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June 1, 2018
IAEA: More Questions on Iran Nuclear Program
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Paul Kerr

Shortly before Iran elected a new president, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials reported that Tehran had still not resolved several outstanding issues about its nuclear programs. Iran has, however, continued to adhere to its November promise to suspend its uranium-enrichment program.

After meeting with the IAEA Board of Governors, agency Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei told reporters June 17 that Iran has been “a bit slow” to provide relevant information but expressed hope that some of the issues will be resolved by September.

Since beginning an investigation in 2002, the IAEA has revealed that Tehran conducted a variety of clandestine nuclear activities in violation of its safeguards agreement. Such agreements require states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to allow the agency to monitor their declared civilian nuclear activities to ensure that they are not diverted to military use.

The report came against the backdrop of the presidential race. Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in a June 24 runoff election. Rafsanjani was widely viewed as being more willing to compromise on the nuclear issue. Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Mark Regev, stated that “it’s clear now that no… change will take place” in Iran’s nuclear policy, Reuters reported June 25.

Officials from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom had said that they did not expect their ongoing negotiations with Iran to produce results until after the election, but their diplomatic efforts have continued. A European diplomat told Arms Control Today June 24 that the three countries are formulating a specific negotiating proposal. The Europeans in May agreed to provide the proposal to Iran by August after Tehran threatened to break the suspension. (See ACT, June 2005 .)

The new European proposal is expected mostly to contain the same incentives that Europeans have previously offered since negotiations began in December. (See ACT, April 2005.) But it is hoped that the complete proposal will persuade Tehran that “there’s a lot there,” the diplomat said. No new meetings have been announced.

Tehran agreed in November to suspend its gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program while the two sides negotiate an agreement that includes “objective guarantees” that Iran’s nuclear program is “exclusively for peaceful purposes,” as well as cooperative arrangements on economic, political, and security matters.

Uranium enrichment increases the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope, producing either low-enriched uranium for civilian nuclear reactor fuel or highly enriched uranium (HEU). If enriched to high enough levels, HEU can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons. Gas centrifuges enrich uranium hexafluoride gas by spinning it at very high speeds. Iran currently has a 164-centrifuge pilot facility and is continuing limited work on a larger commercial facility.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazzi said June 19 that Iran is “committed to the suspension” but described the coming months as the Europeans’ “last chance.” Iran has previously expressed dissatisfaction with the European incentives.

In return for any incentives, the Europeans want Iran to cease the enrichment program completely, but Tehran has repeatedly said it will not do so. Nevertheless, Iran has suggested some possible compromises. (See ACT, May 2005.)

Sirus Naseri, head delegate to Iran’s talks with the Europeans, told Agence France Presse May 21 that Tehran is considering a Russian offer to enrich Iranian uranium, but the terms of the deal are unclear. Russia has told the United States that it offered to produce enriched uranium from Iranian lightly processed uranium ore, or “yellowcake.” But Iran claims that Russia offered to use Iranian uranium hexafluoride, a Department of State official told Arms Control Today June 10. Iran has a uraniumconversion facility designed to convert yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride. Uranium hexaflouride is perceived as the greater proliferation threat.

Iran has also suggested that it may accept limits on its centrifuge facilities. For example, Iran offered in March to limit its enrichment program to an IAEA-monitored plant containing about 3,000 centrifuges. However, the text of an Iranian proposal reportedly presented at an informal meeting the next month reveals that Tehran ultimately intends to produce and install centrifuges “up to the numbers envisaged” for the commercial facility, which is more than 50,000, according to the IAEA.

Additionally, Iranian officials have informally offered to limit the country’s centrifuge facility to a “few hundred” centrifuges, a State Department official confirmed June 24. The official did not know when they made this offer.

Washington continues to support the negotiations, but U.S. officials have recently begun demanding that Iran dismantle its nuclear fuel facilities, a requirement the Europeans have not publicly articulated. However, European diplomats have privately said that dismantlement of the relevant facilities would logically follow an Iranian decision to halt enrichment.

IAEA Investigation

IAEA Deputy Director Pierre Goldschmidt briefed the agency’s board June 16 about the ongoing investigation. He said that the probe has raised further questions about Iran’s nuclear program and cooperation but he did not reveal any previously unknown nuclear activities.

The IAEA continues to investigate Iran’s efforts to obtain P-1 gas-centrifuge technology. Goldschmidt stated that Iran must resolve some discrepancies in its account of these efforts so that the agency can determine whether Iran has failed to disclose any “enrichment design, technology, or components.” (See ACT, April 2005.)

