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IAEA Says Iran Failed to Disclose Key Nuclear Activities

Paul Kerr

Despite its October 2003 promise to declare all aspects of its nuclear program to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a Feb. 24 IAEA report reveals that Iran has failed to disclose several nuclear activities. The IAEA Board of Governors is to discuss the report during its next meeting March 8.

Commenting on the agency’s investigation, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei told reporters Feb. 24 that “we have seen some good cooperation coming from Iran, particularly with regard to access to sites” but added that he wants Iran to provide “much more prompt information,” according to Reuters.

Some of the most important items in the report concern Iran’s gas-centrifuge uranium-enrichment program. Gas centrifuges are used to produce low-enriched uranium (LEU) for use in nuclear reactors, but they may also produce highly enriched uranium (HEU), for use as the explosive material in a nuclear weapon. Iranian officials maintain that their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but the United States has continually expressed skepticism.

Last year, Iran acknowledged taking steps to build enrichment facilities and other elements of a complete nuclear fuel cycle. After an extensive investigation, the IAEA Board of Governors adopted a resolution in November condemning Iran’s pursuit of clandestine nuclear activities in violation of its IAEA safeguards agreement. Safeguards agreements are designed to ensure that states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty do not divert civilian nuclear programs to military purposes. In part, they require signatories to declare certain important nuclear activities to the IAEA.

Iran signed an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement in December, which strengthens the agency’s inspections regime and expands the number of activities that Tehran must declare to the agency.

Still, the 35-member Board of Governors, which includes the United States, gave Iran an opportunity to halt its clandestine efforts and cooperate fully with the agency’s investigation into its past nuclear activities, including providing the agency with complete information about its nuclear program. The board stopped short of referring Iran’s violations to the UN Security Council for possible penalties, although it preserved that option for the future. (See ACT, December 2003.)

The board has been particularly concerned by Tehran’s centrifuge program. IAEA inspectors visited Iran’s centrifuge facility at Natanz in February 2003. Its advanced state of construction led the agency to suspect that Iran had tested the centrifuges with nuclear material without first informing the agency—a violation of its safeguards agreement. Since then, Iran has admitted to testing centrifuges with nuclear material at a separate facility called the Kalaye Electric Company but has said it produced only uranium enriched to a very low degree. Tehran has attributed the IAEA’s discovery of other types of enriched-uranium particles at both the Kalaye and Natanz sites to contamination from imported centrifuge components.

The Feb. 24 report appears to cast doubt on Iran’s explanation. First, samples of domestically manufactured centrifuge components indicate that they were contaminated with a different type of enriched uranium than similar imported parts. Second, environmental samples conducted in the Kalaye facility indicate the presence of a type of enriched uranium that Iran has not declared to the IAEA and whose presence likely cannot be explained by contaminated components.

Taken together, both of these factors suggest that Iran has not been fully forthcoming about its previous nuclear activities and may be concealing some nuclear material it either imported or produced. The report states that, “until this matter is satisfactorily resolved, it will be very difficult for the [IAEA] to confirm that there has not been any undeclared nuclear material or activities.”

Calling it “a matter of serious concern,” the report also revealed that Iran failed to declare in October that it had conducted research and development on a centrifuge of a type more advanced than the one it had been using in its recently-disclosed enrichment facilities. According to the report, Iran showed the agency designs that it obtained in 1994 from “foreign sources” and told inspectors that it had conducted experiments with the centrifuges without using nuclear material. Although Iran told the IAEA that it had not received any centrifuges from its sources and had tested the machines using domestically manufactured components, a Feb. 20 report from Malaysia’s Inspector General of Police states that used centrifuges were sent to Iran from Pakistan in either 1994 or 1995.

On the other hand, a controversy over Iran’s implementation of its promise to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities appears to have been resolved. The November resolution stated that Tehran had promised to “suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities,” but the scope of this suspension has been a matter of controversy. Iran suspended some of its activities in November and halted its enrichment activities at Natanz and other facilities by the end of 2003.

Tehran nevertheless continued to assemble centrifuges until mid-January and manufacture centrifuge components until February—actions that received criticism from Washington. Iran has now promised to stop both of these activities, but some components may still be manufactured under existing contracts. These, however, “will be stored and placed under agency seal,” the report says.

Iranian officials continue to say that they may restart the program in the future, but the United States is pressing for a permanent halt. CIA director George Tenet told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Feb. 24 that “it would be a significant challenge for intelligence to confidently assess” whether Iran had produced HEU from its enrichment facilities because of the dual-use nature of the technology.

Other Revelations

The IAEA report also states that in November Iran presented inspectors with plutonium it had reprocessed from spent nuclear fuel. The February report notes a “discrepancy” between the amount of plutonium the agency estimates Iran should have produced, based on the amount of spent fuel it reprocessed, and the amount Iran presented to the inspectors. The IAEA is still discussing the matter with Iran, the report says.

