"I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them."

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
Iran Starts New Centrifuge Installation Campaign

Peter Crail

Iran announced in April that it would install several thousand additional centrifuges at its commercial-scale uranium-enrichment facility, defying three UN Security Council sanctions resolutions demanding that it suspend such fuel cycle activities. Meanwhile, in an effort to offer carrots as well as sticks, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Germany met to reformulate an incentives proposal aimed at halting Iran's enrichment program, but failed to reach final agreement.

Against this less than promising backdrop, there was a glimmer of hope: Tehran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reached an agreement in late April to clarify the nature of studies that some states say show Iran has taken steps to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran Adding Centrifuges

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared April 8 that Iran planned to install an additional 6,000 centrifuges in its commercial-scale uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz. The declaration coincided with Iran's second annual "National Nuclear Day," commemorating an announcement a year earlier by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran that the country had enriched uranium for the first time. (See ACT, May 2007. ) Iran currently has about 3,000 centrifuges installed at the Natanz facility where it plans eventually to install about 54,000 machines.

Ahmadinejad's announcement may have overstated Iran's current plans. A diplomatic source close to the IAEA told Arms Control Today April 18 that Iran only planned on installing an additional 3,000 centrifuges, for a total of 6,000. The diplomatic source also noted that those centrifuges consisted of older P-1 and more advanced IR-2 machines. It is unclear how many of each type Iran is currently installing.

The 3,000 centrifuges currently installed at Iran's enrichment facility are based on 1970s-era P-1 designs, which Iran acquired through the nuclear trafficking network run by Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan. The IR-2 centrifuge is a recent modification of the P-2 centrifuge design, which Iran also acquired from Khan, and can enrich uranium about 2.5 times faster than the P-1 variety. (See ACT, November 2007. )

While boasting of Iran's enrichment plans, Iranian officials also issued a rare admission that their enrichment program was facing difficulties. The Associated Press April 3 quoted Ali Asghar Soltaniyeh, Iranian envoy to the IAEA, stating that Iran's enrichment program was facing "ups and downs." This admission is consistent with the latest IAEA reports that describe the commercial-scale facility as running "well below its design capacity." (See ACT, March 2008. )

Proposals and Counter-Proposals Considered

As Iran expands its enrichment program, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany continue to pursue ways to convince Iran to suspend its enrichment activities and enter negotiations to resolve the nuclear issue. In March, the Security Council passed a third sanctions resolution, Resolution 1803, demanding that Iran suspend its fuel cycle activities, including enrichment. (See ACT, April 2008. ) At the same time, the six countries declared that they would "further develop" incentives to Iran as part of a dual-track effort to alter Iranian behavior.

As part of this effort, the six countries met in Beijing April 15 to discuss how to repackage a series of incentives first proposed to Iran in 2006. These incentives entail a wide range of opportunities for technical, economic, and political cooperation with Iran, including European-Iranian nuclear cooperation that the six countries agreed to negotiate once Iran suspended its fuel cycle activities. (See ACT, July/August 2006. )

Following the Beijing meeting, He Yafei, China's assistant minister of foreign affairs, told reporters that the six countries "have agreed on most points in the proposal. However, there are some outstanding issues that remain to be resolved." He added that the proposal will be forwarded to Iran as soon as agreement is reached.

Although the six countries are engaged in discussions for enhancing the incentives package, significant modifications do not appear to be on the agenda. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters April 11 that, in regard to the consideration of the incentives package for Iran, "this is not the time...to expect major changes."

European diplomats expressed similar sentiments about the limited nature of such changes in the incentives package in conversations with Arms Control Today in March. (See ACT, April 2008. ) The diplomats indicated that this repackaging effort was primarily geared toward highlighting to the Iranian populace the potential benefits Iran would receive from the existing proposal if Tehran suspended its fuel cycle activities, rather than an effort to add significant new incentives to it.

Even before a new incentives package is offered, Tehran already appears poised to reject any proposal the six states are considering. Iran refused the 2006 incentives package because it did not provide for the continued development of an enrichment program in Iran. Iranian officials continue to insist on the possession of an enrichment capability as a redline. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mohammad Ali Hosseini reiterated this position April 13, stating that any package "that might undermine or limit Iran's rights would not be accepted by Iran."

In response to the six-country repackaging effort, Tehran has announced that it is formulating its own proposal to resolve the nuclear issue. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki stated April 13 that the proposal would be directed toward "various parties," including the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany. He indicated that Tehran will announce the details of this package "in the near future."

Iran Agrees to Resolve Questions on Suspected Weapons Work

In addition to international concerns regarding Iran's continued uranium-enrichment activities, a number of states, as well as the IAEA, have sought clarification from Iran regarding suspicions of work Tehran carried out related to nuclear weaponization.

During an April 21-22 meeting between IAEA Deputy Director-General Olli Heinonen and Javad Vaeedi, deputy secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Tehran agreed to clarify a series of studies that point to possible work on nuclear weapons. The IAEA indicated in a Feb. 22 report that these studies, which have a "possible military dimension," constituted the "one major remaining issue" regarding the history of Iran's nuclear program. (See ACT, March 2008. ) Agency officials have since highlighted the need for Iran to address these concerns.

IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei told reporters April 23 that Iran's agreement to address this issue is "a milestone" and expressed hope that the agency will clarify the issue with Iran "by the end of May." This time frame comes just before the June 2-6 meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors, when ElBaradei is expected to provide a report on Iran's nuclear program to the IAEA board and the UN Security Council.

Iran argues that the allegations that the studies were part of a weaponization program are "baseless and unfounded" and has previously rejected calls to address them with the agency. During a Feb. 22 interview on Iran's official "Press TV" network, Soltaniyeh asserted that Iran provided the agency with its explanation and the "issue of alleged studies is over."

These alleged studies primarily surround a claim by Western intelligence agencies that they acquired a laptop and other documentation that once belonged to an Iranian nuclear technician and that contained research relevant to a nuclear weapons program. This research included work on the conversion of uranium dioxide into uranium tetrafluoride, using high explosives in a manner similar to that of a nuclear-weapon trigger, and the design of a missile re-entry vehicle that might be capable of accommodating a nuclear warhead. Uranium tetraflouride is the precursor to uranium hexafluoride, the feedstock used in centrifuges to enrich uranium to low levels for nuclear power reactors or high levels for nuclear weapons.

Heinonen held a briefing Feb. 25 for IAEA member states, describing the agency's technical concerns regarding the studies. According to notes obtained by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, Heinonen indicated that the IAEA's assessment of the weaponization allegations stem from the agency's own information, documentation provided to the agency by Iran, and information provided by other states, including  the laptop.

The notes also highlight that the various research projects related to weaponization all were overseen by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, former head of Iran's Physics Research Center. The IAEA continues to investigate Fakhrizadeh's nuclear-related procurement activities in connection with work carried out at the military-related site at Lavizan-Shian. Iran has not allowed agency officials to meet with him.

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