In advance of a meeting beginning Sept. 13, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei is to present the agency’s Board of Governors with a report describing progress in the two-year investigation of Iran’s nuclear programs.
In contrast to several past reports, ElBaradei will not reveal any undisclosed Iranian nuclear activities, a diplomat close to the Vienna-based agency told Arms Control Today Aug. 20. The report will resolve, or nearly resolve, most outstanding issues that the agency has been called upon to investigate with regard to Iran’s nuclear activities, the source added.
However, the meeting is unlikely to resolve the controversy surrounding Iran’s nuclear activities or diminish U.S. pressure on Tehran to give up its nuclear program. Questions regarding Iran’s nuclear intentions remain, and Tehran has not taken most actions the board called for in a June resolution, the latest of several that have criticized Iran’s lack of cooperation with the IAEA. (See ACT, July/August 2004.)
In particular, the June resolution emphasized concerns about Iran’s uranium-enrichment activities, especially questions concerning its advanced centrifuge program and the IAEA’s previously reported discovery of enriched uranium at several locations in the country. Gas centrifuges can produce civilian nuclear reactor fuel as well as highly enriched uranium for use in nuclear weapons.
Iran’s clandestine centrifuge program has sparked concern that it has a secret nuclear weapons program. Countries party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) are permitted to enrich uranium, but they must do so under IAEA safeguards agreements. These accords empower the IAEA to ensure nuclear facilities are used solely for civilian purposes. Iran covertly tested some of its centrifuges with nuclear material—a violation of its agreement.
The resolution called on Iran to implement fully its October 2003 pledge to suspend its uranium-enrichment program, a pledge that was part of an agreement with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. (See ACT, November 2003.) However, irritated by the Europeans’ support for the June resolution, Iran stated later that month that it would resume making centrifuge components and assembling centrifuges.
Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi told reporters July 31 that Tehran had started building centrifuges, Reuters reported. Iran’s centrifuge work is taking place under IAEA supervision, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations Mohammad Javad Zarif told the Financial Times Aug. 9. Iran has not resumed actual uranium enrichment.
Such activity has caused controversy before. Iran continued to manufacture components and assemble centrifuges even after it suspended activities at its other enrichment facilities late last year. Iran agreed in February to stop both component manufacturing and centrifuge assembly, but ElBaradei reported in June that Iran had not stopped manufacturing components. (See ACT, March 2004.)
The resolution also called on Iran to refrain from producing uranium hexafluoride—the feedstock for gas centrifuges—in its uranium conversion facility. Iran told the agency it would begin testing the facility in May, but the Vienna diplomat said Iran has not yet done so.
The board further called on Iran to “voluntarily…reconsider its decision to start construction” of a heavy-water nuclear reactor. Iran was supposed to start construction in June but has not yet done so, a Department of State official said Aug. 27. The United States views this reactor as a proliferation concern, arguing that it is well suited for producing plutonium, which also can be used in nuclear weapons.
As for the enriched uranium particles that the IAEA reported earlier this year, the agency’s investigation has apparently made progress. Iran claims that the particles originated from imported centrifuge components, but previous IAEA reports have questioned that explanation. This uncertainty suggested that Iran had either obtained or produced enriched uranium that it did not report. However, the Vienna diplomatic source stated that, despite these earlier reports, the imported components can probably account for all of the particles in question, but cautioned that this will not be confirmed for some time.
Specifically, the source confirmed press reports that uranium enriched to 54 percent U-235 came from centrifuges imported from Pakistan. Uranium particles enriched to 36 percent U-235 apparently came from equipment originating in the former Soviet Union and reaching Iran via China and Pakistan. Iran’s use of a network run by former Pakistani nuclear weapons official Abdul Qadeer Khan to acquire materials for its centrifuge program has been known for some time. (See ACT, March 2004.)
This, however, does not explain other outstanding issues such as Tehran’s experiments with polonium, an element with limited civilian uses that can be used to trigger a chain reaction in a nuclear weapon.
The IAEA also is investigating allegations that Iran tried to cover up undisclosed nuclear activities by demolishing buildings located at a site called Lavizan Shian. Despite the fact that satellite images appeared to show that Iran razed buildings and scraped topsoil from the site, there is no evidence that Iran removed the soil or undertook prohibited nuclear activities there, the Vienna source said. (See ACT, July/August 2004.)
The source also revealed that the IAEA has completed its preliminary assessment of Iran’s May declaration under the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement. As part of its October 2003 agreement, Iran agreed to sign an additional protocol and act as if it were in force until the Majlis (Iran’s parliament) ratifies it. The board urged Iran in June to ratify the protocol, but the Majlis has yet to do so.
