In a Feb. 28 presentation to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors, Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei indicated that no new evidence of illicit Iranian nuclear activities has surfaced. Meanwhile, Iran is adhering to its November agreement to suspend its uranium-enrichment program during ongoing negotiations with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The two sides are attempting to resolve concerns about Tehran’s nuclear program, but no agreement has yet been reached.
This diplomacy took place against a backdrop of public disagreement between Europe and the United States regarding the proper U.S. role in the ongoing talks. Press reports have fueled speculation that Washington is preparing for military action against Iran, but during meetings in Europe with his counterparts, President George W. Bush emphasized that his administration is seeking a diplomatic solution. Days after Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Bush, Russia signed a long-delayed deal to provide Iran with nuclear fuel.
ElBaradei’s presentation to the IAEA board differed from previous meetings. Since the agency launched an investigation of Iran’s clandestine nuclear programs in the fall of 2002, ElBaradei has regularly presented written reports that either revealed or confirmed significant components of Tehran’s efforts.
This time, ElBaradei was not asked to submit a written report and did not do so, offering only an oral briefing. His last written report in November contained no evidence of prohibited Iranian nuclear activities but listed several unresolved issues requiring further investigation. (See ACT, December 2004.)
ElBaradei told the board that the IAEA’s investigation has made “progress” but he provided no new details. Tehran has continued to provide agency inspectors access to its nuclear-related facilities, ElBaradei said, adding that agency inspectors also visited Iran’s Parchin military complex.
The agency’s mid-January visit was its first after months of requesting access. (See ACT, January/February 2005.) U.S. officials believe the complex might have facilities that could be used to test conventional high explosives for use in an implosion-type nuclear weapon.
Reiterating a previous complaint, ElBaradei stated that Iran has been less cooperative in providing the agency with relevant information, adding that Tehran should do so “in full detail and in a prompt manner.”
U.S. officials continue to insist that Iran is attempting to build nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian nuclear program.
But ElBaradei complained in a Feb. 4 Arms Control Today interview that the IAEA has received little new information from national governments about Iran’s nuclear program, adding that such information is necessary for determining whether Iran has secret nuclear-related facilities. Tehran is “likely to have a bomb in two or three years” if it is operating such covert facilities, ElBaradei told Der Spiegel Feb. 21.
U.S. officials offered a longer time frame. According to Defense Intelligence Agency Director Admiral Lowell Jacoby’s Feb. 16 statement to the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, Iran will likely be able to produce nuclear weapons early next decade “unless constrained by a nuclear nonproliferation agreement.”
A European diplomat told Arms Control Today Feb. 24 that Iran has continued to honor a November pledge to suspend its nuclear fuel efforts even though Tehran tested the Europeans by “picking at the edges” of the agreement.
Iran and the three European countries agreed in November to negotiate a long-term agreement, which is to include “objective guarantees that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes.” Iran agreed to an IAEA-monitored suspension of its gas centrifuge-based, uranium-enrichment program for the talks’ duration.
The European governments, as well as the United States, are concerned that Iran intends to produce highly enriched uranium, which can serve as fissile material for nuclear weapons.
According to the European diplomat, Iran raised eyebrows when it began cleaning pipes at its Natanz centrifuge facility, but the Europeans believe this activity was part of the process of shutting down the facility and within the bounds of the suspension agreement. Iran had also conducted “quality control” work on centrifuges but has since stopped, the diplomat said.
Tehran was also late in notifying the IAEA about a project to construct tunnels at Iran’s uranium-conversion facility, the same diplomat added. Such facilities convert uranium oxide into other uranium compounds, some of which can serve as feedstock for centrifuges. The tunnels are designed to hold nuclear material.
Although the United States still wants the board to refer Iran to the UN Security Council for possible action, Iran’s European interlocutors have said that they will not support a referral as long as the suspension holds. (See ACT, December 2004.) The United States has supported such a referral since the agency reported that Iran had failed to disclose its clandestine nuclear programs to the IAEA.
