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Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
IAEA Rebukes Iran Over Secret Facility
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Peter Crail

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors last month called on Iran to stop constructing a previously secret uranium-enrichment facility revealed in September. The Nov. 27 resolution, which came during the board’s quarterly meeting in Vienna, was the governors’ first on Iran in nearly four years.

The resolution also urged Iran to confirm that it is not constructing and has not made a decision to construct any other nuclear facilities not declared to the agency and to adhere to UN Security Council demands to halt all enrichment-related activities.

Twenty-five member countries of the 35-member board voted in favor of the resolution, with only Cuba, Malaysia, and Venezuela opposing it. Six members—Afghanistan, Brazil, Egypt, Pakistan, South Africa and Turkey—abstained, and Azerbaijan was absent. China and Russia, which have been reluctant to take additional punitive steps against Iran, voted for the censure.

A senior U.S. official told reporters Nov. 27 that the resolution “underscores the unity of purpose” among the P5+1, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Germany. Since 2006, the six countries have sought a common approach to address Iran’s nuclear program through dialogue and UN sanctions.

The senior U.S. official said “there was an intensive American diplomatic effort” that went into the resolution, including during recent meetings between President Barack Obama and the leaders of China, India, and Russia.

In response to the resolution, Iran has threatened to lessen its cooperation with the agency, which the IAEA and national governments have criticized as insufficient. Tehran’s envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told reporters Nov. 27 the resolution “will disrupt the current atmosphere of cooperation and will cause Iran to discontinue its voluntary cooperation which went beyond its commitments.” Iran has curtailed its transparency in response to international censure in the past. (See ACT, May 2007.)

IAEA Report Cites Iran Safeguards Failures

The resolution followed a Nov. 16 IAEA report, which declared that Iran’s failure to notify the agency about the construction of the secret enrichment facility has undermined confidence that no other undeclared nuclear activities are taking place in the country.

The findings come after the agency’s first visit to the Fordow uranium-enrichment plant, which Iran did not disclose to the agency until Sept. 21. (See ACT, October 2009.) The leaders of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States publicly revealed the existence of the facility in a Sept. 25 press conference, stating that it was “inconsistent with a peaceful [nuclear] program.”

Uranium-enrichment facilities are generally used to enrich uranium to low levels for nuclear fuel. Uranium enriched to high levels can be used for the explosive core in nuclear weapons.

The agency’s report said that the plant was “at an advanced stage of construction” and that, although no centrifuges had been installed, piping systems and other process equipment for the centrifuges had been put in place. According to the report, Iran said in an Oct. 28 letter to the agency that the plant is scheduled to be operational in 2011. Because the facility has now been declared, it is subject to regular IAEA safeguards.

The IAEA report confirmed that the plant is intended to house about 3,000 centrifuges of the so-called IR-1 variety, which is based on a 1970s-vintage design that Iran acquired from a Pakistani nuclear smuggling network. Iran’s commercial-scale enrichment plant at Natanz is currently using the same type of centrifuges. The size of the Fordow facility is consistent with the U.S. intelligence community assessment, which U.S. officials described in September. At that time, a U.S. official said that the intelligence community also judged that the facility would be capable of producing enough material for one or two nuclear weapons each year.

Iran has left open the possibility of increasing this capacity. According to the IAEA report, Iran informed the agency that the facility could be reconfigured to house the more advanced designs that Iran has been developing, which are capable of enriching uranium faster than the IR-1. (See ACT, November 2007.) The Iranian newspaper Kayhan quoted Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Director Ali Akbar Salehi Oct. 6 as stating that his organization is “hopeful of being able to use our new version of the centrifuges” at the new facility.

Purpose and Construction History Unclear

The IAEA report said that although the agency’s initial visit was able to confirm that the layout of the facility matched the information provided by Iran, the IAEA needs more information to clarify the purpose of the facility and the time frame for its design and construction. The Nov. 27 resolution urged Iran to provide such clarifications.

In the Oct. 28 letter to the agency, Iran claimed that it was constructing the Fordow plant as a “contingency enrichment plant, so that enrichment activities shall not be suspended in the case of any military attack.” Tehran indicated that “contingency centers” were established in recent years because of what it saw as increasing threats of military action against Iran.

Tehran told the IAEA that the Fordow facility is intended to be a pilot enrichment plant. Iran already operates a much smaller pilot enrichment plant at Natanz. That facility was originally designed to house about 1,000 centrifuges, but currently operates and tests several hundred, including Iran’s more advanced designs. Moreover, Iran does not appear to be preparing the Fordow facility to use the smaller single- and 10-unit centrifuge cascades in use at the Natanz pilot plant.

At the same time, the Fordow plant is dramatically smaller than the commercial-scale enrichment facility at Natanz. In comparison with Fordow’s intended 3,000 centrifuges, the Natanz plant is supposed to accommodate about 50,000 machines.

A diplomatic source familiar with the IAEA investigation said Nov. 25 that the centrifuge cascades Iran intends to install at the Fordow plant will contain a larger number of machines than those installed at the commercial-scale facility at Natanz. The cascades at Natanz all contain 164 machines each. The 3,000 centrifuges at the Fordow facility are instead divided into 16 cascades, which works out to about 190 machines apiece.

According to the diplomatic source, Iranian officials, when questioned about the cascades, said that the number of centrifuges in the cascades had to be altered in order to fit the space available in the contingency center being constructed. The Iranians claimed that such an adjustment demonstrated that the facility was not originally designed as an enrichment plant, the source said.

Iran’s October letter stated that the site of the facility, an excavated mountain tunnel on a military facility near the city of Qom, was allocated to the AEOI for the enrichment plant in the second half of 2007 and that this was when construction of the enrichment plant began.