In addition, the report reveals that Tehran told the agency in November that it had produced polonium, a radioactive isotope that has civilian applications but can also be used to trigger a nuclear chain reaction in a nuclear weapon. Iran has not been able to provide evidence to support its claim that it produced the element for civilian purposes.

The report adds that the IAEA is still trying to clarify “the nature and scope” of Iran’s laser uranium-enrichment program, which it also recently admitted to having.

Consistent with recent revelations that a network headed by Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan assisted both Iran and Libya with their nuclear efforts, the report points out “several common elements” between Libya’s and Iran’s nuclear programs, explaining that “the basic technology is very similar and was largely obtained from the same foreign sources.” Iran’s connections with this network, which also provided Libya with designs for a nuclear weapon, has invited speculation that Iran may have weapons designs it has not yet disclosed .

Next Steps

Whether the Board of Governors will take any action on this matter is unclear. The November resolution stated that the board should meet “to consider…all options at its disposal” if “further serious Iranian failures come to light.” However, the resolution did not specify further. Department of State spokesperson Richard Boucher stated Feb. 19 that the board “needs to...take appropriate action,” but he did not elaborate.

For its part, Iran appeared dismissive of the IAEA’s findings. According to a Feb. 25 report from the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Hassan Rowhani stated that Iran is only engaged in “research” on the advanced centrifuge project, adding that “Iran is engaged in other types of research but…does not deem it necessary” to report it to the United Nations.

IRNA also reported the same day that Hamidreza Asefi, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, termed the polonium experiments a “misunderstanding,” stating that they occurred 13 years ago.

Iran: Assessment and Next Steps

The following excerpt is from a report released Feb. 24 by International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei on the implementation of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty safeguards agreement in Iran.

Iran has presented all declared nuclear material to the Agency for its verification. Iran has also provided all of the inventory change reports, material balance reports and physical inventory listings requested by the Agency. While some corrections are required and are still pending, this is partially due to the need to establish the nuclear material hold-up in dismantled equipment and other problems associated with nuclear material accountancy for past activities. In addition, Iran has submitted design information with respect to facilities, as requested by the Agency, although some of the information needs to be revised and/or supplemented, which Iran has agreed to do.

Iran has been actively cooperating with the Agency in providing access to locations requested by the Agency. This included access to workshops situated at military sites. This is welcome. Also welcome is the decision by Iran to expand the scope of suspension to cover remaining enrichment activities, which, in the Agency’s view, will contribute to confidence building.

Although investigations are ongoing, the Agency has made good progress in verifying Iran’s statements regarding the UCF project and the associated experiments and testing activities. The Agency has also been verifying the suspension of those enrichment and reprocessing activities specified in Iran’s Note Verbale of 29 December 2003.

The omission from Iran’s letter of 21 October 2003 of any reference to its possession of the P-2 centrifuge design drawings and associated research, manufacturing and mechanical testing activities is a matter of serious concern, particularly in view of the importance and sensitivity of those activities. It runs counter to Iran’s declaration, a document characterized by Iran as providing “the full scope of Iranian nuclear activities” and a “complete centrifuge R&D chronology”. The Director General has continued to emphasize to Iran the importance of declaring all the details of Iran’s nuclear programme.

The Agency has still to resolve the major outstanding issue, of the LEU and HEU contamination found at the Kalaye Electric Company workshop and Natanz, and associated concerns. Until this matter is satisfactorily resolved, it will be very difficult for the Agency to confirm that there has not been any undeclared nuclear material or activities. The Agency is still waiting for Iran to provide requested information detailing the origin of the centrifuge equipment and components, the locations in Iran to which such equipment and components were moved and the associated details of timescales, and the names of individuals involved. The resolution of this issue will depend to a great extent on the cooperation of the country from which the imported items are believed to have originated.

Other issues requiring clarification include the nature and scope of Iran’s activities in relation to P-2 centrifuges, and the nature and scope of Iran’s laser isotope enrichment research and details of the associated equipment. The issue of the purpose of Iran’s activities related to the production and intended use of Po-210 remains a concern, in the absence of information to support Iran’s statements in this regard.

Although the timelines of the conversion and centrifuge programmes of Iran and the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (Libya) are different, they share several common elements. The basic technology is very similar and was largely obtained from the same foreign sources. As part of verifying the correctness and completeness of the declarations of Iran and Libya9, the Agency is investigating, with the support of Member States, whose full cooperation is essential, the supply routes and sources of such technology and related equipment and nuclear and non-nuclear materials.

The Agency will continue its efforts to resolve and clarify the outstanding issues. In this context the Director General has requested Iran to continue and intensify its cooperation with the Agency, in particular through the prompt provision of detailed information. The Director General will report to the June 2004 meeting of the Board, or earlier, as appropriate.

9 See the Director General’s report on the implementation of Libya’s NPT Safeguards Agreement (GOV/2004/12, para. 38).