A Nov. 18 report from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei to the agency’s Board of Governors indicated that Iran has only partially complied with a September board resolution that found Tehran in “non-compliance” with its agency safeguards agreement. But the board took no action at its Nov. 24 meeting. Instead, the United States is continuing to support European and Russian diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to resume negotiations with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
With U.S. and European support, Moscow also has made Iran a potentially face-saving offer tied to a resumption of negotiations. The proposal would allow Iran to operate a uranium-conversion facility permanently if Tehran renounces the ability to enrich uranium on its own territory.
European-Iranian talks, which were designed to resolve concerns about Iran’s nuclear fuel programs, began in December 2004 but broke down in August when Iran restarted its uranium-conversion facility. Iran had agreed to suspend such operations for the duration of the negotiations. (See ACT, November 2005.)
A Department of State official and a Western diplomat told Arms Control Today Nov. 21 that the Europeans want to give such diplomacy a chance to succeed before moving forward with a referral to the UN Security Council. They also agreed that even an Iranian refusal to negotiate would help build international support for such a referral and for more effective Security Council action because Tehran would be seen as unwilling to compromise.
Under the IAEA statute, the board is required to notify the Security Council if a member state is found in noncompliance with its agency safeguards agreement. Such agreements, required under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), allow the agency to monitor NPT states-parties’ declared civilian nuclear activities to ensure that they are not diverted to military purposes. The Security Council may then take action against the offending state.
In September the board found that Iran had not complied with its safeguards agreement but did not specify when or under what circumstances it would refer the matter to the Security Council. State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack told reporters Nov. 21 that Washington believes Tehran “should be referred to the Security Council, but we will reserve the right to seek that action at the time of our choosing.”
Speaking to a Vienna audience Nov. 17, U.S. Permanent Representative to the IAEA Gregory Schulte reiterated the U.S. view that the council would “reinforce” the agency’s efforts, perhaps by giving the IAEA “enhanced” investigative authority. The IAEA has determined that Iran violated its safeguards agreement by conducting clandestine work on several nuclear programs. The agency is still attempting to resolve a number of questions about Tehran’s nuclear activities, especially its gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program. (See ACT, October 2005.) Uranium enrichment can produce low-enriched uranium (LEU), used as fuel in civilian nuclear reactors, or highly enriched uranium (HEU), which can be used as fissile material for nuclear weapons.
Gas centrifuges enrich uranium by spinning uranium hexafluoride gas at very high speeds in order to increase the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope. Uranium-conversion facilities convert lightly processed uranium ore, or “yellowcake,” into several compounds, including uranium hexafluoride. Under the NPT, Iran is permitted to operate uranium-enrichment facilities under IAEA safeguards, but the United States and the Europeans are concerned that Iranian expertise gained from operating enrichment facilities could support a nuclear weapons program.
The three European governments say that they will not resume negotiations unless Iran suspends operations at its conversion facility, but both the State Department official and Western diplomat said that the Europeans are willing to have discussions with Iran about resuming negotiations. These talks would likely not be conditioned on Iran suspending conversion.
Iranian officials told the Europeans earlier this month that they would engage in talks, but Tehran has shown no sign that it will stop converting uranium. According to ElBaradei’s report, Iran resumed converting yellowcake Nov. 16 after stopping the facility for a short maintenance period.
According to the State Department official, Iran’s European interlocutors have outlined a new diplomatic approach in a paper circulated to other countries. Under this approach, Iran would be allowed to produce uranium hexafluoride but would have to forswear uranium enrichment on its territory. In return, Iran would receive the economic, technical, and security incentives described in a detailed proposal that the Europeans presented in August. Iran has shown no sign of having seriously considered the proposal.
Under the Europeans’ new approach, Iran would be required to limit its conversion activities to only its domestic uranium reserves and export any converted nuclear material, the official said. This provision is apparently designed to prevent Iran from augmenting its limited indigenous uranium reserves, thus constraining Iran’s nuclear aspirations to some extent. The United States estimates that these reserves are sufficient to produce 250-300 nuclear weapons. (See ACT, September 2005.)
Permitting Iran to produce uranium hexafluoride is a change from the previous U.S. and European policy of opposing any Iranian conversion capabilities. The Western diplomat explained that the Europeans changed their position because the previous one “had not been getting us anywhere.”
As for Washington, the State Department official said that the Europeans have persuaded Bush administration officials that, by demonstrating a good-faith diplomatic effort on their part to resolve the matter outside the Security Council, the compromise would aid efforts to increase international pressure on Tehran to cooperate. The Europeans also argued that, in the event that Tehran makes a genuine decision to forswear enrichment, its conversion program will then be unnecessary and Iran will end it for pragmatic reasons.
Rallying additional international support, especially from Russia and China, is another key component of the U.S.-European diplomatic strategy. Both countries still oppose referring Iran’s case to the Security Council. Their support is considered to be crucial because, as permanent members of the Security Council, either can veto a council resolution.
Indeed, the United States and Europeans are supporting Russian diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis partly because they believe that Russia will support a referral if those efforts fail.
Both the Western diplomat and the State Department official confirmed press reports that Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov presented a proposal to the Iranians earlier in the month that dovetails with the European approach. The proposal is apparently conditioned on Tehran resuming negotiations with the Europeans and would give Tehran part-ownership of a centrifuge plant located in Russia that would enrich Iranian-produced uranium hexafluoride. (See ACT, November 2005.) Iran would not have access to the centrifuges, the State Department official said.
National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley expressed explicit U.S. support for Moscow’s diplomacy Nov. 18, calling the Russian proposal “a good avenue to explore.” Although Iranian officials have been cool to the idea, Hadley stated that it has not yet been rejected.
