ElBaradei Says Iran Stalls IAEA Inquiry

Peter Crail

Iran has failed to cooperate with an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) probe into suspected nuclear weapons-related studies, according to a Sept. 15 report by agency Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei. He said in the report that unless Iran provides sufficient transparency and answers questions regarding the suspected studies, the agency will not be able to provide “credible assurance” that there are no undeclared nuclear activities in Iran. Meanwhile, Iran has continued to expand its uranium-enrichment operations, installing more than 800 new centrifuges since February at its commercial-scale uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz.

Following the IAEA report, the UN Security Council Sept. 27 unanimously adopted a brief resolution reiterating its previous calls that Iran suspend sensitive nuclear fuel cycle activities. The council adopted the resolution after China and Russia rebuffed calls by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States for additional UN sanctions.

IAEA Stonewalled on Weaponization Questions

Since August 2007, the agency has pressed Tehran for answers regarding a series of Iranian activities suspected by the West of being related to acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. The agency’s Sept. 15 report stated that Iran “has not been able to make any substantive progress on the alleged studies and associated key issues.”

Iran provided the agency with two written replies to questions regarding these activities in May, including a 117-slide presentation. The IAEA report stated that Iran’s replies confirmed that some of the information contained in the studies was true but insisted that others were “forged” documents and “fabricated” data.

A senior UN official stated Sept. 15 that Iran’s explanations were too limited to “form and format, rather than in substance.” The IAEA held two separate meetings with Iranian officials in August to explain where additional information was needed. However, according to the senior official, Iran told the agency that its written responses were its “final answer.”

The alleged weaponization studies entail a number of efforts that the IAEA characterized as “a possible military dimension to Iran’s nuclear program.” (See ACT, March 2008.) These activities included work on the conversion of uranium dioxide into uranium tetrafluoride, high-explosives testing similar to that of a nuclear weapons trigger, and the design of a missile re-entry vehicle that might be capable of accommodating a nuclear warhead. Uranium tetrafluoride 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. The IAEA also sought information regarding procurement efforts and individuals related to these studies.

Adding to concerns about these suspected activities, the agency’s report also stated that the IAEA obtained information indicating that Iran’s experimentation with uranium metal fashioned into forms suitable for a nuclear weapon may have benefited from foreign assistance. A senior UN official indicated Sept. 15 that such assistance pointed neither to a state nor to known elements of the nuclear smuggling network led by Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan. Khan’s network provided Iran with the centrifuge technology in use at Iran’s uranium-enrichment facility.

The official noted that, in addition to the lack of substantive answers from Iran, the agency faces two constraints in its investigation into the alleged studies. The first is that it has not been allowed to share copies of documentation associated with the alleged studies with Iran.

In August 2005, Western intelligence agencies began providing the IAEA with documentation of suspected Iranian nuclear weapons-related activities but have not permitted the agency to share this documentation with Iran. (See ACT, March 2008.) Reflecting on the credibility of the intelligence information it received, the agency assessed in its Sept. 15 report that this documentation “was sufficiently comprehensive and detailed that it needed to be taken seriously,” particularly considering that Iran acknowledged that some facets of the documentation were accurate.

The second constraint the official noted was the need to ensure that sensitive military information is protected while the agency investigates the involvement of military organizations in aspects of Iran’s nuclear program. Tehran maintains that its experiments with high explosives and work on its ballistic missile program are solely related to its conventional military capabilities and claims that investigating these issues would jeopardize military secrets.

For example, one of the issues the agency seeks to address related to Iran’s military programs is documentation describing the redesign of the payload chamber for Iran’s Shahab-3 missile re-entry vehicle. The IAEA indicated in a Feb. 22 report that the layout of the payload chamber described in this documentation would likely “be able to accommodate a nuclear device.” (See ACT, March 2008.) The Shahab-3 is one of Iran’s longest-ranged ballistic missiles, with an anticipated range of up to 2,000 kilometers.

The IAEA showed new photographs and documents depicting the redesigned re-entry vehicle during a Sept. 16 closed briefing to members of the agency’s 35-member Board of Governors. U.S. Permanent Representative to the IAEA Gregory Schulte stated during a Sept. 18 interview with Radio Farda that the documentation shows that Iran “engaged in studies, engineering work, testing, procurement, all related to the design of a nuclear weapon and the integration into a delivery system like the Shahab-3 missile.”

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s permanent representative to the IAEA, claimed Sept. 16 that the documentation regarding the re-entry vehicle was “fabricated” and dismissed the possibility of cooperating with the agency to clarify the issue, asserting that “no country would give information about its conventional military activities.”

