The United States has been levying charges against Iran similar to those it made against Iraq prior to the March invasion of that country, including harboring the al Qaeda terrorist network and pursuing weapons of mass destruction programs.
In a May 27 press briefing, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer repeated U.S. charges that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program and rejected Iranian claims that its nuclear program is only for civilian purposes. “Our strong position is that Iran is preparing, instead, to produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons. That is what we see,” he said.
Possible IAEA Safeguards Violation
Washington has called on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to state whether Iran is in compliance with its obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). (See ACT, April 2003.) Apparently in response to this pressure, the IAEA has made the question of Iran’s compliance with its Safeguards Agreement an agenda item for its June 16 Board of Governors meeting, a State Department official said in a May 21 interview.
U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Brill made a formal request during a March 17 Board of Governors meeting that IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei submit a report on the matter, the official said. Brill, as well as other governments, including the European Union, also made this request during a May 6 IAEA meeting. Safeguards agreements allow the IAEA to monitor the nuclear facilities belonging to an NPT member state.
Washington has long expressed the belief that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program, but the IAEA has never found any of Iran’s nuclear activities to be in violation of its IAEA safeguards agreement.
The United States argues that recent disclosures about Tehran’s nuclear activities likely place it in violation of its safeguards agreement. Undersecretary of State John Bolton stated during a May 5 press conference in Russia that Iran is “in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and its safeguards agreement with the IAEA,” according to the Russian news agency Interfax. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Semmel was more measured during a May 2 speech at the meeting to prepare for the 2005 NPT Review Conference, stating that Washington “strongly suspect[s]” that Iran is in violation of its safeguards agreement.
If the IAEA Board of Governors finds that Iran is in violation of its safeguards agreement, it is required to report the matter to the UN Security Council, Bolton pointed out May 5. The IAEA presented such a report about North Korea’s nuclear activities to the council in February. (See ACT, March 2003.)
In a May 1 address during the NPT conference, Semmel called on Tehran to allow the IAEA “complete access” to its nuclear facilities and “fully disclose all information about its nuclear programs.” He also called on Iran to “answer the questions and concerns that have been raised, and take all measures necessary to restore confidence in its nuclear program.” (See ACT, June 2003.)
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister G. Ali Khoshroo had already stated April 29 during the conference that Iran “is providing substantiated [sic] information in great detail and with complete transparency” to the agency.
Perhaps the most significant discovery about Iran’s nuclear program has been the revelation that Iran has made significant progress on its gas centrifuge uranium-enrichment facility located in a complex at Natanz. A State Department official told Arms Control Today in March that IAEA officials were surprised by the facility’s advanced state during a February visit. Uranium enrichment is one method for producing fissile material for use in nuclear weapons.
Semmel stated May 2 during the NPT conference that Washington is “skeptical” that Tehran “could have developed…[the Natanz facility] without conducting pilot operations that were not reported to the IAEA.” A State Department official said in March that Iran might have introduced nuclear material into centrifuges at another location in order to test them.
An undeclared pilot program that has used nuclear material for testing purposes would be in violation of Iran’s safeguards agreement, an IAEA official confirmed in a March interview. The Natanz facility does not violate this agreement because Iran has not yet introduced nuclear material into it.
The State Department official provided new details about the IAEA’s investigation into Iran’s uranium-enrichment activities during a May 20 interview, stating that the IAEA is checking a shipment of Chinese-supplied nuclear material, including uranium hexafluoride, to ensure that it is all accounted for. Uranium hexafluoride is the material introduced into gas centrifuges for processing into reactor-grade fuel. If any of the material is missing, it “might suggest” that Iran has conducted activities in violation of its safeguards agreement, the official added. The official said China shipped the material in 1991.
A May 9 State Department statement detailing China’s nuclear cooperation with Iran indicates that China agreed in 1997 “not to undertake new nuclear cooperation with Iran and…[to] cancel cooperation on a uranium conversion facility.” Such a facility is used to convert uranium oxide to uranium hexafluoride, an essential component of a gas-centrifuge-based nuclear program. China also agreed “to complete…two existing contracts for non-sensitive assistance”—a reference to a research reactor and a facility to produce cladding for nuclear fuel rods, according to a 2001 Department of Defense report. The statement does not mention the 1991 shipment.
