The UN Security Council is mulling possible responses to Iran’s failure to comply with a March 29 presidential statement that called on Tehran to resolve concerns about its nuclear programs and to re-suspend its uranium-enrichment activities.
The statement, which did not specify any consequences and is not legally binding, instructed International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei to report on Iran’s compliance to the agency’s Board of Governors and the Security Council within 30 days.
There was no indication prior to ElBaradei’s report, which was issued April 28, that Iran had complied with the council’s demands. Indeed, Iran in April accelerated work on its nuclear programs and said its gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program would continue. Nevertheless, Iranian officials have repeatedly said that Tehran wishes to address concerns about its nuclear efforts.
Officials from Germany and the five permanent, veto-wielding Security Council members—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—are scheduled to meet May 2 in Paris to discuss the matter.
Rather than suspending its enrichment program, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated April 11 that Tehran’s effort had achieved a technical breakthrough. He said that Iran had “completed the nuclear fuel cycle at the laboratory level.” Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh, who also heads Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said that Iran enriched uranium to approximately 3.5 percent uranium-235 in a cascade of 164 centrifuges. He said that Iran only plans to produce uranium containing between 3.5 percent and 5 percent uranium-235.
Gas centrifuges enrich uranium hexafluoride gas by spinning it at very high speeds to increase the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope. Low-enriched uranium typically has about 3-5 percent uranium-235 and is used as fuel in civilian nuclear reactors. Highly enriched uranium (HEU) has much higher concentrations of uranium-235, typically around 90 percent, and can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons.
Iran claims that it wants to master the enrichment process for its peaceful nuclear program, but the United States and some of its European allies contend that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons development. Iran had agreed in November 2004 to suspend “all enrichment- related” activities for the duration of negotiations with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. But the negotiations ended when, beginning in August 2005, Tehran resumed the program in several stages.
Ahmadinejad said that Iran will “continue on this path…until we have produced industrial-level fuel, which we will use in our power plants.”
A Department of State official confirmed press reports April 25 that Iran is also preparing to operate two additional 164-centrifuge cascades.
Aghazadeh said that Iran plans to install 3,000 centrifuges by April 2007. Stephen Rademaker, acting assistant secretary of state for security and nonproliferation issues, claimed on April 12 that such a plant would enable Iran to produce enough HEU for a nuclear weapon within 271 days.
Moreover, an April 13 speech by Ahmadinejad focused renewed attention on Iran’s P-2 centrifuge program, one of the most contentious unresolved nuclear issues. Ahmadinejad reportedly said that Iran is “presently conducting research” on such a centrifuge, a statement suggesting that Tehran has conducted undisclosed work on the program.
The United States has long suspected that Iran has a secret program to develop a P-2 centrifuge, which is more advanced than the P-1 centrifuges Iran currently uses, allowing it to produce enriched uranium more quickly.
Iran has told the IAEA that it previously conducted research on P-2 centrifuges but stopped in 2003. Apparently contradicting Ahmadinejad, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hamidreza Asefi told reporters April 23 that Iran is not conducting P-2 research. The IAEA has not yet been able to verify Iran’s accounts of its previous P-2 research.
Despite Iran’s recently announced achievements, however, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte told a Washington audience April 20 that the U.S. intelligence community continues to estimate that Iran will not have enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon for at least a “number of years…perhaps into the next decade.”
Other Confidence-Building Setbacks
Other Security Council requests also apparently went unheeded. In addition to calling for an enrichment suspension, the March 29 statement had urged Tehran to build confidence in the peaceful nature of its nuclear program by cooperating with the IAEA and implementing several measures called for in a February 2006 IAEA resolution. (See ACT, April 2006.)
The IAEA board had urged Tehran to reconsider its decision to build a heavy-water nuclear reactor and had called on Iran to allow IAEA inspectors greater authority to investigate questionable nuclear activities on its territory.
Nonetheless, Aghazadeh said April 11 that Iran has continued construction of its heavy-water reactor and would begin operating it sooner than previously anticipated. Aghazadeh said the reactor would be commissioned by the end of 2009; Tehran had previously told the IAEA that the reactor would begin operating in 2014. Iran has begun producing heavy water at a production plant located at the same site, he added.
The IAEA is concerned that Iran may intend to use the heavy-water reactor under construction to produce plutonium for fissile material from its spent fuel.
