A May 23 report from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei documents that Iran has continued work on its nuclear program in defiance of the UN Security Council. This lack of compliance sets the stage for the council to impose additional sanctions against Tehran.
The IAEA Board of Governors also is expected to discuss the report during its next meeting, which begins June 11.
Although Iranian officials continue to express their willingness to enter into negotiations with Germany and the five permanent members of the Security Council, they refuse to meet the Security Council’s repeated demands to suspend its nuclear program.
Most recently, the Security Council on March 24 adopted Resolution 1747 requiring Iran to comply “without further delay” with Resolution 1737, which the council adopted last December, or face “further appropriate [nonmilitary] measures.” (See ACT, April 2007.) The March resolution requested ElBaradei to report on Iran’s compliance within 60 days.
Resolution 1747 also imposed new restrictions on Tehran and expanded the scope of existing sanctions. Those included a demand that Iran suspend all activities related to its uranium-enrichment program, as well as construction of a heavy water-moderated nuclear reactor. Iran says these programs are for peaceful purposes, but both also could be used to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. (See ACT, January/February 2007.) According to the report, Iran has not suspended either of these programs.
The resolutions require Iran to cooperate fully with the IAEA’s investigation of its nuclear programs, as well as to ratify an additional protocol to its comprehensive IAEA safeguards agreement. Such safeguards agreements, which are required under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), allow the IAEA to monitor NPT states-parties’ declared civilian nuclear activities. Iran has signed an additional protocol, which augments the IAEA’s authority to investigate possible undeclared nuclear activities, but has not ratified it.
Both French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Department of State spokesperson Tom Casey stated May 24 that their governments want the Security Council to impose additional sanctions against Iran.
Casey said that the council would “take a look at…enhancing” current UN sanctions and imposing new ones. Asked about the prospect for further sanctions, two European diplomats told Arms Control Today May 25 that whether and to what extent other council members are willing to sanction Iran is unclear.
Both diplomats added that there will be no formal discussions regarding further Security Council action until after the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, meets May 31 with Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and Tehran’s lead nuclear negotiator. The relevant countries will discuss the contents of another council resolution if the talks “do not bear fruit,” one diplomat said.
Larijani and Solana last met in late April but did not reach an agreement. (See ACT, May 2007.)
Larijani told reporters May 30 that suspending Iran’s enrichment program is “not acceptable,” according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA). He added, however, that a suspension agreement could be the “outcome of the talks.”
Similarly, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki stated May 16 that Iran remains flexible on other aspects of a potential solution, according to IRNA. Tehran would “welcome” any proposal that officially recognized Iran’s right to produce nuclear fuel, he said.
But Larijani threatened that Iran would “use its levers” against the international community if the Security Council were to impose additional sanctions on Iran, the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported May 18. He did not elaborate.
Modest Enrichment Progress
Iran has continued work on its gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program. Such 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 highly enriched uranium (HEU), which can be used in certain types of nuclear reactors and as fissile material in nuclear weapons.
Tehran has a pilot centrifuge facility located at Natanz and is constructing a larger commercial facility at the same site. Iran also has a facility for converting uranium oxide into uranium hexafluoride.
Discussing Iran’s nuclear progress, ElBaradei told reporters May 24 that Iran would need at least three to eight years before it could develop a nuclear weapon, Reuters reported.
Interviews with knowledgeable sources have provided a mixed picture of the program’s status. One European diplomat pointed out May 25 that the most important issue is whether Iran can keep its centrifuges “running for an extended period of time.” Tehran has not yet demonstrated that it can do so, he said.
Iran continued to operate the 10-, 20-, and 164-centrifuge cascades in its pilot facility but "disconnected" one of the 164-centrifuge cascades at an unspecified date. Iran fed 4.8 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride into single machines and the 10-machine cascade between Feb. 21 and March 17, ElBaradei reported.
As for Iran’s commercial enrichment facility, IAEA inspectors during a May visit found that Iran was “operating simultaneously” eight 164-centrifuge cascades. The report says Tehran has “two other similar cascades” which have not been tested with nuclear material. Three more such cascades are “under construction.” According to another European diplomat, the operating cascades are not linked together, a key element required to operate an enrichment facility at the scale necessary to produce large quantities of enriched uranium.
