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Iran Restarts Uranium Conversion
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Paul Kerr

Iran’s August restart of its uranium-conversion facility near Isfahan has set the stage for a diplomatic showdown this month.

Iran’s action ended a suspension that had been part of a November agreement with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. For the time being, the Europeans have halted their negotiations with Tehran.

Two days after opening an emergency meeting, the Europeans joined with the United States and other members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors to adopt an Aug. 11 resolution expressing “serious concern” about Iran’s actions and urging Tehran “to re-establish full suspension” of work at the conversion facility. The resolution calls for IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei to present by Sept. 3 a “comprehensive report” on the status of Iran’s conversion activities, as well as other aspects of its nuclear programs.

Iran’s uranium-conversion facility is a key component of its gas-centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program. Such centrifuges spin 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 for civilian nuclear reactor fuel or highly enriched uranium (HEU). HEU can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons. Uranium-conversion facilities convert uranium oxide—lightly processed uranium ore—into several uranium compounds, including uranium hexafluoride.

Iran has ratified the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which does not bar countries from possessing either uranium-conversion or -enrichment facilities. But suspicions that Tehran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program have motivated diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to go beyond its treaty commitments and give up its enrichment program completely.

Tehran’s decision to resume conversion at this time has reinforced European and U.S. suspicions that Iran is ending the suspension to pursue fissile material production. Iran, which currently lacks an industrial capability to enrich uranium, has no short-term need for uranium hexafluoride. Two Western diplomats told Arms Control Today that a desire to overcome the facility’s technical limitations is likely one motivation for restarting the facility.

Derailed Diplomacy?

Iran notified the IAEA Aug. 1 that it intended to restart its uranium-conversion facility. Iran began feeding uranium oxide into an unsealed portion of the facility on Aug. 8 even though the necessary IAEA surveillance equipment had not yet been fully tested. Two days later, Iran removed agency seals from the facility. The seals had been used to monitor the suspension.

Iranian ambassador Cyrus Nasseri told the IAEA board Aug. 9 that, although Iran will “absolutely not” give up its uranium-enrichment program, “for the present, [Tehran] will maintain suspension” at its centrifuge facilities.

Many observers feared that Iran would restart its uranium-conversion facility, especially after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in June. Ahmadinejad’s administration is widely viewed as being less willing than its predecessor to compromise on the nuclear issue. But in Iran’s political system, primary authority over such decisions rests with the country’s supreme cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In October 2003, Iran first pledged to the Europeans that it would “suspend all uranium-enrichment and reprocessing activities as defined by the IAEA,” but the scope of the agreement was contentious for some time, particularly with regard to Iran’s uranium-conversion facility. Iran continued to conduct work on the facility and eventually produced a small quantity of uranium hexafluoride. Iran later began to convert a quantity of uranium oxide that could eventually produce enough weapons-grade uranium for several crude nuclear weapons. (See ACT, October 2004.)

The ensuing diplomatic crisis eventually resulted in Iran’s November deal with the Europeans. Tehran agreed to suspend work on its enrichment program while the two sides negotiated an agreement that included “objective guarantees” that Iran’s nuclear program would be “exclusively for peaceful purposes,” as well as cooperative arrangements between the two sides on economic, political, and security matters. This new agreement explicitly prohibited “all tests or production at any uranium-conversion installation” and specified that Iran’s adherence to the suspension was necessary for negotiations to continue.

The major point of contention between the two sides has concerned the definition of “objective guarantees.” The Europeans want Iran to cease the enrichment program completely, but Tehran has repeatedly said it will not do so, although it has offered some proposals to limit the scope of the program.

Iran threatened to break the suspension in May but agreed to put off the decision until August while the Europeans developed a detailed negotiating proposal. The Europeans hoped that the proposal’s incentives would persuade Iran to give up its enrichment program. (See ACT, June 2005.)

The detailed economic incentives contained in the lengthy offer, however, do not appear to have affected Iranian policy. After Ahmadinejad’s election and well before receiving the Europeans’ proposal, Iranian officials repeatedly made clear that they would not continue the suspension. In fact, Tehran notified the IAEA of its decision four days before receiving the proposal.

Now, the two sides are at a diplomatic impasse. Although Iranian officials have repeatedly said that they wish to continue negotiations with the Europeans, they have been adamant that any proposal allow Iran to continue its enrichment program.

The Europeans, however, will not hold negotiations “until the Iranians return to the framework” of the November agreement, a French Foreign Ministry spokesperson told reporters Aug. 23, although the three governments will leave open other diplomatic channels.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hamidreza Asefi, said Aug. 28 that Tehran will submit a proposal within 45 days to serve as a “breakthrough with respect to our current standoff with Europe” but provided no details. He also said that Iran may wish to negotiate with other countries in addition to the Europeans.

IAEA Meeting

The IAEA board is expected to discuss ElBaradei’s report during its next quarterly meeting, scheduled to begin Sept. 19. If Iran does not reinstate the suspension, its case could be referred to the UN Security Council, as the United States has proposed. The IAEA has previously reported that Iran conducted clandestine nuclear activities in violation of its safeguards agreement, but Iran’s European interlocutors have said that they would not support a referral as long as Iran adhered to the November agreement.

Under the agency’s statute, the board is required to notify the Security Council if a state-party to the NPT is found in noncompliance with its IAEA safeguards agreements. The council may then take action against the offending state. Safeguards agreements allow the agency to monitor NPT states-parties’ declared civilian nuclear activities to ensure that they are not diverted to military use.

Although the IAEA has been investigating Iran’s nuclear programs for about three years, the resolution notes that there are still several “outstanding issues relating to Iran’s nuclear programme [that] have yet to be resolved, and that the agency is not yet in a position to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran.” (See ACT, July/August 2005.)

U.S. Ambassador Gregory Schulte told the IAEA board Aug. 9 that Washington is particularly concerned about questions concerning the status of Iran’s uranium-enrichment efforts, the extent to which Iran’s military is involved in the country’s nuclear programs, and the “full extent” of Iran’s plutonium-separation experiments. Plutonium can also be used to produce nuclear weapons.

It appears that ElBaradei’s report will produce a rare glimmer of certainty by conclusively revealing the origin of HEU particles that IAEA inspectors found at Iranian nuclear-related facilities. Both a State Department official and a source in Vienna close to the IAEA confirmed an Aug. 23 Washington Post article that said ElBaradei’s report will confirm Iran’s claim that the HEU particles came from imported centrifuge components that Tehran obtained through a proliferation network run by former Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan.

ElBaradei had previously reported in 2004 that the IAEA’s evidence tended to support Iran’s claim. (See ACT, October 2004.) But centrifuge components provided to the agency by Pakistan in late May for environmental sampling allowed the agency to conclude this portion of the investigation.

 

 

Posted: September 1, 2005