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"I actually have a pretty good collection of Arms Control Today, which I have read throughout my career. It's one of the few really serious publications on arms control issues."
– Gary Samore
Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD Terrorism
Concern Heats Up Over Iran's Nuclear Program
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Paul Kerr

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors unanimously adopted a resolution Sept. 12 that sets an Oct. 31 deadline for Iran to cooperate fully with the agency’s efforts to resolve concerns that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Tehran has sent mixed signals as to whether it will comply, possibly setting the stage for a showdown in the UN Security Council.

The resolution is the IAEA board’s strongest action to date regarding Iran’s nuclear program. In June the board issued a statement calling on Iran to resolve concerns created by its failure to report certain nuclear activities, as mandated by its safeguards agreement with the IAEA. Such agreements are required under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to ensure that member states do not divert civilian nuclear programs to military purposes. Iran ratified the NPT in 1970 and has repeatedly denied that it is pursuing nuclear weapons. (See ACT, July/August 2003.)

The IAEA action follows months of pressure from Washington. The Bush administration expressed satisfaction with the resolution, with White House press secretary Scott McClellan describing it Sept. 25 as “one last chance for Iran to comply” and adding that the matter “should be reported to the Security Council” if Iran fails to do so. Although President George W. Bush said Sept. 25 that “there will be universal condemnation” if Iran does not cooperate, McClellan would not speculate on what course of action the administration would recommend if the matter is referred to the Security Council. The board is to evaluate Iran’s progress shortly after the deadline.

The United States has long had suspicions that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program, but international concern accelerated during the last year as more details about Iran’s uranium-and plutonium-based nuclear programs emerged. When operational, both programs could produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.

IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei issued a report in June summarizing the agency’s investigation into Iran’s nuclear programs and concluding that Iran had violated its safeguards agreements. A second report in August provided more details on Iran’s programs and revealed inconsistencies in previous Iranian statements to the agency, raising more questions about Tehran’s nuclear intentions.

Tehran has suggested that it is willing to cooperate with the IAEA but has voiced concerns that such cooperation will not be sufficient to meet U.S. demands. The IAEA is sending a team to Iran Oct. 2 to begin inspections and get a more complete picture of Iran’s nuclear activities, an IAEA official said in a Sept. 29 interview.

The Resolution

The most important component of the resolution calls on Iran to take “all necessary actions…to resolve all outstanding issues involving nuclear materials and nuclear activities” by the deadline, expressing particular concern about Iran’s gas centrifuge uranium-enrichment program. A pilot gas centrifuge plant near the town of Natanz contained more than 100 centrifuges as of February, when ElBaradei first visited the facility. Centrifuges spin uranium hexafluoride gas in cylinders to increase the concentration of the relevant isotopes. Tehran is also building a commercial facility that could hold enough centrifuges to produce fissile material for 25 nuclear devices per year. (See ACT, June 2003.)

The February discovery of the Natanz facility’s advanced state produced suspicions that Iran had secretly tested its centrifuges with nuclear material—an action that would violate its safeguards agreement. Under the agreement, Tehran can only conduct such tests if IAEA inspectors are notified. Iran has said it tested the centrifuges without nuclear material, but IAEA experts dismiss its claim.

In June, Iran adhered to the letter if not the spirit of its agreement by introducing nuclear material into the Natanz facility’s centrifuges under IAEA safeguards. That action came despite a board of governors’ request earlier that month that Tehran refrain from doing so. Iran accelerated its tests in August. The resolution “calls on Iran to suspend all further uranium-enrichment-related activities, including the further introduction of nuclear material into Natanz,” but there is no indication that Iran has stopped.

The resolution further calls on Iran to comply with the agency’s investigation into the matter by “providing a full declaration of all imported material and components relevant to the enrichment programme.” ElBaradei reported in August that environmental samples taken by IAEA inspectors revealed the presence of highly enriched uranium (HEU) at the pilot facility. Iran has explained the findings by claiming that it imported contaminated components, but the material’s presence may also indicate that Iran tested its centrifuges with nuclear material.