For example, Iran has told the IAEA that it received offers for centrifuge designs and components from foreign “intermediaries” in 1987 and “around 1994,” Goldschmidt said. Iran claims that only a single, handwritten document exists regarding the 1987 offer and also asserts that no government officials had contact with the intermediaries during the intervening years.

The agency has not identified these “intermediaries” but has previously revealed that Iran received its centrifuge materials from a clandestine supply network run by former Pakistani official Abdul Qadeer Khan.

U.S. Ambassador Jackie Sanders suggested in a statement to the board that another undisclosed entity in Iran may have received these components to conduct enrichment work.

The IAEA has also found additional inconsistencies in Tehran’s account of two shipments of centrifuge components and designs it received during the mid-1990s. According to Goldschmidt, both the first shipment and related meetings with the intermediary occurred earlier than Iran had initially claimed. The agency is continuing to investigate the matter.

The IAEA has also been investigating Iran’s work on a more advanced P-2 centrifuge, but Tehran has not provided any new information about that program, Goldschmidt stated. The agency is concerned that Iran has conducted undisclosed work on that program.

However, the IAEA could make progress on its investigation of enriched uranium particles found in Iranian facilities. According to Goldschmidt, Pakistan provided the agency with “a number of centrifuge components” in late May. Environmental sampling of these components, which will take about two months to complete, could help the IAEA determine the particles’ origin, he said.

Iran has admitted to producing uranium with very low proportions of uranium-235, but IAEA inspectors have found particles enriched to much higher levels. ElBaradei has previously reported that the IAEA’s evidence “on balance” supports Iran’s claim that the particles came from imported centrifuge components. IAEA inspectors have also taken samples from several locations in Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.

Other Concerns

The IAEA has determined that Iran provided inaccurate information to the agency concerning the dates of its plutonium-separation experiments. Iran first said that it completed this work in 1993 but has now admitted continuing experiments until 1998. The agency is still investigating the matter.

Separating plutonium from spent nuclear reactor fuel is another method of obtaining fissile material.

Goldschmidt also expressed concern about “complex arrangements” concerning Iran’s Gchine uranium mine. Specifically, the agency is investigating why Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization suspended work on the mine between 1994 until 2000 to work on a “much less promising” deposit of uranium ore at another location. Sanders asserted that Iran “went to great lengths to conceal” the mine until the IAEA asked about it in 2004.

Both the State Department official and a European diplomat said that Iran’s military or an affiliated organization may have begun working at the mine in an effort to obtain an independent uranium source. The European diplomat cautioned, however, that “politics” may explain Iran’s selection of the other site.

ElBaradei said that Iran has allowed agency inspectors access to nuclear facilities and materials covered by Tehran’s IAEA safeguards agreement and additional protocol. Iran has signed but not ratified an additional protocol, which augments the IAEA’s authority to uncover secret nuclear activities.

But the agency has had greater problems attempting to conduct further inspections at two sites where Iran is suspected of having performed either nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons-related work. Although agency inspectors have previously visited those sites, Iran has not allowed them to visit one for several months and the other for about a year. Arrangements for visiting the site are still under discussion, ElBaradei told the board. Naseri indicated that Iran may allow the IAEA access to the sites, Agence France Presse reported June 15.

Because these sites are not safeguarded, the IAEA has limited authority to visit them without evidence that Tehran is conducting nuclear activities there.

Missile Engine Tested

Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani said May 31 that Iran had successfully tested a solid-fuel missile engine for its medium-range Shahab-3 ballistic missile, Agence France Presse reported. He did not say when the test was conducted.

Shamkhani explained that the new engine would increase the missile’s accuracy and allow for long-term storage of fueled missiles. Most liquid fuels must be placed in a missile shortly before it is to be launched. Solid-fuel missiles are also more mobile and can be deployed more quickly.

Uzi Rubin, a former top Israeli missile defense official, speculated that Iran may be attempting to add another stage to the Shahab-3 in order to increase its range, Jane’s Defense Weekly reported June 8.

The United States has long expressed concern about Iran’s ballistic missile program. U.S. intelligence estimates the range of the Shahab-3, which is Iran’s most advanced, flight-proven missile, to be 1,300 kilometers. But Rafsanjani claimed last October that Iran has a missile with a 2,000-kilometer range. It is unclear whether this 2,000-kilometer range missile is an improved Shahab-3 or a new missile.