Iran has also not agreed to ratify an additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement or to resume voluntarily abiding by its provisions. Safeguards agreements, which are required under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), allow the IAEA to monitor NPT states-parties’ declared civilian nuclear activities to ensure they are not diverted to military purposes.
Additional protocols, based on the 1997 Model Additional Protocol, provide the agency with increased authority to detect clandestine nuclear programs, including by inspecting facilities that have not been declared to the IAEA. Tehran has signed such a protocol but stopped adhering to the protocol in February 2006. Subsequently, Iran has reduced the agency’s access to its nuclear-related facilities. (See ACT, March 2006.) But Iran’s deputy secretary of the Supreme National Security Council for Strategic Affairs, Ali Hosseini-Tash, said Tehran is willing to ratify the protocol “under appropriate circumstances,” the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported April 22. He did not elaborate.
The IAEA’s reduced access leaves the international community without a key source of information regarding Iran’s nuclear program. For example, agency inspectors cannot inspect workshops where Iran is suspected of conducting secret centrifuge work.
This loss of information comes at a time when U.S. intelligence regarding Iran’s nuclear program is weak. The State Department official said that Washington has “no hard evidence” to give to the IAEA that Iran is pursuing undeclared nuclear activities.
Moreover, ElBaradei reported to the IAEA board in late February that Tehran’s laggard cooperation with the agency left the agency unable to determine whether Iran has “undeclared nuclear materials or activities.”
The IAEA board has also called on Iran to take other actions beyond those required by its safeguards agreement, such as providing IAEA inspectors with access to certain military facilities and government officials, in order to resolve a number of questions about Iran’s nuclear programs. (See ACT, April 2006.)
The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, told reporters the day after an April 13 meeting with ElBaradei that Tehran would “discuss and solve” the remaining outstanding issues, IRNA reported. But there is no indication that Iran has done so.
Security Council Split
The permanent members of the Security Council continue debating the proper response to Iran’s failure to heed their call. The United States, France, and the United Kingdom advocate an approach that would gradually ratchet up pressure on Iran, including the possibility of future sanctions designed to target the Iranian leadership. Russia and China have favored a more cautious pace and a greater role for the IAEA.
As a next step, British, French, and U.S. officials have indicated that they support passage of a Security Council resolution making Iran’s compliance with the February IAEA resolution mandatory. The resolution would invoke Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which allows the Security Council to take punitive action, such as imposing sanctions or using military force, against offending countries “to maintain or restore international peace and security.”
For their part, Moscow and Beijing have expressed skepticism about the efficacy of sanctions and have also been resistant to invoke Chapter VII. A Russian diplomat indicated during an April 27 interview with Arms Control Today that Moscow does not want a resolution that would give Washington a pretext to take military action against Iran (See "Reports Grow That U.S. Plots Strike Against Iran").
In addition to its UN diplomacy, the Bush administration has been encouraging other governments to increase pressure on Tehran unilaterally, for example, by halting exports of weapons and dual-use items to Iran.
Additionally, the State Department official confirmed April 25 that Washington is attempting to persuade Japanese and European banks to halt financial transactions with Iranian entities. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph told reporters April 21 that he had discussed similar measures with several Persian Gulf countries.
Russia may also be exercising its leverage on Iran, albeit more subtly. A senior European official and the State Department official told Arms Control Today that they believe Moscow is pressuring Tehran by slowing work on a nuclear power reactor Russia is constructing near the Iranian city of Bushehr. Press reports have indicated that work on the reactor has slowed, but Russia has not explicitly linked the project’s pace to Iran’s IAEA compliance.
Anatomy of a Stalemate
The Security Council and Iran are at loggerheads partly because both believe that making concessions will weaken their negotiating positions.
Despite its defiance, Tehran has said it is willing to reach a negotiated solution to the dispute but will not do so “under pressure.” For its part, Washington argues that isolating Iran will induce it to comply with the council’s demands.
One reason for Iran’s intransigence, an Iranian diplomat told Arms Control Today April 19, is Tehran’s skepticism of the Bush administration’s willingness to negotiate a solution to the nuclear issue. Explaining that Tehran views Washington as driving the Security Council’s actions, the diplomat added that Iran suspects the United States of using the nuclear issue as a pretext for increasing international pressure on the Iranian regime.