The official added that the United States hopes the IAEA “requests access to all suspect sites” in Iran, including a site occupied by the Kala Electric company. The National Council of Resistance of Iran, the political arm of the Mujahideen-e Khalq resistance group that publicly revealed the existence of the Natanz facility in August 2002, referred to Kala Electric as a “front company” for the uranium-enrichment project.
Iran is involved in other nuclear activities, but none have yet been found in violation of its safeguards agreement.
Semmel’s May 2 speech addressed another U.S. concern about Iran’s nuclear program: its construction of a heavy-water plant near a town called Arak. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stated May 9 that the heavy-water plant is part of a plan for Iran to develop an additional capability to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons via plutonium reprocessing. Iran has no such reactor at present and is currently constructing light-water reactors, which are less suited for plutonium production, Boucher said.
Iranian Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh said in a May 6 speech during the NPT conference that Iran will be building Canada Deuterium Uranium (CANDU)-type heavy-water nuclear reactors, but he said their construction would not be a proliferation concern because they would operate under IAEA safeguards.
A State Department official said in a May 28 interview that heavy-water reactors pose a greater proliferation risk than light-water reactors because it is easier to reprocess weapons-grade plutonium from the spent fuel. Additionally, CANDU reactors use natural uranium for nuclear fuel, which allows countries to bypass the uranium-enrichment stage and use indigenous uranium, the official said. The use of natural uranium can also potentially complicate efforts to monitor the diversion of nuclear fuel, he added.
The United States first expressed concern about the plant in December, but construction of the heavy-water plant does not itself violate Iran’s safeguards agreement.
Semmel also cited Iran’s “aggressive pursuit of a full nuclear fuel cycle capability” as evidence that the country is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. Iranian President Mohammad Khatami announced in February that it has started mining uranium and is developing the facilities necessary for a complete nuclear fuel cycle. Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Hassan Rowhani announced in March that Iran would begin operating its uranium-conversion facility, completed by Iran after China pulled out of the project.
In addition, Russia is constructing a light-water nuclear reactor at Bushehr in Iran. Washington has long opposed the project out of concern Iran will gain access to dual-use technology that can aid it in developing a nuclear weapons program, although the reactor will operate under IAEA safeguards when finished. Russia rejects the claim that its cooperation contributes to an Iranian nuclear weapons program.
Russia has agreed to supply Iran with reactor fuel but only with the condition that Iran return the spent fuel. That agreement has still not been finalized, the State Department official said May 20, adding that Moscow’s condition remains in effect.
Russia also expressed some concern about Iran’s nuclear activities, although it has not stopped its nuclear cooperation with Iran. Referring to the IAEA’s investigation, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Georgy Mamedov said May 19 that Moscow has “questions” about Iran’s nuclear activities, although he did not say Moscow has any reason to believe Iran is violating its safeguards agreement. He also expressed hope that Iran would sign an Additional Protocol to its safeguards agreement, which is designed to provide for more rigorous inspections.
Tehran agreed in February to discuss concluding an Additional Protocol with the IAEA, but Iran placed conditions on this agreement in March.
Aghazadeh reiterated Iran’s claim that its nuclear program is for generating electricity, arguing that the reduced use of fossil fuels for electricity will save Iran money and protect its environment. He also argued that Iran needs to produce its own nuclear fuel because it cannot rely on foreign suppliers. He added that the acquisition of nuclear weapons would not enhance its security and that all programs will operate under IAEA safeguards.
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.
The United States has also had long-standing concerns about Iran’s missile program. Assistant Secretary of Defense J. D. Crouch testified before Congress in March that Tehran could “flight test” a missile capable of reaching the United States “by mid-decade,” but a December 2001 National Intelligence Estimate places this date at 2015.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration also reprimanded Iran for its suspected chemical weapons activities. Assistant Secretary of State Stephen Rademaker accused Iran of violating its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention in an April 28 speech at the First Review Conference of the treaty—a claim the United States has repeatedly made in the past. (See ACT, June 2003.) Tehran has stated that it is not producing chemical weapons.