Iran’s acknowledgment that it had obtained some of the components through “foreign intermediaries” contradicted the country’s past contention that its enrichment program was entirely indigenous.
The centrifuge technology’s origin is unknown. Although a French report in May asserted that the technology is likely of Pakistani origin, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamidreza Asefi told reporters Sept. 1 that Iran has not cooperated with Pakistan. The August IAEA report says that the machines are of “an early European design,” but that does not exclude the possibility that they originated in Pakistan. (See ACT, September 2003.)

The IAEA resolution also requires Iran to allow inspectors to conduct environmental sampling in “whatever locations the IAEA deems necessary” to complete its verification tasks. Conducting samples has been a particularly contentious issue. Iran delayed allowing inspectors to conduct samples at a location called the Kalaye Electric Company for months after inspectors first requested access. When inspectors conducted sampling in August, they found “considerable modification” of the facility which could adversely impact the samples’ accuracy.

The IAEA has been particularly interested in the Kalaye site because Tehran acknowledged it produced centrifuge components there and the agency believes that sampling could help verify the government’s claim that it has not tested centrifuges with nuclear material. The IAEA has not revealed the results of the sampling, but the Associated Press reported Sept. 29 that Ali Akbar Salehi, Tehran’s chief delegate to the IAEA, acknowledged that inspectors found HEU at the site. He again blamed contaminated components.

Will Iran Comply?

Whether Iran will comply with the IAEA’s demands is an open question. Asefi said Tehran’s response to the resolution “is still being examined and…Iran’s final stance will be declared in due time,” the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported Sept. 21. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, however, said in a television interview that Iran is “determined to cooperate” with the agency, according to a Sept. 28 Associated Press report.

Earlier in the month, Tehran seemed to issue a veiled threat to pull out of the NPT. Iran’s representatives walked out of the IAEA meeting when the resolution was adopted, and Asefi told reporters Sept.14 that Iran would “review its cooperation” with the IAEA. However, Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh told the IAEA General Conference Sept. 16 that, although Iran “objects” to the resolution, it is still “fully committed to its NPT responsibility.”

Salehi discussed his government’s thoughts in more detail with Der Spiegel on Sept. 15, saying Iran would take “appropriate measures” if the United States tries to force it to forgo all uranium-enrichment activities. These measures could include limiting its cooperation with the IAEA to the minimum level required by its original safeguards agreement, “completely” ending cooperation with the agency, or pulling out of the NPT, he said. During the course of the agency’s investigation, Iran has allowed the IAEA to conduct inspections beyond those required by Iran’s safeguards agreement.

Additional Protocol

The resolution reiterates the IAEA’s June request that Iran “promptly and unconditionally” implement an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement. An additional protocol allows the IAEA to conduct more rigorous inspections, including visits to facilities that countries have not declared to the agency in order to check for clandestine nuclear programs.

The IAEA and Iran have had ongoing discussions about the agreement, and Salehi said Sept. 15 that Iran is ready to begin negotiations “leading to our signing it.” IAEA spokesperson Melissa Flemming said that concluding the protocol was unnecessary for the agency to conduct its current investigation, Agence France Presse reported Sept. 25.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said in August that Iran signing the additional protocol would not be sufficient to satisfy Washington’s concerns about that country’s nuclear programs.

Moscow-Tehran Cooperation Continues

Russia continues to move forward on the construction of a light-water nuclear reactor near the Iranian city of Bushehr. Russia has agreed to provide fuel for the reactor, with the condition that Iran sign an agreement to return the spent fuel, but Russian Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev could not say when this agreement will be concluded, Agence France Presse reported Sept. 19.

Iran has also introduced a new variable. Russian Deputy Minister for Nuclear Energy Valery Govorukhin said that Iran now wants Russia to pay for the removal of the spent fuel, the Itar-Tass news agency reported Sept. 10. Rumyantsev added Sept. 19 that the two sides are negotiating this new demand—a process that could further delay conclusion of the agreement.

Although a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman called on Iran Sept. 13 to conclude an additional protocol and cooperate with the IAEA, Govorukhin added that Russia’s provision of reactor fuel is not conditioned on Iran signing the protocol. Moscow has hinted at such linkage in the past.