In its report, the IAEA describes a number of proposed steps Iran should take in order to overcome the difficulties posed during the investigation. These proposals include clarifying the portions of the documentation that Tehran claims are true and which are “fabricated” and providing access to original documents and individuals related to dual-use activities carried out by Iranian entities. There is no indication that Iran has accepted any of these proposals thus far.

Iran Shows Greater Enrichment Proficiency

While the IAEA’s investigations into the alleged studies continue, Iran has both increased the number of gas centrifuges operating at its commercial-scale enrichment facility and improved its efficiency at running these machines.

Gas centrifuges run at high speeds to increase the concentration of the fissile isotope uranium-235 in the feedstock uranium hexafluoride gas. They can increase the concentration to low levels to power nuclear reactors or high levels for potential use in nuclear weapons. The report notes that, based on operating records, Iran has produced about 480 kilograms of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride.

Iran’s Natanz facility is intended to accommodate about 54,000 centrifuges divided into 18 units of nearly 3,000 centrifuges each. The Sept. 15 report says that, in addition to a 3,000-centrifuge unit completed in the fall of 2007, Iran has begun running another 820 centrifuges in a second unit. At that same unit, an additional 164 machines have been installed for testing, and work is being carried out to install the remaining 2,000 centrifuges.

A senior UN official told Arms Control Today Sept. 15 that the current safeguards mechanism for the Natanz plant covers the first 3,000-centrifuge unit and that the agency is holding discussions with Iran for a new safeguards approach to cover the unit where centrifuges are currently being installed. The official noted, however, that cameras and other monitoring mechanisms have been established in that unit in order to ensure that work is still safeguarded.

As Iran expanded its centrifuge installation efforts beyond the initial 3,000-machine unit, Iran has also increased the rate in which it has introduced the uranium hexafluoride feedstock into its centrifuges. Between December 2007 and Aug. 30, Iran has fed a total of 5,930 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride into its operating centrifuges. Although the IAEA noted in reports in February 2008 and November 2007 that Iran was feeding its centrifuges at rates far below their designed capacity, a senior UN official stated Sept. 15 that Iran is currently feeding its centrifuges at a rate “very close to 70 grams [of uranium hexafluoride gas] per hour.” Iran declared in 2006 that its centrifuges were designed to operate at a feed rate of 70 grams per hour. (See ACT, November 2007.)

Security Council Repeats Demands

In response to the IAEA report the Security Council adopted Resolution 1835, which “calls upon Iran to comply fully and without delay” with the council’s demands that Tehran suspend its uranium enrichment program, as well as the construction of a heavy-water reactor. The council first imposed these obligations on Iran with the adoption of Resolution 1696 in July 2006. Since then the council adopted three sanctions resolutions penalizing Iran for refusing to suspend these sensitive nuclear activities.

Unlike the four prior council resolutions on Iran, Resolution 1835 was not adopted under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. Chapter 7 provides for the council to identify threats to international peace and security and to respond to them with punitive measures, which potentially includes sanctions or the use of force.

The council adopted Resolution 1835 as the result of a compromise between Western governments, which wanted to pursue additional sanctions against Iran, and China and Russia, which insisted that they would oppose new sanctions.

A Russian diplomat told Arms Control Today Sept. 24 that Moscow wished to focus on implementing the sanctions already imposed on Iran rather than pursue new penalties. The diplomat also noted that Russia wanted to focus on the negotiating track pursued by the five permanent members of the council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) and Germany with Iran. The six countries have offered Iran a proposal for long-term negotiations over the nuclear issue along with incentives for Tehran’s agreement to suspend its sensitive nuclear activities.

In addition to calling on Iran to comply with its suspension obligations, Resolution 1835 “reaffirms” the council’s commitment “to an early negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear issue.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of the Treasury took actions Sept. 10 and Sept. 17 to levy sanctions against Iranian firms Washington alleges are engaged in nuclear and missile proliferation. Both actions were pursued under Executive Order 13382, issued in June 2005, which imposes assets freezes on designated entities and persons and prevents them from accessing the U.S. financial system (see page 50).

On Sept. 10, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) and 18 of its affiliates for allegedly facilitating the transport of nonconventional weapons-related items to entities suspected of being engaged in Iran’s nuclear and missile programs. Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey stated in a Sept. 10 press release that the IRISL not only transported cargo for UN designated proliferators, “it also falsifies documents and uses deceptive schemes” to cover its illicit transfers.

UN Security Council Resolution 1803, adopted March 3, called on all states to inspect the cargoes of aircraft and vessels owned or operated by the IRISL and another Iranian cargo firm, Iran Air Cargo, if there are “reasonable grounds” to believe the vessels are carrying goods prohibited under prior UN sanctions resolutions against Iran.

The Sept. 17 Treasury sanctions were aimed at six entities owned or controlled by Iranian firms previously listed under Executive Order 13382.