"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement"
July 1, 2020
IAEA Iran Investigation Makes Little Headway

Paul Kerr

A June 8 report from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei to the agency’s Board of Governors indicates that Iran has continued to defy a March UN Security Council presidential statement urging Tehran to resolve concerns about its nuclear activities.

ElBaradei told the board June 12 that the agency “has not made much progress in resolving” outstanding questions regarding Iran’s nuclear programs. He called on Iran to “provide the cooperation needed to resolve these issues.” (See ACT, June 2006.)

Iran told IAEA officials in April that it would provide a timetable for cooperating with the agency. But ElBaradei reported that Tehran has not done so.

The Security Council urged Iran to take a series of steps, such as cooperating fully with the nearly four-year-old IAEA investigation of its nuclear activities and suspending its gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program and construction of a heavy-water reactor. Tehran suspended the enrichment program beginning in November 2004 prior to negotiations with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom regarding Tehran’s nuclear program. 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. Iran has a pilot centrifuge facility and is constructing a larger commercial facility.

Uranium-conversion facilities convert lightly processed uranium ore into several compounds, including uranium hexafluoride.

According to the June report, Iran has continued to test centrifuges at its pilot facility. For example, Iran began feeding uranium hexafluoride into its 164-centrifuge cascade June 6. Iran had previously tested the cascade in March and April and produced small quantities of uranium enriched to less than 5 percent uranium-235. Iran is also “continuing its installation work” on two other 164-centrifuge cascades, the report says. Additionally, Tehran on June 6 began to produce more uranium hexafluoride, the report says. Iran produced approximately 118 metric tons of the material during its last conversion “campaign,” which took place between August 2005 and April.

Asked about the purity of Iran’s uranium hexafluoride, sources close to the IAEA told Arms Control Today June 7 that, based on the large amount of feedstock Iran has produced, the agency assumes that the material is “of reasonable quality.” Uranium hexafluoride with high levels of contaminants can damage centrifuges when used as feedstock.

Despite this progress, a Department of State official told Arms Control Today June 16 that Tehran “is not that far along” in mastering the enrichment process. Iran would need to run a cascade “for many months” with its own centrifuges and feedstock in order to prove its enrichment skills, the official said.

Iran’s first test of its 164-centrifuge cascade in March only lasted about two weeks, according to the official. Moreover, Washington believes that most of Iran’s centrifuges and feedstock originated from Pakistan and China, respectively.

HEU Investigation Continues

The IAEA also is continuing to investigate the origins of “a small number” of HEU particles found in Iran. Agency inspectors took samples in January from equipment located at a “technical university,” ElBaradei reported.

The particles raise the possibility that Iran may have either imported or produced undeclared enriched uranium. Tehran has only admitted to enriching uranium to very low levels.

The report also says that Iran told the agency May 16 that “the equipment had not been acquired for or used in the field of nuclear activities,” adding that government officials were “investigating how such particles might have been found in the equipment.”

The equipment was purchased by a physics research center located at the Lavizan-Shian site. The research center’s role in Iran’s nuclear program has been a matter of concern because the center had been connected to the country’s Ministry of Defense.

However, Iran “probably” did not produce the uranium, the State Department official said, explaining that the isotopic composition of the recently discovered particles appears similar to other HEU particles that agency inspectors previously found at other sites in Iran. Those particles originated from imported enrichment-related equipment.

The report does not specify the enrichment level of the newly discovered particles, but the HEU particles previously found in Iran were not weapons-grade.

The official argued that the discovery is “still pretty damning” because it shows that the research center was more involved in Iran’s centrifuge program than Tehran had previously admitted.

ElBaradei also reported that environmental samples taken from other dual-use equipment acquired “show no indication of the presence of particles of nuclear material.”

Iran has still not responded to IAEA requests for further clarifications of and access to “other equipment and materials” connected to the research center. The IAEA also wants to interview a former head of the center, but Iran has not yet made the official available. These requests “have taken on added importance in light of the [sampling] results,” the report says.

The sources close to the IAEA said that the agency needs to collect many more environmental samples because the current sample size is insufficient for the agency to draw conclusions regarding the material’s composition and origin.

Other Issues

The report states that Tehran has provided the IAEA with additional information about its plutonium-separation experiments, which is “currently being assessed.”

The IAEA also continues to investigate other possible Iranian nuclear weapons-related projects, such as tests related to high explosives and a possible missile re-entry-vehicle design. The United States has provided the IAEA with intelligence that originated from an Iranian laptop computer. But sources close to the IAEA said that the agency also is using other information in its investigation. They did not elaborate. (See ACT, March 2006.)

Iran has provided no additional information regarding other outstanding issues, such as Tehran’s past efforts to obtain centrifuge materials and equipment, according to ElBaradei’s report.