Diplomatic efforts since the June meeting have failed to moderate Iran’s provocative behavior. A July 29 meeting between the European governments and Tehran failed to persuade Iran to stop its centrifuge activity. According to a European diplomat, Iran had agreed in October to an unwritten “understanding” to eventually dismantle its nuclear fuel facilities in return for a guaranteed external fuel supply. However, Iranian officials continue to insist that they will not accept such an arrangement, although Zarif indicated that Iran wished to “address the legitimate concerns” of the United States and the Europeans regarding its nuclear program.
A State Department official interviewed Aug. 17 said Washington believes that the European governments’ diplomacy “has run its course” and that more pressure needs to be applied to Tehran. The June resolution did not set a deadline for Tehran to cooperate or mandate any consequences to be imposed if it did not.
Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton conveyed a sense of urgency regarding Iran’s nuclear program to a Hudson Institute audience Aug. 17, asserting that, “[i]f we permit Iran’s deception to go on much longer...Iran will have nuclear weapons.” He added that Iran told its European interlocutors in July that it could “enrich enough uranium for nuclear weapons within a year.” Bolton told Reuters two days later that Iran further claimed “it could possess nuclear weapons within three years.” But foreign diplomats familiar with the meeting contradicted these reports.
Bolton also alluded to recent press reports suggesting that Iran is acquiring additional materials with possible nuclear weapons applications (see sidebar).
The current estimate for when Iran might acquire nuclear weapons is unclear. A February 2003 Defense Intelligence Agency estimate says Iran will have a nuclear bomb by 2010 if it acquires the necessary technology and fissile material. Israeli intelligence estimates that Iran will be able to develop a nuclear weapon by 2007, according to July press reports.
The Bush administration has not yet decided whether to try and persuade the board to find Iran in noncompliance with its safeguards agreement at the September meeting. Such a finding requires the board to refer the matter to the UN Security Council, which may then take measures, including economic sanctions, against Tehran. The United States failed to persuade the board to adopt such a stance in a November 2003 resolution and has not attempted to do so since.
The official acknowledged that the tone of ElBaradei’s report will play a large factor in determining whether Washington will be able to get a noncompliance finding. “We have our work cut out for us,” the official said, adding that the European governments are still deciding on their position.
Kharazi said on state television that Iran wants the board to resolve the issues concerning its nuclear program at the upcoming meeting, Agence France Presse reported Aug. 19. Zarif said that Iran may not follow through on its commitment to ratify the additional protocol if the matter is referred to the Security Council.
Meanwhile, Assadollah Sabouri, deputy head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, announced Aug. 22 that Iran’s nuclear reactor under construction near the city of Bushehr will not begin operating until 2006, Agence France Presse reported. This marked yet another delay from its scheduled 2003 beginning date.
Sabouri also stated that Iran will begin using domestically produced nuclear fuel for its reactors after a 10-year fuel-supply agreement with Russia ends. Moscow is building the reactor and has agreed to supply fuel for it. Russia promised the United States that it would take back the reactor’s spent fuel to prevent Iran from extracting plutonium from it. The agreement is not yet concluded, and Russia has refused to send nuclear fuel to Iran until it is.
The announcement that Iran eventually plans to provide its own fuel for the Bushehr reactor could exacerbate U.S. concerns. Bolton stated Aug. 17 that the reactor “would produce enough plutonium each year for about 30 nuclear weapons.”
Along with plutonium, highly enriched uranium (HEU) is one of two key materials that can be used as the explosive material in nuclear weapons. For two years, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been probing Iran’s covert use of uranium enrichment technologies to determine whether Tehran has a secret program to build nuclear weapons in violation of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
Step 1 Mine and process uranium
Step 2 Convert uranium oxide into uranium hexafluoride for enrichment
Step 3 Enrich Uranium
Gas Centrifuges: Precision rotors containing uranium hexafluoride gas spin at very high speeds. Heavier isotopes concentrate toward the wall of the rotor, where they can be removed.
Laser Enrichment: Laser-based enrichment technologies utilize small differences in light frequencies to ionize lighter uranium-235 from heavier uranium-238. The weapons-grade atoms are then collected on a negatively charged plate.
Step 4 Bomb design and development, computer simulation, and non-nuclear high-explosive testing
Step 5 Fabricate highly enriched uranium into a bomb core or “pit,” and assemble the weapon
Possible Step Nuclear testing.*
* HEU can be used to make two fundamentally different types of weapons: gun-type weapons and implosion weapons. Gun-type weapons (such as the “Little Boy” bomb used in the 1945 attack on Hiroshima, Japan ) require more HEU, but are far simpler to design and build. Such weapons require neither a neutron trigger, nor high-explosive testing or assemblies. These weapons also allow manufacturers very high confidence that the devices will explode, even without testing. Implosion weapons use one-third as much HEU (or less), but are much more difficult to design and build.