The Bush administration has indicated that it is pursuing a policy to build up democratic opposition to Iran’s Islamic regime and also frequently criticizes the government about non-nuclear matters, such as its support for terrorist organizations. (See ACT, April 2006.)
Tehran has refused to comply with the council’s demands for fear that Washington will view any compromise as a sign of weakness and attempt to extract more concessions, the diplomat added.
A 2004 speech to high-ranking Iranian officials by then-secretary of Iran’s National Security Council Hassan Rowhani suggests an additional explanation for Iran’s diplomatic tactics. Attaining the ability to enrich uranium could enable Iran to overcome international opposition to its enrichment program, he argued, adding that the international community ultimately accepted Brazil’s nuclear fuel program after initial opposition.
Iran has discussed what it termed as compromise proposals with its European interlocutors. For example, Tehran has stated its willingness to negotiate limits to industrial-scale enrichment. Larijani indicated in early March that Iran is also willing to negotiate limits to its research activities.
But both Iran’s refusal to suspend its current enrichment research and insistence on retaining at least a small centrifuge plant continue to meet with resistance. Iran’s European interlocutors maintain that they will not resume negotiations unless Tehran suspends all of its enrichment-related activities.
Predictably, the Europeans rejected an Iranian proposal presented during an April 20 meeting in Moscow. A State Department official familiar with the meeting confirmed reports that Iran proposed to implement a “technical pause” of its enrichment program while resuming long-term negotiations over larger-scale enrichment. Tehran, however, said it would continue to operate its completed cascade and only suspend work on the two cascades under construction.
Iran has also been discussing a related proposal with Russia, but the two sides seem no closer to reaching an agreement. Moscow has proposed allowing Tehran to own 49 percent of a centrifuge plant located in Russia that would enrich Iranian-produced uranium hexafluoride. (See ACT, December 2005).
Asefi said April 23 that the proposal remains “on the table.” But Iran’s insistence on having its own centrifuge plant has also been a point of contention with Russia. According to the proposal, enrichment would take place in Russia, and Iran would have no access to the centrifuge technology.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki described another possible multilateral solution in a March 30 speech to the Conference on Disarmament. Mottaki argued for the establishment of regional enrichment consortiums to be jointly operated under IAEA safeguards by regional participants. Countries from outside the region could also participate, he said. Ahmadinejad has previously suggested that other countries could invest in Iranian enrichment facilities.
Corrected online August 29, 2008. See explanation.
Amid growing international pressure and tension surrounding its nuclear program, Iran conducted several missile tests as part of a week-long military exercise ending April 6.
Dubbed variously by the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) as the Holy Prophet or Great Prophet of Islam war game, the exercise appeared to be aimed at bolstering domestic resolve and warding off foreign military attacks. “We hope the trans-regional powers have got the message of the war game,” Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Commander Yahya Rahim Safavi said on the exercise’s final day, IRNA reported.
Iran claimed the maneuvers showcased some new military capabilities, including a torpedo, an air-to-surface anti-ship missile, and a surface-to-sea anti-ship missile. Iranian officials also boasted that these weapons systems were indigenously produced.
Both assertions were disputed to some extent by a Department of State official interviewed April 20 by Arms Control Today. Although acknowledging that “there is a lot we do not know,” the official said that the U.S. government is “not sure we are seeing anything new, particularly regarding the torpedo.”
The official noted that the Iranian torpedo appeared similar to the Russian Shkval torpedo, which is an observation shared by other press reports citing anonymous Western intelligence sources and nongovernmental experts. However, the degree to which Russia might have assisted the program is unclear, and there is speculation that Kyrgyzstan may somehow be involved. Kyrgyzstan’s embassy in Washington, D.C., denied this implication, stating in an April 20 e-mail to Arms Control Today that Kyrgyzstan “never assisted” Iran with torpedoes.
Some of the other “new” Iranian systems are widely reported as closely resembling Chinese missiles. The Bush administration has sanctioned Chinese entities more than 50 times for alleged proliferation transactions with Iran or Iranian entities. Washington also has imposed penalties five separate times on Chinese entities for missile-related activities, although the recipients were not specified.Even though the Iranian missiles may not be indigenous or wholly new, Washington still condemned the tests. State Department spokesperson Adam Ereli said April 3 that they constituted “a further reminder of an aggressive program of…development and deployment of weapons systems that many of us see as threatening.”