Despite these diplomatic efforts, the United States and the Europeans may be running out of patience. Both Schulte and the European Union (EU) issued statements to the board indicating that Iran only has a limited time to comply with the September resolution. Neither statement specified a date, however.
ElBaradei’s report provides a mixed picture of Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA board’s September resolution.
The resolution called on Tehran to suspend its conversion efforts, as well as provide agency inspectors with procurement documents, interviews with Iranian officials, and access to two sites where Iran is suspected of conducting undeclared nuclear weapons-related activities. These steps are not required by Iran’s safeguards agreement, but the IAEA believes them necessary for developing a complete history of Iran’s nuclear efforts.
ElBaradei told the board Sept. 24 that “[c]larification of these issues is overdue.”
According to the report, Iran has provided a considerable amount of additional information related to its P-1 centrifuge program but comparatively little with respect to other outstanding issues, such as the nature of Tehran’s program based on more-advanced P-2 centrifuges. Iran also has not yet allowed the IAEA access to all of the sites the agency has asked to visit.
Both U.S. and IAEA officials have said previously that Iran’s failure to account fully for its centrifuge procurement activities may indicate that the government has pursued undisclosed centrifuge programs.
Iran also has failed to take other steps called for by the September resolution, such as reconsidering its ongoing construction of a 40-megawatt heavy-water reactor. Iran claims the reactor is intended for peaceful purposes, but the United States argues that Iran intends to use it to produce plutonium.
During a series of meetings with the IAEA held in October and November, Iran gave the agency additional documents that Tehran said came from a nuclear procurement network run by Abdul Qadeer Khan, who helped found Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Iran also allowed the agency to interview two unnamed Iranian officials.
Iran had previously admitted to receiving centrifuge designs and related components from the Khan network. (See ACT, October 2005.) According to the report, the recently submitted documentation related to offers it received from foreign intermediaries in 1987 and around 1994.
Many of the new documents related to the 1987 offer date from “from the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s,” the report says. They include drawings of P-1 centrifuge components, technical specifications related to assembling centrifuges and manufacturing related components, and drawings for a 2,000-centrifuge plant.
Iran also has provided information about its late 1980s and early 1990s procurement efforts, as well as centrifuge components it obtained in the mid-1990s. The report says that the information about the earlier efforts “seems to be consistent with Iran’s declarations” of what it had procured in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, it draws no conclusion about the materials Iran obtained in the mid-1990s.
By comparison, Iran has apparently provided little new information about its P-2 centrifuge program. According to the report, the agency is assessing documentation that Iran has provided since September indicating that an Iranian contractor who had worked on the P-2 program obtained related materials that it had apparently not disclosed to the IAEA.
ElBaradei’s report says that the agency remains concerned that Iran has conducted undisclosed work on the project. The IAEA has requested additional documentation regarding both programs.
The report also says that the agency is still investigating the origin of some LEU particles found in Iran by IAEA inspectors. Iran has admitted to enriching uranium to very low levels, but the uncertainty regarding these LEU particles suggested that Iran may have conducted additional centrifuge experiments that it concealed from the IAEA.
According to the report, environmental samples taken from a location in an unnamed country where centrifuge components from the Khan network were stored “did not indicate any traces of nuclear material.” That country is known to be the United Arab Emirates.
Although the Western diplomat said these findings indicate that the particles did not come from these components, the State Department official said that Washington is almost certain that, based on an examination of uranium samples taken from Iranian facilities and Pakistani centrifuge components, all the LEU particles in question originated in Pakistan.
Arms Control Today reported in October that, for all practical purposes, the investigation has resolved similar concerns about HEU particles found in Iran.
According to the report, Iran has turned over a document detailing the “procedural requirements” for reducing uranium hexafluoride to “metal in small quantities.” The document also discussed the “casting and machining of enriched, natural and depleted uranium metal into hemispherical forms.”
Iran claims that the document had been “provided on the initiative of the procurement network,” rather than at Iran’s request.
This revelation has generated additional concern about Iran’s nuclear program because shaping uranium in such a fashion is used in developing explosive cores of nuclear weapons. According to the EU statement to the board, “Such a process has no application other than the production of nuclear warheads.”
The Western diplomat said that the document is not a “smoking gun” but does constitute “potential evidence of weaponization.”
Whether the document is evidence of a previously unknown Iranian capability to develop nuclear weapons is unclear. Iran has previously acknowledged that it was offered equipment for casting uranium but maintains that it has never received any such equipment.
After months of agency requests, Iran granted IAEA inspectors access to Iran’s Parchin military complex Nov. 1. The visit was the inspectors’ first since January. According to the report, the inspectors “did not observe any unusual activities in the buildings visited,” but the IAEA is awaiting the results of environmental samples taken during the visit before assessing whether Iran conducted any nuclear activities there.
The United States and the IAEA have both expressed concern that Iran has been testing conventional high explosives at Parchin for use in an implosion-type nuclear weapon. In such weapons, conventional charges compress a core of fissile material in order to start a nuclear chain reaction. (See ACT, October 2004.)
The report also says that the IAEA wishes to “undertake additional visits” to the site but does not say why. However, the State Department official said that the agency may still have “suspicions” about Iranian activities at the site. The official also confirmed a Nov. 18 Agence France Presse report that the inspectors saw a high-speed camera during their visit. Such cameras can be used to monitor experiments with high explosives, such as those used in an implosion-type nuclear weapon.
Iran has still not cooperated with the IAEA’s investigation of a physics research center that was operating at a site called Lavizan-Shian between 1989 and 1998, the report says. (See ACT, April 2005.)