Washington has long opposed the Bushehr project because of concerns that Iran will gain access to expertise and dual-use technology that can aid it in developing a nuclear weapons program. Russia contends that the reactors will not contribute to a nuclear weapons program and will operate under IAEA safeguards.

Russian officials have said they may build more reactors in Iran and IRNA reported Aug. 26 that Russia has delivered feasibility studies to Iran for a second reactor being planned for Bushehr. The two governments agreed to conduct the studies in December 2002. (See ACT, January/February 2003.) Govorukhin said Sept. 10 that the Bushehr reactor will be completed in 2005, but the Aug. 26 IRNA report placed the date at 2004.

How Long Until a Weapon?


Major General Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, the head of Israeli military intelligence, told Jane’s Intelligence Review that Iran can develop a nuclear device “within two years” after gaining the ability to produce sufficient uranium, according to a Sept. 13 Agence France Presse report. Iran has said that it plans to start installing centrifuges into the commercial Natanz facility in 2005.

Ze’evi-Farkash, however, added that Israel believes 2004 is “the point of no return” because Iranian scientists will have by then acquired all the “necessary knowledge” for building a nuclear device.

Public U.S. estimates give a slightly longer time frame. A January 2003 Congressional Research Service report states that “the consensus among U.S. experts appears to be that Iran is still about eight to ten years away from a nuclear weapons capability, although foreign help or Iranian procurement abroad of fissionable materials could shorten that timetable.” A February Defense Intelligence Agency estimate says Iran will have a nuclear bomb by 2010 if it acquires the necessary technology and fissile material. Whether these estimates take into account the most recent Iranian nuclear developments is unknown.

Additionally, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton argued during a June congressional hearing that Iran could build “over 80 nuclear weapons” if it had access to sufficient fuel, operated the Bushehr reactor for 5-6 years, and chose to withdraw from the NPT.

The IAEA Resolution: An Excerpt

1. Calls on Iran to provide accelerated cooperation and full transparency to allow the Agency to provide at an early date the assurances required by Member States;
2. Calls on Iran to ensure there are no further failures to report material, facilities and activities that Iran is obliged to report pursuant to its safeguards agreement;
3. Reiterates the Board’s statement in June 2003 encouraging Iran not to introduce nuclear material into its pilot enrichment cascade in Natanz, and in this context calls on Iran to suspend all further uranium enrichment-related activities, including the further introduction of nuclear material into Natanz, and, as a confidence-building measure, any reprocessing activities, pending provision by the Director General of the assurances required by Member States, and pending satisfactory application of the provisions of the additional protocol;
4. Decides it is essential and urgent in order to ensure IAEA verification of non-diversion of nuclear material that Iran remedy all failures identified by the Agency and cooperate fully with the Agency to ensure verification of compliance with Iran’s safeguards agreement by taking all necessary actions by the end of October 2003, including:
(i) providing a full declaration of all imported material and components relevant to the enrichment programme, especially imported equipment and components stated to have been contaminated with high enriched uranium particles, and collaborating with the Agency in identifying the source and date of receipt of such imports and the locations where they have been stored and used in Iran;
(ii) granting unrestricted access, including environmental sampling, for the Agency to whatever locations the Agency deems necessary for the purposes of verification of the correctness and completeness of Iran’s declarations;
(iii) resolving questions regarding the conclusion of Agency experts that process testing on gas centrifuges must have been conducted in order for Iran to develop its enrichment technology to its current extent;
(iv) providing complete information regarding the conduct of uranium conversion experiments;
(v) providing such other information and explanations, and taking such other steps as are deemed necessary by the Agency to resolve all outstanding issues involving nuclear materials and nuclear activities, including environmental sampling results;
5. Requests all third countries to cooperate closely and fully with the Agency in the clarification of open questions on the Iranian nuclear programme;
6. Requests Iran to work with the Secretariat to promptly and unconditionally sign, ratify and fully implement the additional protocol, and, as a confidence-building measure, henceforth to act in accordance with the additional protocol;
7. Requests the Director General to continue his efforts to implement the Agency’s safeguards agreement with Iran, and to submit a report in November 2003, or earlier if appropriate, on the implementation of this resolution, enabling the Board to draw definitive conclusions....