U.S. Still Committed to Engaging Iran

Peter Crail

Responding to postelection turmoil in Iran and accusations of voting fraud in favor of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Washington has reaffirmed its intention to pursue a dialogue with Tehran regarding its nuclear program.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said during a June 17 press conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman that the United States is "obviously waiting to see the outcome of the internal Iranian process, but our intent is to pursue whatever opportunities might exist in the future with Iran." Washington previously expressed an interest in beginning discussions with Iran on its nuclear program following the June 12 elections. (See ACT, June 2009.)

Since then, U.S. officials have cautiously tried to avoid drawing conclusions regarding the results of the Iranian elections, held on June 12, as the results are still in dispute. However, Obama said during a June 16 CNBC interview that concerns regarding Iran's nuclear efforts, as well as its support for U.S.-designated terrorist groups, "would be true whoever came out on top in this election."

"Either way, it's important for the United States to engage in the tough diplomacy around those permanent security concerns that we have-nuclear weapons, funding of terrorism," he said.

IAEA Reports Enrichment Buildup

Against the backdrop of leadership questions in Tehran, Iran has continued to expand its uranium-enrichment activities at its commercial-scale Natanz plant. A June 5 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report indicated that, as of the end of May, Iran had installed a total of about 7,000 centrifuges at that facility. Of those, about 5,000 are running with uranium hexafluoride, the feedstock used to produce enriched uranium, the IAEA said.

Enriched uranium can be used at low concentrations of the uranium-235 isotope to power most nuclear plants; at high concentrations, it can be used in nuclear weapons. Since enrichment operations began in February 2007, Iran has produced about 1,300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride.

The centrifuge expansion at Natanz has now started to take place in the third of five 3,000-centrifuge "units" that Iran has prepared for such installation (see Table 1).

In response to this expansion of the number of centrifuges being installed and the increased production rate for low-enriched uranium, the IAEA indicated that "improvements to the containment and surveillance measures" at the facility are needed for the agency to "fully meet its safeguards objectives." The June 5 report said the agency has held discussions with Iran for that purpose.

During a June 15-19 IAEA Board of Governors meeting, agency Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei questioned the need for the continued expansion of Iran's enrichment plant. "Why is there a rush now for Iran to build its enrichment capability in terms of industrial capacity?" he asked, adding, "There is no commercial need for it right now."

ElBaradei made the comments as part of a reiterated call for a "freeze for freeze," in which Iran halts the additional installation of centrifuges while the UN Security Council agrees not to pursue additional sanctions. Since 2006, the council has demanded that Iran suspend all enrichment operations and has adopted three sanctions resolutions in response to Iran's refusal to comply.

The freeze-for-freeze concept was part of a revamped proposal for negotiations offered by the permanent members of the council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Germany to Iran last year. (See ACT, July/August 2008.) Iran's response to this parallel freeze proposal is also reportedly being considered as a potential "benchmark" by the six countries to denote progress in negotiations with Tehran on the nuclear issue. (See ACT, June 2009.)

Obama said in May that the United States would review progress in any negotiations by the year's end.

The Associated Press reported June 17 that Geoffrey Pyatt, U.S. deputy chief of mission to the IAEA, told the agency's board during the June meeting that Washington was still open to the freeze-for-freeze idea.

Table 1: Natanz Operations as of May 31, 2009


Iran's Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant is intended to house two production halls, A and B, with each hall comprising eight units of 18 centrifuge cascades each. Each cascade contains 164 individual centrifuges. Iran has completed one 18-cascade unit and is currently expanding or preparing to work on four additional units simultaneously. This chart shows where such operations are currently ongoing. The operating cascades are those running with the uranium hexafluoride feedstock used to produce enriched uranium.

Unit Cascades Operating Total Cascades Installed Total Centrifuges
A24 18 18 2,952
A25 Pre-installation work
A26 12 18 2,952
A27 8 (plus 5 centrifuges) 1,317
A28 Pre-installation work
TOTAL 7,221
Source: International Atomic Energy Agency