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"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
Professor of History, Montgomery College
July 1, 2020
News Analysis: IAEA Limits Leave Iran Intel Gaps

Paul Kerr

As negotiators seek to start talks to ease concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, Tehran’s February decision to limit the access of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors is contributing to additional doubts about its nuclear intentions and capabilities.

When the IAEA referred Iran’s case to the UN Security Council in February, Tehran retaliated by halting its voluntary implementation of the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement with the agency. Iran has signed the protocol, which augments the IAEA’s authority to investigate possible clandestine nuclear programs, but has not ratified it.

The resulting vacuum of information raises concerns that the international community could either underestimate or overestimate the progress of Tehran’s gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program. It is particularly important as U.S. officials spar among themselves and with foreign officials over the potential threat posed by the program, which could produce either civilian nuclear fuel or fissile material for a nuclear weapon.

In order to promote Iranian transparency, the Security Council in July adopted Resolution 1696, which calls on Tehran to act in accordance with its additional protocol. Iran has not complied.

Without Tehran’s implementation of its protocol, inspectors find their access limited to the terms of the country’s standard safeguards agreement with the IAEA. Such 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. But inspectors have considerably less access to nuclear-related sites and information without an additional protocol in effect.

Nor has Iran so far heeded the Security Council’s call for cooperation that extends even beyond the terms of its additional protocol. The agency has said that its inspectors need greater access to facilities and personnel than is granted by Iran’s additional protocol. Tehran has previously provided some of this cooperation but not enough to resolve some ambiguities surrounding its nuclear program.

In a Sept. 18 statement to the IAEA General Conference, agency Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei said that the agency has accounted for “all the nuclear material declared by Iran” but added that it has not been “able to make progress on resolving” the outstanding questions regarding Iran’s nuclear activities.

This lack of full Iranian cooperation means that the IAEA “cannot make any further progress in its efforts to provide assurances” that Tehran is not pursuing undeclared nuclear activities, ElBaradei said, calling the situation “a matter of serious concern.”

Although Iran has provided the agency with the required access to declared nuclear facilities and materials, it has somewhat hindered the inspectors’ work by, for example, declining to give access to certain records of its operating centrifuge facility. The IAEA inspectors’ decreased access to Iranian nuclear-related facilities in recent months also appears to be impeding the agency’s understanding of several other aspects of Tehran’s centrifuge program. For instance, the agency is unable to monitor Iran’s advanced centrifuge research because the country is no longer granting access to the relevant workshops.

Wayne White, a former top Middle East intelligence analyst at the Department of State, expressed concern in a Sept. 27 interview with Arms Control Today that Tehran could already be taking advantage of the IAEA’s lack of access by moving some, though not all, components related to its nuclear program.

Grappling With Uncertainty

Echoing knowledgeable current and former U.S. officials, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte told National Public Radio Sept. 1 that U.S. intelligence about Iran is limited, calling the country a “hard target.”

Providing an example of the uncertainty regarding Tehran’s nuclear program, Negroponte said that the United States does not know “whether there’s a secret military program and to what extent that program has made progress.” U.S. officials have previously told Arms Control Today that Iran likely does not have an advanced, secret enrichment program. (See ACT, September 2005.)

White cautioned that the information vacuum could cause analysts to underestimate capabilities, noting that this had happened in the case of Iraq prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War. By the same token, however, he agreed that the IAEA’s restricted ability to investigate Tehran’s nuclear program could also allow unsubstantiated reports of clandestine Iranian nuclear activities to go unchallenged and influence perceptions that the country is pursuing nuclear weapons.

The departure of UN weapons inspectors from Iraq in 1998 deprived the international community of a critical tool for verifying what later proved to be inaccurate human and technical intelligence reports that Iraq was pursuing a nuclear weapons program. A European diplomat interviewed Sept. 25 argued, however, that the international community had learned a lesson from the Iraq intelligence debacle, describing the ongoing process of evaluating intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program as “rigorous and conservative.”

As was the case prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, policymakers have responded differently to the ambiguity surrounding the potential Iranian nuclear threat, with some arguing for caution and others suggesting more vigorous action.

For example, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov argued during a Sept. 11 interview with Vremya Novosti that Tehran may not be pursuing a nuclear weapon, adding that policymakers making “panicky forecasts…would do well to remember about patience which can bring about a negotiated solution.”

On the other hand, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations John Bolton told CNN Sept. 19 that “uncertainty about the exact state of Iran’s nuclear program” warrants treating Tehran’s “clear effort to get a nuclear-weapon capability as very serious.”

Similarly, Robert Joseph, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, argued during a Sept. 6 press briefing that Iran needs to be stopped before it acquires the ability to produce fissile material, rather than an actual nuclear weapon. Asked about possible timelines for Iranian nuclear weapons acquisition, he said that once Tehran is “able to operate….cascades over a sustained period of time,” it will “be able to acquire a nuclear weapon” without being detected.