The number of operating cascades in the facility has not increased since mid-April, according to an April 18 letter from agency Deputy Director-General Olli Heinonen. Iran had two cascades installed as of February.
Iran told the IAEA that it intended to “continue progressively with the installation of…18 cascades” into the commercial facility and “bring them gradually into operation by May,” according to a report ElBaradei issued in February. Although Iran failed to meet this target date, a diplomatic source in Vienna close to the IAEA told Arms Control Today April 25 that Iran is able to build one 164-centrifuge cascade every 10 days. At that rate, Iran will be able to install approximately 3,000 centrifuges by the end of June, the source said.
Tehran has said that it eventually plans to install more than 50,000 centrifuges in the facility. It will take Iran up to four years to do this, according to an April statement by Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh, who also heads Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization.
In addition to installing centrifuges, Iran has begun to enrich uranium in its commercial facility. Tehran has fed approximately 260 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride into those cascades, the report says. Iran appears to have begun doing this sometime after April 18. On that day, a knowledgeable source told Arms Control Today that Tehran was not actually enriching uranium but was instead injecting small amounts of feedstock into the centrifuges to ready them for operation.
Iran has declared that it has enriched uranium levels up to 4.8 percent uranium-235 at the commercial facility, a claim that the IAEA is in the process of verifying. The report does not specify the quantity of enriched uranium Iran has produced. ElBaradei reported in February that Iran produced in its pilot facility uranium containing a “maximum enrichment” of 4.2 percent uranium-235.
Whether Iran can produce centrifuges of sufficient quantity and quality is unclear. The Vienna diplomat said that Tehran can produce enough centrifuge components for its projected enrichment needs. But a knowledgeable source told Arms Control Today that Iran may not be “fully independent” in making such components.
Asked about the quality of Iran’s centrifuges, the Vienna source added that Iran “can make functional machines.” Separately, a European diplomat said that it is not clear that Iran can do so, explaining that “quite a high number” of centrifuges have crashed at rates “higher than one would expect.”
Iran also has apparently continued to operate its uranium-conversion facility. According to the report, Iran presented 269 metric tons of uranium hexafluoride to IAEA inspectors when they visited the facility in March. The agency is “evaluating the results” obtained during the visit. Mohammad Saeedi, deputy director of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, claimed May 7 that Iran has 280 metric tons of feedstock, ISNA reported. Iran began the conversion campaign in June 2006.
Whether Iran’s uranium hexafluoride is of sufficient purity is unclear. The Vienna diplomat said that Iran is using its own feedstock, noting that the material is “good enough” to produce enriched uranium. But the two other European diplomats told Arms Control Today that Iran is probably using uranium hexafluoride obtained from China more than a decade ago.
Regarding Iran’s conversion efforts, one diplomat said that Iran is now attempting to convert its own uranium oxide into feedstock but the “process has not been perfected.” Iran had previously been converting uranium oxide acquired from South Africa, he said.
ElBaradei’s report states that although the IAEA is able to verify that Iran has not diverted any of its safeguarded nuclear material, the agency “remains unable to make further progress” in verifying “the scope and nature” of Iran’s nuclear program.
Since its investigation began in 2002, the IAEA has discovered that Iran engaged in secret nuclear activities, some of which violated Tehran’s safeguards agreement. Iran has provided explanations for some of these issues, but the agency says that several others remain unresolved. (See ACT, March 2006.)
ElBaradei reported that Iran has provided no new information regarding these matters, with one exception. Tehran has disclosed details regarding the HEU particles found at the Karaj Waste Storage Facility, a facility that Iran had not declared to the agency. The IAEA is currently analyzing the information, the report says. (See ACT, December 2006.)
The report emphasizes that the IAEA’s “level of knowledge of certain aspects” of Iran’s nuclear activities “has deteriorated” because Tehran has been providing less information than it did in the past. For example, Iran stopped adhering to its additional protocol in February 2006, the terms of which Iran had been observing since Fall 2003 even though the protocol was not yet in force. (See ACT, March 2006.)According to ElBaradei, Iran has withheld a significant amount of data, including “information relevant to the assembly of centrifuges, the manufacture of centrifuge components…and research and development of centrifuges or enrichment techniques.” His report also notes that Iran has not allowed the IAEA to inspect its heavy water reactor site since Tehran’s March decision to end its compliance with a portion of the subsidiary arrangements for its IAEA safeguards agreement.