Talks Continue; Fuel Agreement Signed
European diplomats familiar with the negotiations told Arms Control Today Feb. 24 that the talks have produced no diplomatic breakthroughs but they argued that Iran’s continuation of the suspension is “significant” and that the discussions are facilitating in-depth discussions.
Three working groups are tasked with developing proposals for mutual cooperation on nuclear and non-nuclear technical projects, as well as political and security issues. The groups have held a series of meetings since beginning work in December 2004. A steering committee set up to review the groups’ progress is to meet in March, but no date has yet been set, diplomatic sources said.
The parties’ negotiating positions appear unchanged. The European governments want a permanent end to Tehran’s nuclear fuel efforts, but Iran has repeatedly insisted that the suspension is “temporary.” Foreign Minster Kamal Kharrazi underscored this point Feb. 23, asserting that Tehran is “determined to continue enrichment,” Agence France Presse reported.
Hossein Moussavian, secretary of the Foreign Policy Committee of the Supreme National Security Council in Iran, was more cautious in a Feb. 2 interview with the Financial Times. Asked if Iran would ever dismantle its nuclear fuel facilities, he said only that Iran has the “right to thoroughly enjoy peaceful nuclear technology.”
Moussavian also provided some details about the “objective guarantees” Iran is willing to provide to prove its peaceful intentions. The measures he listed, however, such as Tehran’s cooperation with the IAEA’s investigation and adherence to an additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement, simply reflect current Iranian policy. Moussavian did not say if Iran’s position is negotiable.
IAEA safeguards 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. Additional protocols to these agreements augment the agency’s authority to detect clandestine nuclear activities. Tehran has signed an additional protocol and has agreed to abide by its provisions until Iran’s parliament ratifies the agreement.
Despite some earlier indications of Iranian dissatisfaction, the talks seem likely to continue. Hassan Rowhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, appeared optimistic that Iran will continue to participate after the steering committee meeting, Reuters reported Feb. 25.
Meanwhile, Russia and Iran signed a long-delayed nuclear fuel supply agreement Feb. 27. According to the official Itar-Tass news agency, Russian Federal Agency for Atomic Energy Director Alexander Rumyantsev said Moscow is to supply fresh fuel for the light-water nuclear reactor it is constructing near the Iranian city of Bushehr, as well as take back the spent nuclear fuel. (See ACT, January/February 2003.) Spent fuel is considered a proliferation risk because it contains plutonium, another form of fissile material. Bushehr is to begin operation in late 2006, Rumyantsev said.
European officials have called for greater U.S. involvement in the diplomatic process in order to make it more effective. Bush and other U.S. officials have lately emphasized support for the talks while refraining from public skepticism. However, the administration has so far refused to negotiate with Iran or make other conciliatory gestures.
French President Jacques Chirac told reporters Feb. 22 in Brussels that the United States should consider two incentives for Iran: dropping objections to Iran’s World Trade Organization accession negotiations, as well as Tehran’s wish to buy civil aircraft engines.
Iran’s position regarding greater U.S. involvement is unclear. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hamidreza Asefi stated Feb. 24 that Tehran does not want Washington’s involvement in the talks. But another government spokesperson suggested Feb. 28 that Iran might welcome an unspecified U.S. role outside the talks, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
Perhaps signaling a change in administration policy, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley suggested during a Feb. 23 press briefing that Bush may consider supporting incentives to Iran.
Nevertheless, U.S. officials have indicated that Washington would not accept a deal with Tehran that ignored other concerns, such as Iran’s poor human rights record and support for terrorism.
Press reports about the possibility of U.S. military action against Tehran have generated repeated questions about the administration’s commitment to diplomacy. Bush told an audience in Brussels Feb. 22 that talk of U.S. military action against Iran is “simply ridiculous” but added that “all options are still on the table.” However, Bush asserted the next day that “diplomacy is just beginning,” adding that “Iran is not Iraq.”
Still, Washington’s policy regarding the current Iranian regime is unclear. Although Department of State spokesperson Adam Ereli told reporters Feb. 3 that “we do not have a policy of regime change towards Iran,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been more ambiguous, refusing to answer direct questions about the matter on several occasions.