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Iran Advances Nuclear Program, Defies UN
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Paul Kerr

Iran has continued to make further progress on its nuclear programs in defiance of UN Security Council demands. Evidence of this progress has emerged even as a May 23 deadline looms for Tehran to comply with a March Security Council resolution.

Iranian officials have continued to express a willingness to enter into negotiations with Germany and the permanent members of the Security Council. Those officials have said, however, that they will not suspend Iran’s gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program despite repeated demands from the Security Council to do so.

Resolution 1747, which was adopted in March in response to Iran’s failure to comply with previous resolutions, imposed new restrictions on Tehran and expanded the scope of existing sanctions. (See ACT, April 2007.) The most recent resolution requires Iran to comply “without further delay” with Resolution 1737, which the council adopted in December. Those requirements include a demand that Iran suspend all activities related to its enrichment program, which Iran says is for peaceful purposes but that could be used to produce highly enriched uranium for bombs. (See ACT, January/February 2007.)

The March resolution requested International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei to submit a report within 60 days to the Security Council and to the IAEA Board of Governors regarding Iran’s compliance. The council could adopt additional sanctions if Iran fails to comply.

Department of State spokesperson Sean McCormack told reporters April 9 that “there is [the] potential for more resolutions of [a] similar type down the road” if Iran continues to be uncooperative.

Resolution 1747 was the council’s third regarding Iran’s nuclear program. The first was Resolution 1696, which the council adopted last July. That resolution followed a June 2006 offer of incentives from Germany and permanent Security Council members China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, that was intended to induce Iran to end its enrichment program. (See ACT, September 2006.)

Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and Tehran’s lead nuclear negotiator, met April 25-26 with Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief.

The meeting ended without agreement, although Larijani said that “New ideas emerged during the negotiations,” Iranian radio reported April 27. He described these ideas, however, as “undeveloped,” adding that they “need more thinking and effort to reach maturity.” The two sides “will follow up the negotiations in two weeks,” he said.

Prior to the meeting, Iranian officials had offered mixed assessments of the potential for diplomacy. For example, an April 22 report by the official Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mohammad-Ali Hosseini as saying Tehran does not intend to comply with the council’s suspension demand.

However, Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh, who also heads Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, spoke positively about negotiations during an April 17 interview with the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency, arguing that “the conditions for negotiations for both sides are suitable more than ever before.”

He also indicated that Tehran believes that the UN sanctions will remain in effect for only a short time, explaining that Iran does not “see the discussion of the nuclear issue at the Security Council as a long-term issue, because everyone needs everyone in the world.”

Inspections Flap

Aghazadeh indicated that the government might at some point consider withdrawing from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). He added, however, that Tehran currently has no plans to do so.

He also suggested that Tehran might further decrease its cooperation with the IAEA if the Security Council adopts another resolution penalizing Iran.

Iran has previously taken such measures. For example, Tehran announced the day after Resolution 1747 was adopted that it would end its compliance with a portion of the subsidiary arrangements for its IAEA safeguards agreement. That provision requires Tehran to provide design information for new nuclear facilities as soon as it authorizes construction. Previously, Iran was required to provide design information for new facilities only six months before introducing nuclear material. (See ACT, March 2003.)

IAEA safeguards agreements, which are required under the NPT, allow the agency to monitor non-nuclear-weapon states-parties’ declared nuclear activities. Subsidiary arrangements specify in detail how the procedures contained in a country’s safeguards agreement should be implemented.

Since Iran’s March decision, it has denied agency inspectors access to a heavy-water-moderated nuclear research reactor that the country is constructing at Arak. An April 13 letter from Tehran to the IAEA argued that Iran is not required to allow the inspection because the reactor’s construction is at an early stage.

An April 18 letter from IAEA Deputy Director-General Olli Heinonen criticized Tehran’s decision and stated that Iran could not refuse the inspection because the government cannot modify the subsidiary arrangements unilaterally. He also said that the relevant part of the arrangements relate “to the provision of design information,” rather than the IAEA’s verification of information already provided by Iran.

The Arak reactor has caused concern because such reactors can produce plutonium, which can also 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. Resolutions 1747 and 1737 require Iran to halt work on the reactor.

Aghazadeh said April 17 that the reactor “will be completed in the next three or four years.” A knowledgeable source told Arms Control Today the next day, however, that the reactor is five to six years from completion and would not go critical for seven to eight years.

Iran has previously said that it will complete the reactor by 2009. (See ACT, May 2006.)

Enrichment Program Advances

Iran has moved forward with its enrichment program in recent months, although some Iranian officials have apparently overstated its progress. Tehran has a pilot facility located at Natanz that contains approximately 358 centrifuges. Iran also is constructing a larger commercial facility at the same site and has a facility for converting uranium oxide into uranium hexafluoride.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced in an April 9 speech that “Iran is among the countries which produce nuclear fuel on an industrial scale.” But this claim was met with widespread skepticism, given that Iran has only recently installed 1,312 centrifuge machines, far fewer than commercial enrichment facilities in other states.

