Agency Report Offers Mixed View on Iran

Paul Kerr

Pressed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors to assess Iran’s cooperation with a three-year-old agency investigation, Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei delivered a mixed assessment.

ElBaradei noted in a Sept. 2 report to the board that Tehran has cooperated by, for example, granting agency inspectors required access to Iranian nuclear-related facilities. But the report also pointed out that Iran has persistently lagged in providing the agency with information regarding the country’s nuclear activities.

ElBaradei had drafted the report at the board’s request after Iran in August ended its suspension of uranium-conversion activities at a facility near Isfahan. (See ACT, September 2005.) By doing so, Tehran violated a political agreement with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom to suspend its uranium-enrichment program while the two sides engaged in negotiations.

ElBaradei said that the IAEA’s ability to “verify the correctness and completeness” of Iran’s statements regarding its nuclear program “will be restricted” if Tehran does not take certain measures, such as providing the agency with documents and access to certain suspect facilities, beyond those legally required by the agency.

Indeed, the report provided few indications that the agency is significantly closer to resolving key outstanding issues regarding Tehran’s nuclear activities, particularly its gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program. Although the report did not contain any evidence of previously unknown Iranian nuclear activities or of Iranian use of nuclear material for military purposes, it nevertheless stated that the IAEA is “still not in a position to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran.”

Uranium-conversion facilities convert lightly processed uranium ore known as yellowcake into several uranium compounds, including uranium hexafluoride. Centrifuges enrich uranium by spinning uranium hexafluoride gas at very high speeds in order to increase the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope. This process can produce either low-enriched uranium (LEU) for civilian nuclear reactor fuel or highly enriched uranium (HEU), which can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons.

According to the report, Iran has not yet produced any uranium tetrafluoride—the precursor compound for uranium hexafluoride—from the batch of yellowcake that it began to feed into the facility Aug. 8. However, Iran did produce 6,800 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride from 8,500 kilograms of uranium tetrafluoride that it had previously produced and placed under IAEA seal. A diplomatic source in Vienna close to the IAEA, however, told Arms Control Today that Iran continues to have trouble producing uranium hexafluoride suitable for enrichment.

The nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) permits states-parties to operate uranium-conversion facilities as long as they are monitored by the agency to ensure that they are not diverted to military use. The agency continues to monitor the Isfahan facility under such safeguards.

A Key Confirmation

The report noted that the IAEA has largely been able to resolve one outstanding issue concerning Tehran’s centrifuge program. The agency has determined that “most” HEU particles found in Iran by agency inspectors came from centrifuge components imported secretly from Pakistan via a proliferation network run by former Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan.

The result did not come as a surprise. About a year ago, ElBaradei reported that the agency had come to similar preliminary conclusions. Moreover, the report cautioned that “it is not possible at this time…to establish a definite conclusion” regarding the origin of other HEU and LEU particles found in Iran. The report did not elaborate but said that more information about Iran’s centrifuge programs “could greatly contribute to the resolution” of these questions. The origin of the enriched uranium particles has long been a matter of interest because their presence suggests that Iran had either imported or produced undeclared enriched uranium. Iran has only admitted to enriching uranium to very low levels. However, the Vienna diplomat and a Department of State source said that, for all practical purposes, only the LEU issue remains unresolved. The U.S. official said that undeclared Iranian-produced LEU would likely only reveal previously concealed experiments on Tehran’s P-1 centrifuges, rather than more-advanced P-2 models.

The IAEA’s investigation of Iran’s efforts to obtain P-1 technology seems to be making less progress. Despite the agency’s requests, Iran has provided little additional information about its dealings with foreign intermediaries who provided Iran with centrifuge designs and related components in 1987 and again “around 1994.” Iran also has failed to provide the agency with adequate documentation of shipments of enrichment-related equipment that the country received during the mid-1990s.

Iran has explained its lack of relevant documentation by asserting that the country kept few records of such transactions at the time they were conducted. The report, however, seemed to contest this claim, stating that the IAEA’s investigation into the Khan network “indicates that Iran should have additional supporting documentation that could be useful.”

Both U.S. and IAEA officials have said that Iran’s failure to account fully for its centrifuge procurement activities may indicate that the government has pursued undisclosed centrifuge programs. U.S. officials have repeatedly suggested that the Iranian military is involved in the enrichment program.

Tehran also has not provided any further information about its more-advanced P-2 centrifuge program, the report said. The agency has long been concerned that Iran has conducted undisclosed work on such a centrifuge.

Interestingly, the IAEA also has asked Tehran for the first time “to provide additional details” about the government’s decision to begin its enrichment program in 1985, as well as the program’s progress through 1987. The report did not elaborate, but former IAEA Deputy Director General Pierre Goldschmidt seemed to indicate in a Sept.14 New York Times op-ed that the timing of Iran’s decision to begin the program suggests that Tehran planned to produce nuclear weapons.

“Iran has not provided the requested evidence on why its leadership decided in 1985, in the middle of the war against Iraq, to pursue a uranium-enrichment program when there was no short- or medium-term need to fuel any electrical nuclear power plant,” Goldschmidt wrote.

Other Issues

ElBaradei’s report also provided additional details about Iran’s operation of its Gchine uranium mine. The IAEA is continuing to investigate the “complex arrangements governing the past and current administration” of the mine and an associated plant to process uranium ore. Echoing a June oral report from Goldschmidt, the report stated that the agency is investigating why Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization conducted no work at the Gchine mine between 1993 and 2000 but worked instead at a less promising mine. Iranian officials have told the IAEA that the organization was conducting laboratory experiments on ore from the Gchine mine during that time.

Additionally, the report raised questions about an inexperienced Iranian company’s success in constructing a uranium-ore processing plant at the Gchine mine less than two years after Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization resumed operations there, apparently suggesting that another organization might have previously conducted still-undisclosed work on the project.

U.S. and European officials have told Arms Control Today that the lack of clarity surrounding the mine’s operation suggests that Iran’s military or an affiliated organization might have been working at the mine in an effort to obtain an independent uranium source.

On the other hand, ElBaradei’s report appears to have resolved questions over whether Iran has obtained beryllium, saying its efforts to do so had failed. U.S. officials have expressed concern that, if Tehran acquired beryllium, it could combine it with polonium, a radioisotope with limited civilian applications that Iran has attempted to produce to trigger a nuclear chain reaction in certain types of nuclear weapons. U.S. officials had indicated that the IAEA might have information that Iran had already obtained the material.

U.S. Ambassador Jackie Sanders said before the IAEA board last November that, although Iranian officials have claimed in the past that Iran never procured or worked with beryllium, “[w]e wonder whether the IAEA has found evidence suggesting otherwise.”

Additionally, the IAEA is still asking Iran to allow further inspections at two sites where Iran is suspected of having either worked with nuclear material or performing nuclear weapons-related work. Although agency inspectors have previously visited those sites, Iran has not allowed them to do so recently. Absent evidence that Tehran is conducting nuclear activities at these sites, the IAEA has limited authority to visit them because the sites are not subject to agency safeguards.