranium tetrafluoride into uranium metal in 2000, although neither of Iran’s nuclear reactor programs require the material for fuel. The State Department official said that, under these circumstances, the main use of uranium metal would be for nuclear warheads. The IAEA is continuing to investigate the matter, the report said.

Next Steps

The IAEA is continuing its investigation into Iran’s nuclear program. The June 19 Board of Governors statement said that the IAEA expects “Iran to grant…all access deemed necessary by the Agency” to alleviate concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and to allow inspectors to take environmental samples at the Kala company. The board also requested that Iran refrain from introducing nuclear material into the centrifuges at the pilot enrichment plant “pending the resolution” of other issues surrounding the nuclear program.

Although President George W. Bush stated June 18 that the United States “will not tolerate” an Iranian nuclear weapon, the United States appears willing to let the IAEA take the lead for now. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said June 19 that the United States “welcomes” the June 6 report, and a State Department official interviewed June 19 said that the United States is awaiting the results of further IAEA investigations, which will be discussed at an IAEA Board of Governors meeting in September.

Whether Iran will cooperate with the IAEA, however, is another matter. An Iranian government spokesman stated that Iran welcomes “any measure for confidence building among the international community for peaceful use” of nuclear energy, according to a June 23 Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) report. But Aghazadeh left doubts about the extent of this cooperation. Although saying that Tehran’s cooperation with the IAEA would be “comprehensive” and “at a level acceptable to the agency,” Aghazadeh added that Iran would go ahead with its plans to enrich uranium, according to a June 22 Associated Press report. Additionally, he suggested during a June 20 Iranian television broadcast that Iran would not permit environmental sampling at the Kala company.

Tehran’s position on the Additional Protocol is also unclear. Russian President Vladimir Putin told journalists during a June 20 press conference that Iran “plans to sign” the Additional Protocol, but a June 23 IRNA report stated that Iran continues to condition its signing of the protocol on Western countries lifting restrictions on supplying nuclear technology to Iran. U.S. economic sanctions on Iran are an example of such restrictions.

Moscow continues to work on the Bushehr reactor—now expected to be finished in 2004, according to IRNA—and Russian officials have said that they may build more reactors in Iran. Russia has agreed to provide fuel for the reactor, with the condition that Iran sign an agreement to return the spent fuel, but this agreement has not yet been concluded. Indeed, Russia appears to be increasingly concerned about Iran’s nuclear activities and may even condition the delivery of the Bushehr fuel on Tehran’s conclusion of an Additional Protocol, although Russian officials have issued conflicting statements on this matter.

Russian news agency Itar-Tass quoted Russian Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev June 20 as saying that Russia will only deliver the reactor fuel if Iran “places under IAEA control all of its nuclear facilities and answers the [agency’s] questions.” A State Department official told Arms Control Today June 26 that Washington interprets this ambiguous statement to mean that the fuel delivery is conditioned on the conclusion of the Additional Protocol. The Bush administration intends to hold Moscow to that interpretation, he added.

But Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Georgy Mamedov indicated in a June 6 interview with Vremya Novostei that a Russian agreement to supply fuel to the Bushehr reactor is not related to whether Iran signs the Additional Protocol.

Although Iran and Russia say the Bushehr reactor will operate under IAEA safeguards when finished, Washington has long opposed the project out of concern that Iran will gain access to dual-use technology that can aid it in developing a nuclear weapons program. Undersecretary of State John Bolton articulated another objection to the Bushehr project during a June 4 hearing before the House International Relations Committee. He argued that Iran could build “over 80 nuclear weapons” if it had access to sufficient fuel, operated the reactor for 5-6 years, and chose to withdraw from the NPT.

Russia’s provision of fuel for Bushehr is related to U.S. concerns about Iran’s fuel cycle ambitions. The United States has argued that Iran has no need to develop a complete fuel cycle if it will receive fuel from Russia. Although Iran has countered by saying it cannot rely on foreign suppliers, the State Department official said June 19 that Iran’s known uranium reserves are insufficient to support a civilian nuclear program, but are enough to supply material for more than 100 nuclear weapons.