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October 20, 2014
IAEA Raises New Questions on Iran Program

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Paul Kerr

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) continues to investigate questions about Iran’s nuclear file, specifically Tehran’s incomplete and inconsistent accounting of its uranium-enrichment and plutonium-separation activities. But an April 28 report from agency Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei also says that Tehran’s February decision to decrease inspectors’ access to its nuclear-related facilities is impeding the agency’s ability to investigate and monitor Iran’s nuclear programs.

ElBaradei said “gaps remain” in the agency’s knowledge of “the scope and content” of Iran’s enrichment program. Consequently, the IAEA is “unable to make progress in its efforts to provide assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran.”

ElBaradei also indicated that Tehran has continued work on its nuclear programs in defiance of a March UN Security Council presidential statement. That nonbinding measure urged Tehran to resolve concerns about its nuclear activities and suspend work on its uranium-enrichment program. Instead, Tehran has announced additional progress on the program.

Tehran has indicated that it might comply with some of the Security Council’s requests. The IAEA received a letter from Iran April 27 stating that the country is “prepared to resolve the remaining outstanding issues in accordance with the international laws and norms.” Iran also pledged to provide a timetable for compliance within the “next three weeks,” the letter added. However, as of May 23, Tehran did not appear to have done so.

Iran’s offer also appears to have been conditional. The letter said Tehran would comply, “provided that Iran’s nuclear dossier will remain, in full, in the framework of the IAEA and under its safeguards.”

Since ElBaradei issued his report to the Security Council and the IAEA Board of Governors, the five permanent Security Council members, as well as Germany, have been attempting to devise a response to Iran’s lack of cooperation.

Investigation Continues; Iran’s Cooperation Lags

The March presidential statement instructed ElBaradei to report within 30 days on Tehran’s progress in complying with a February IAEA board resolution. That resolution had called on Iran to take a series of steps, such as fully cooperating with the IAEA investigation and resuming suspension of its gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program. (See ACT, March 2006.)

Iran had agreed to suspend the program in November 2004 as part of an agreement governing its negotiations with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Those negotiations ended when Iran restarted its uranium-conversion facility in August 2005. The country resumed work on its centrifuge program in January.

Gas centrifuges enrich uranium by spinning uranium hexafluoride gas at very high speeds in order to increase the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope. They can produce both low-enriched uranium, which can be used in nuclear reactors, and highly enriched uranium (HEU), which can be used in certain types of nuclear reactors and as fissile material in nuclear weapons. Uranium-conversion facilities convert lightly processed uranium ore into several compounds, including uranium hexafluoride.

Iran notified the agency April 13 that it had enriched uranium to 3.6 percent uranium-235, ElBaradei’s report says, adding that subsequent samples taken by the IAEA “tend to confirm” Tehran’s claim. Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh, who also heads Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said subsequently that Iran had produced uranium containing 4.8 percent uranium-235, the semi-official Islamic Students News Agency (ISNA) reported May 2. (See ACT, May 2006.)

Iran used uranium hexafluoride imported from China for its initial enrichment tests but has since used indigenously produced feedstock, an unnamed Iranian official told ISNA May 19. Iran has produced 110 tons of the material since September 2005, ElBaradei reported.

Tehran has had difficulty producing uranium hexafluoride of sufficient purity, but sources told Arms Control Today in March that the country’s conversion capabilities appear to be improving. Uranium hexafluoride with high levels of contaminants can corrode centrifuges when used as feedstock.

The presidential statement also called on Iran to reconsider its construction of a heavy-water reactor, but Tehran is continuing work on the project. The IAEA is concerned that it may use the reactor under construction to produce plutonium, which can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons.

Additionally, the statement said that Iran should ratify its additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement and resume acting in accordance with the protocol in the meantime. Tehran has signed the protocol, which augments the IAEA’s authority to investigate possible clandestine nuclear programs, but has not ratified it.

IAEA safeguards agreements, which are required under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), allow the agency to monitor NPT states-parties’ declared civilian nuclear activities to ensure they are not diverted to military purposes. Iran has continued to abide by its safeguards agreement.

Tehran had been implementing its additional protocol, even though it was not in force. It ended this cooperation in February. Iran began in January to scale back IAEA monitoring at centrifuge-related facilities.

ElBaradei reported that “ Iran’s decision to cease implementing” the protocol means that the IAEA’s ability to investigate and monitor Tehran’s nuclear programs “will be further limited.”

Iran Has Issues

Despite Iran’s diminished cooperation, ElBaradei’s report does contain some new information about Tehran’s nuclear activities.

Uranium Enrichment

The IAEA is investigating the origins of newly discovered HEU particles that investigators believe may indicate previously undisclosed Iranian enrichment research. According to press reports, IAEA inspectors found HEU particles on equipment purchased by a physics research center located at the Lavizan-Shian site. Asked about these reports, a diplomatic source in Vienna close to the IAEA told Arms Control Today May 12 that there is “something there.”

The research center’s role in Iran’s nuclear program has been a matter of concern because the center had been connected to the Iranian Ministry of Defense.

IAEA officials in January first asked to take environmental samples from “high vacuum equipment” purchased by a former head of the research center. ElBaradei’s report does not say how the agency learned of the equipment, but past IAEA reports suggest that Iran did not provide the information. Such equipment can be used in centrifuge operations.

The amount and origin of uranium-235 contained in the newly discovered HEU is unclear. Some HEU particles previously found in Iran were enriched to 36 percent uranium-235 and others to 54 percent uranium-235. HEU used as fissile material typically contains approximately 90 percent uranium-235. Past IAEA test results had indicated that the HEU particles came from imported centrifuge components.

The origin of the enriched uranium particles has long been a matter of interest because their presence suggests that Tehran may have either imported or produced undeclared enriched uranium. The country has only admitted to enriching uranium to very low levels.

The IAEA also is analyzing environmental samples taken from other dual-use equipment acquired by the research center at Lavizan-Shian.

ElBaradei reported that despite Iran’s promises to provide “further clarifications” regarding these procurement activities, the IAEA has not yet received the relevant information. “Further access to the procured equipment is necessary for environmental sampling,” he added.

Iran has also not provided any additional information about its efforts to obtain centrifuge materials and equipment, ElBaradei reported. The IAEA believes that Tehran may be withholding relevant documentation about those efforts. The agency is also concerned that Iran may have conducted undisclosed work on its P-1 and P-2 centrifuge programs.

Arguing that these issues were not covered by its safeguards agreement, Iranian officials would not discuss the matter during February and April meetings with the IAEA.

The agency has also asked Iran to “clarify” reports suggesting that the country has conducted research on more-advanced P-2 centrifuges. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reportedly said in April that Iran has conducted such research, but Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hamidreza Asefi subsequently denied it was doing so.

Iran told the IAEA that it has not conducted work on the P-2 centrifuge program since 2003.


The IAEA has also not yet resolved inconsistencies in Iran’s accounts of its plutonium-separation experiments. ElBaradei’s February report had indicated that the IAEA found evidence suggesting that Tehran produced plutonium that it had not disclosed to the agency.

Iran has provided additional information in an attempt to clarify the matter. Most recently, an April 17 letter “reaffirmed [ Tehran’s] previous explanations of the inconsistencies,” according to ElBaradei’s report. No further detail was disclosed.

ElBaradei said the IAEA “cannot exclude the possibility” that Iran has failed to disclose relevant plutonium production to the agency.