Disagreement regarding the potential Iranian nuclear threat also manifested itself in a public dispute between the IAEA and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. IAEA officials criticized the panel’s Aug. 23 committee report, which the Democratic committee staff did not endorse, for containing inaccuracies regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

A Sept. 12 letter from IAEA Director of External Relations and Policy Coordination Vilmos Cserveny to committee Chairman Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) points out that the report contains “some erroneous, misleading and unsubstantiated information.” It cites several examples, including a photograph caption that falsely states that Iran is currently producing “weapons grade” enriched uranium.

How Long Until an Iranian Bomb?

In the interview, Negroponte reiterated U.S. estimates that Tehran will have the “capability” to produce a nuclear weapon “five to 10 years from now,” unless circumstances change. A Department of National Intelligence spokesperson said that the intelligence community is evaluating this assessment as part of its work on a new National Intelligence Estimate, Newsweek reported Sept. 25.

By contrast, Israeli government estimates suggest that Iran could master the enrichment process within six to 12 months and produce enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a nuclear weapon in as little as three years, according to a knowledgeable Western official.

Asked about differences between the two government’s estimates, Negroponte said that both countries “basically operate from the same knowledge base” but that Israel will “sometimes…give you the worst-case assessment.”

Some U.S. officials have also argued for less-optimistic timelines. For example, Bolton said that the international community should not “assume that the intelligence estimates that put [ Tehran’s ability to acquire nuclear weapons] off for many years are necessarily going to be right.”

Additionally, Joseph told the House International Relations Committee in March that several “wildcards,” including potential assistance from foreign entities, could “accelerate” the intelligence community’s notional timeline.

Modest Progress for Iran, Less for the IAEA

Meanwhile, an Aug. 31 report from ElBaradei indicates that Iran appears to be making modest progress on its enrichment program in defiance of Resolution 1696.

According to the report, Tehran has continued to test centrifuges at its pilot facility by feeding uranium hexafluoride into individual centrifuges “for short periods of time.” 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 low-enriched uranium, which can be used in nuclear reactors, and HEU, which can be used in certain types of nuclear reactors and as fissile material in nuclear weapons.

Iran also tested a 164-centrifuge cascade with uranium hexafluoride at the pilot facility for two days in early June and again between June 23 and July 8. Iran introduced additional feedstock into the cascade on Aug. 24.

Tehran is continuing work on installing a second 164-centrifuge cascade, the report adds. Iran also has told the agency that it expects to be able to run the cascade without uranium hexafluoride in September. ElBaradei has previously reported that Iran is working on a third similarly sized cascade, but the report does not mention it.

All of these cascades are in the pilot centrifuge facility, but Iran is also constructing a larger commercial facility.

Tehran told the agency in June that it has enriched uranium to 5 percent uranium-235. The IAEA is still evaluating this claim. Since then, Iran has produced uranium enriched to “various levels,” the report says. The country had previously tested the cascade in March and April and produced small quantities of uranium enriched to slightly lower levels of uranium-235.

Tehran also began a new “campaign” to convert 160 metric tons of lightly processed uranium ore to uranium hexafluoride, the report says, adding that Iran anticipates completing this task by January 2007. It produced about 26 metric tons of feedstock between June 6 and Aug. 25. During its last conversion campaign, which took place between August 2005 and April of this year, Tehran produced approximately 118 metric tons of the material.

Iran also told the IAEA that it is conducting research on “different types of centrifuge machines,” without using nuclear material. The agency had asked Iran to clarify statements from officials such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Tehran had been conducting such research. The IAEA has long been concerned that the country, which currently uses P-1 centrifuges, has been conducting research on more-advanced P-2 centrifuges.

Additionally, the agency is asking Iran for information regarding HEU particles discovered when inspectors took environmental samples in August 2005 from a container located at a waste storage facility. The IAEA recently completed its analysis of the particles. According to the report, which does not mention the particles’ enrichment level, the agency has requested Iran to provide information about the “source of the contamination and the past use of the containers.”

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

The IAEA is also still attempting to determine the origin of other HEU particles previously discovered on equipment from an Iranian university but has apparently made no progress. A State Department official told Arms Control Today in June that Tehran probably did not produce that HEU. (See ACT, July/August 2006.)

ElBaradei reported that Iran is continuing work on a reactor moderated by heavy water despite the Security Council’s call for the country to “reconsider” the project.

The reactor has caused concern because weapons-grade plutonium, which is also used as a fissile material in nuclear weapons, can be obtained far more easily by reprocessing the spent reactor fuel from such a reactor than from more proliferation-resistant reactors. Iran has acknowledged conducting undeclared plutonium-separation experiments but says it will not engage in reprocessing.

According to the report, Tehran has recently provided the IAEA with additional information regarding its past plutonium experiments and also allowed inspectors to meet with relevant Iranian officials. These efforts, however, have not resolved the agency’s outstanding questions regarding the experiments.