Russia’s Atomic Energy Agency head Sergei Kiriyenko told the press that Russian government experts say Iran cannot yet produce fuel on an “industrial level,” RIA Novosti reported April 12. Kiriyenko pointed out that centrifuge cascades need to be linked together properly in order to enrich uranium on a large scale. Whether Iran is able to do this is unclear, a European diplomat told Arms Control Today April 30.

Iran’s technical claims may be aimed at bolstering Tehran’s diplomatic leverage. Indeed, Iranian officials have previously argued that it should use its technological achievements for that purpose. (See ACT, June 2006.) Similarly, Aghazadeh argued in an April 9 television interview that the success of Iran’s enrichment program has demonstrated the futility of Security Council pressure.

Iranian nuclear officials have not publicly specified the number of centrifuges that the country is operating. But in his letter, Heinonen said that Iran reports it has “put into operation” eight 164-centrifuge cascades at the commercial facility.

Iran is feeding an unspecified amount of uranium hexafluoride into the cascades, according to the letter. Tehran is not actually enriching uranium, a knowledgeable source told Arms Control Today April 18. Instead, Iran is injecting small amounts of feedstock into the centrifuges to ready them for operation. This process produces trace amount of uranium enriched to very low levels. The European diplomat said that Iran is being “cautious” by introducing small amounts of feedstock. Previously, the centrifuges would spin properly but would break when uranium hexafluoride was introduced into them, the diplomat explained.

Earlier, Iranian officials told agency inspectors that Iran had installed two 164-centrifuge cascades at the commercial facility and that two more such cascades “were in the final stages of installation,” according to a late February report from ElBaradei.

Based on information obtained April 7 from a diplomatic source in Vienna close to the IAEA, Iran also has two additional cascades that are near completion.

Iran told the IAEA that it intends to “continue progressively with the installation of…18 cascades” into the commercial facility and “bring them gradually into operation by May,” ElBaradei reported.

Whether Tehran can meet this target date is unclear. ElBaradei told the Financial Times in February that he did not know how long Iran would take to get 3,000 centrifuges to function properly. “It could be a year, it could be six months,” he said.

Aghazadeh said April 17 that it would take Iran up to four years to install the remaining centrifuges envisaged for the facility. Tehran has said that it eventually plans to install more than 50,000 centrifuges.

Iran has no plans to build additional centrifuge facilities “at the moment,” Aghazadeh said. However, he indicated in an April 9 television interview that the country is developing a “new generation” of centrifuges.

Tehran previously told the IAEA that it is conducting research on “different types” of centrifuges, without using nuclear material. (See ACT, October 2006.) The IAEA has long been concerned that Iran, which currently uses P-1 centrifuges, has been conducting research on more advanced centrifuges.

In the April 17 interview, Aghazadeh seemed to acknowledge that Iran’s nuclear program faces limitations, saying that Tehran “undoubtedly needs the help of other countries in order to pursue its nuclear activities.” He further explained that it cannot meet the entirety of its projected nuclear fuel demands. Aghazadeh said in the April 9 interview that Iran is planning to explore for additional uranium deposits inside the country.

The United States has argued that Iran does not have enough indigenous uranium to meet its projected fuel needs. (See ACT, September 2005.)

Similarly, the managing director of Iran’s uranium-conversion facility acknowledged in February that it is not “economically viable” for Iran to produce some equipment for its nuclear program.

Iran and the IAEA have apparently reached agreement on appropriate safeguards arrangements for the commercial centrifuge facility. The agreement, which “includes unannounced inspections and containment and surveillance...has been tested,” an IAEA official told Arms Control Today April 27. The agency is currently conducting discussions with Iran “on some of the practical implementation modalities,” the official added.

Other Reactor Projects Continue

The completion date for a light-water reactor that a Russian contractor is building near the Iranian city of Bushehr has again been delayed. Moscow and Tehran agreed last fall that the reactor was to start operating in September 2007 and begin providing energy two months later. Russia was scheduled to start delivering fuel to the plant in March 2007. (See ACT, November 2006.)

The two countries are currently negotiating a revised schedule for the project, which has at least in part been delayed by a financial dispute. Atomstroyexport, the Russian contractor for the project, says that Iran has failed to make its payments on time.

But Iran and Russia appear to have made some progress in recent days. According to RIA Novosti, Atomstroyexport spokesperson Irina Yesipova said April 22 that the two sides concluded “a protocol defining a set of measures to provide stable financing” for the project. If implemented, the new agreement should resolve some but not all of the project’s financial issues, she said.

The project faces another obstacle. Kiriyenko said April 23 that third-party countries have delayed supplying some equipment for the project, RIA Novosti reported. He did not elaborate, but deputy spokesperson for the Kremlin Dmitry Peskov said that these delays were caused by Tehran’s failure to comply with the Security Council resolutions, the Financial Times reported March 21.

Iran also plans to construct additional reactors. For example, Aghazadeh reiterated that Iran is planning to construct a 360-megawatt nuclear power plant. In addition, the deputy head of the Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ahmad Fayaz Bakhsh, told reporters April 15 that Tehran is issuing tenders for the construction of one more 1,000-megawatt light-water reactor and another 1,600-megawatt reactor near Bushehr, according to Agence France-Presse. Construction of the plants is expected to take “between nine and 11 years,” he said.

Posted: May 7, 2007