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former IAEA Director-General

ElBaradei: Iran’s Nuclear Program Advances
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Paul Kerr

Iran has continued to advance its nuclear program in defiance of a December 2006 UN Security Council resolution, according to a Feb. 22 report from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei. The agency’s Board of Governors is to discuss the report at its next meeting, which begins March 5.

Tehran’s progress, along with the government’s persistent failure to cooperate fully with the IAEA investigation, has spurred the five permanent Security Council members to discuss additional measures to persuade Iran to alter its course.

Resolution 1737 requires Iran to take several steps, including suspending its enrichment program and heavy-water-related projects as well as cooperating fully with the IAEA’s investigation of its nuclear programs. (See ACT, January/February 2007.)

According to ElBaradei, Tehran has not suspended its programs. Moreover, although Iran has provided some marginal cooperation, the agency’s investigation has made little progress.

Iran provided IAEA inspectors Dec. 18 with access to operating records for its pilot enrichment facility. The agency has subsequently asked for clarification of this information and is awaiting the results.

Tehran also has taken steps, however, that limit the agency’s ability to conduct inspections. For example, ElBaradei reported that Iran, in a January letter to the agency, objected to the designation of 38 inspectors who had been assigned to work in the country. Although this step is permitted by Iran’s safeguards agreement, the agency sent a letter asking Tehran to “reconsider” its decision. Iran’s move was apparently a means of implementing a measure adopted by Iran’s parliament last December in response to the Security Council resolution. That move required the government to “revise” its cooperation with the IAEA.

In a Feb. 19 letter to the IAEA, Iran reiterated its “willingness” to cooperate with the agency’s investigation, but this offer appeared to retain Tehran’s previous condition that the Security Council end its involvement with the issue.

Enrichment Activities

According to the report, 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 (LEU), 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.

Iran has continued to operate its 10-, 20-, and 164-centrifuge cascades, as well as “single machines,” in its pilot facility. Tehran has continued to feed uranium hexafluoride into these centrifuges “intermittently,” the report says.

Iran fed a total of 66 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride into its centrifuges between Nov. 2, 2006, and Feb. 17, 2007. Also in 2006, the country had fed 34 kilograms of the material into centrifuges between Aug. 13 and Nov. 2. (See ACT, December 2006.)

The IAEA has completed its analysis of environmental samples designed to verify Iran’s June 2006 claim that it had produced uranium enriched to 5 percent uranium-235. Those samples “thus far indicate a maximum enrichment” of 4.2 percent uranium-235, the report says. The uranium that Iran has since enriched contains less than 5 percent uranium-235, Tehran has informed the agency.

Iran has made progress on its commercial enrichment facility. Iranian officials told the IAEA during a January meeting that it intends to install approximately 3,000 centrifuges in the facility and “bring them gradually into operation” by May. Tehran told the agency inspectors about a month later that they had installed two 164-centrifuge cascades and that two more such cascades “were in the final stages of installation.” Iran began installing centrifuges in the facility in January, an IAEA official said.

Iranian officials also told the inspectors in January that they intended to feed uranium hexafluoride into the centrifuges by the end of February, ElBaradei reported. As of Feb. 17, Tehran had not yet done so. Iran did transfer 8.7 tons of uranium hexafluoride to the facility on Jan. 31.

Tehran and the IAEA are still discussing appropriate safeguards arrangements for the facility. In the meantime, Iran has agreed to “interim verification arrangements,” ElBaradei reported.

Whether Tehran can meet its stated enrichment goals is unclear. Asked during a Feb. 19 interview how long Iran would take to get 3,000 centrifuges “functioning smoothly,” ElBaradei told the Financial Times, “I don’t know. It could be a year, it could be six months.”

A European diplomat told Arms Control Today Feb. 26 that “ Iran has not been particularly successful in attaining” its enrichment goals but acknowledged that characterizing Tehran’s progress is “difficult.” U.S. officials have repeatedly said that Washington’s intelligence on Iran is limited. (See ACT, September 2006.)

Tehran is likely having difficulty manufacturing quality centrifuge components, the diplomat added, explaining that this assessment is based on his knowledge of Iran’s manufacturing base rather than on direct information regarding its centrifuges.

Iranian officials have repeatedly emphasized the indigenous nature of its nuclear programs. But Abdollah Sowlat Sana, managing director of Iran’s uranium-conversion facility, said in a Feb. 5 newspaper interview that, although the “main body and central essence of Iranian nuclear know-how is certainly indigenous,” the “production of some equipment [inside Iran] is not economically viable.” Tehran has “made use of some foreign-made material and equipment which could not be produced inside the country in a cost-effective way,” he added.

Sources previously told Arms Control Today that Iran has to import certain components. The country has had trouble operating cascades containing primarily Iranian-manufactured components. (See ACT, July/August 2006.)

According to the IAEA official, Iran ended its most recent “campaign” to produce uranium hexafluoride in January. The agency is to verify in March the final quantities produced since the campaign began last June, the report says.

Investigation Stagnation

Although ElBaradei reported no evidence that Iran has used any of its declared nuclear materials or facilities for military purposes, the IAEA “remains unable…to make further progress in its efforts” to understand fully the history of the country’s nuclear programs, the report says. Since its investigation began in 2002, the IAEA has discovered that Iran engaged in secret nuclear activities, some of which violated its safeguards agreement with the agency. Tehran has provided explanations for some of these issues, but the agency says that several others remain unresolved. (See ACT, March 2006.)

IAEA safeguards agreements, which are required under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), allow the agency to monitor NPT states-parties’ declared civilian nuclear activities.

The report adds that the IAEA will be “unable to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran unless” the government increases its cooperation with the agency. Tehran should take several steps, including implementing an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement, the report says

Iran has signed such a protocol, which augments the IAEA’s authority to investigate possible undeclared nuclear activities, but has not ratified it. Beginning in 2003, Tehran had been behaving as if its protocol were in force but stopped doing so in February 2006. (See ACT, March 2006.)

ElBaradei reported that the agency still has been unable to resolve several outstanding issues related to Iran’s centrifuge program, such as procurement efforts and research on advanced centrifuges.

The IAEA also has made little progress in determining the origin of some LEU and HEU particles found at several locations in Iran. The particles raise the possibility that Tehran may have either imported or produced additional undeclared enriched uranium in violation of its safeguards agreement. Iran has previously admitted that it enriched uranium secretly but only to very low levels.

Sources have previously told Arms Control Today that most of the HEU and LEU particles are thought to have originated from components that Iran obtained from a proliferation network run by former Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan. The IAEA’s investigation of that network appears to be continuing, but the agency does not yet understand all aspects of Iran’s enrichment program.

The report explains that HEU and LEU particles “similar” to those found in Iran also have been found on centrifuge components that Libya obtained from the Khan network. Libya had a centrifuge program but eliminated it in 2004. (See ACT, July/August 2004.)

The report indicates that the IAEA has received additional information from Pakistan. “This information, however, does not fully explain the presence of some of the LEU and HEU particles,” the report says, explaining that “existing measurement and evaluation methodologies do not permit a clear determination” of the particles’ origin. The matter can only be resolved if the agency has a “full understanding of the scope and chronology” of Iran’s enrichment program, ElBaradei reported.

The agency also is continuing to investigate HEU particles found at the Karaj Waste Storage Facility, a facility that Iran had not declared to the agency. The IAEA has requested additional information from Iran about the matter, the report says.

Iran agreed late last November to allow IAEA inspectors to “re-sample equipment” located at a “technical university” in Tehran where agency inspectors have previously found natural uranium and HEU particles. The new samples apparently detected new natural and LEU uranium particles on the equipment. According to the report, the agency is “awaiting clarification” from Iran regarding all of the particles in question.

The IAEA also is continuing its investigation of Iran’s past undeclared plutonium-separation experiments. During a January meeting, agency inspectors told Iranian officials that the IAEA cannot resolve the matter unless Tehran provides “additional information,” the report says. But the Iranians stated that “no other relevant information was available.”

The plutonium experiments have caused concern because Iran is building a nuclear reactor moderated by heavy water. Such reactors can produce weapons-grade plutonium, which can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons. Although the IAEA has found evidence that Tehran was interested in reprocessing spent reactor fuel, Iran has said that it will not do so. The report says that “[t]here are no indications of ongoing reprocessing activities” at any Iranian declared nuclear facilities.

Posted: March 1, 2007