However, the IAEA has said that satellite imagery it acquired indicates that construction at the site occurred in 2002 and 2004 and has been taking place consistently since 2006. The IAEA also noted that it received information from other countries that allege that construction of the facility began in 2006.

When the existence of the facility was revealed in September, Iranian officials claimed that their country had not been required yet to inform the IAEA about the construction because it is currently implementing an older version of a safeguards subsidiary arrangement called Code 3.1. Subsidiary arrangements detail specifically how a country’s safeguards agreement is to be applied. Iran agreed in 2003 to adopt the newer, more stringent version of the code.

The older version of the provision requires only that a country inform the IAEA about the construction of a new nuclear facility six months prior to the start of its operation. Iran reverted to the older version of Code 3.1 in March 2007 in response to a second set of sanctions adopted by the UN Security Council. Since that time, the IAEA and the council have called on Iran to implement the revised version of the code, which requires that countries inform the agency of any new nuclear facilities as soon as the countries decide to construct them.

In its latest report, the IAEA went further than in its previous calls for Iran to implement the revised code. The agency stated that Iran remains bound by that version, and therefore, even if Iran began to construct the facility after it declared that it reverted to the older version of the code in 2007, its failure to declare the plant until September 2009 “was inconsistent with its obligations under the Subsidiary Arrangements to its Safeguards Agreement.”

The language is identical to that used by a March 2009 statement by the IAEA legal adviser, which assessed the legality of Iran’s claims regarding Code 3.1. According to that statement, subsidiary arrangements “cannot be amended or suspended unilaterally by the state” after a country and the IAEA have agreed to the arrangements.

That determination has relevance to another facility Iran is currently constructing and one it intends to build. For nearly a year, Iran, citing its reinterpretation of its safeguards obligations, had denied the IAEA access to the heavy-water research reactor it is building at Arak. (See ACT, September 2009.) The West has expressed concern that the reactor, slated to begin operations in 2013, could produce as much as two bombs’ worth of plutonium in its spent fuel each year. The IAEA and the Security Council have called on Iran to halt the reactor’s construction.

The agency has previously expressed concern that the lack of access to the facility would not allow it time to plan sufficient monitoring for the reactor, leaving the possibility that it would not be able to detect a diversion of material for military uses.

Iran began providing the agency with additional access to the facility in August.

The other facility is a nuclear power reactor Iran plans to construct at a site called Darkhovin. The IAEA requested preliminary design information for that facility in December 2007, following Iran’s initial announcement of plans to build such a plant. Iran did not provide that information until September. The agency claimed that Iran’s failure to provide it with the designs when the decision for construction was made was “inconsistent with its obligations.”

The IAEA report said that according to a Sept. 22 letter Iran provided the agency, construction on the Darkhovin reactor is scheduled to start in 2011 and be completed in 2015. It is unclear who will construct the reactor.

Iran’s first nuclear power reactor, a Russian-built plant located at Bushehr, is scheduled to begin operation next year.

Operations at Natanz Continue

Contrary to UN demands to suspend uranium enrichment, Iran continues to enrich uranium to low levels at its commercial-scale enrichment plant at Natanz and has been installing additional centrifuges.

Since the last IAEA inspection in August, Iran has installed about 400 centrifuges, for a total of about 8,700 machines. The number of centrifuges currently enriching uranium, however, has continued to decline in recent months. In May, Iran was producing low-enriched uranium (LEU) with about 5,000 centrifuges. The latest IAEA report indicates it is now doing so with about 4,000. The reason for the decline is unclear.

In spite of the decrease in the number of centrifuges enriching uranium, however, Iran’s rate of LEU production has remained at about 85 kilograms per month, suggesting a slight increase in efficiency. Iran has accumulated a stockpile of about 1,760 kilograms of LEU since enrichment operations began in 2006, according to IAEA estimates.

Fuel Deal Doubtful

As the IAEA continues its investigations into newly revealed Iranian nuclear activities, it is awaiting a response from Iran regarding a proposed confidence-building measure by which the majority of Iran’s LEU would be sent abroad in return for fuel for Iran’s Tehran Research Reactor. (See ACT, November 2009.) The IAEA issued the proposal as a compromise during negotiations involving France, Iran, Russia, and the United States. The other three countries accepted the deal in October.

Although Iran has yet to deliver a formal response to the proposed arrangement to the other parties, the Iranian Students News Agency quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki Nov. 19 as stating that Tehran would not ship its LEU out of the country. The arrangement requires that Iran ship about 1,200 kilograms of its LEU out of the country by the end of the year.

Outgoing IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei said that a deal might still be possible by the end of the year. “I do not consider that I have received a final answer,” he told reporters at a Nov. 20 press conference in Berlin, urging Iran not to miss the opportunity for diplomatic engagement with the West. ElBaradei added that he was told that Tehran wants to keep the LEU in Iran until it receives the fuel for the reactor, characterizing such a proposal as “an extreme case of distrust.” ElBaradei stepped down Nov. 30 after three terms as head of the IAEA.

Days after Mottaki’s statement about not exporting the LEU, Tehran appeared to back away from it. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters Nov. 24, “Nobody in Iran ever said we are against sending 3.5 enriched uranium abroad,” referring to the percentage enrichment level of the LEU Iran has produced. He proposed a simultaneous exchange of fuel as a possible alternative, stating Iran needed “100 percent guarantees” it would receive the research reactor fuel in return.

ElBaradei rebuffed the suggestion the following day, stating during a Nov. 25 press briefing that there were “a number of built-in guarantees in the agreement.”

ElBaradei has proposed an alternative arrangement to address Iran’s claim that it cannot trust the other countries involved in the talks to provide the fuel once the LEU is exported. Rather than shipping the fuel to Russia, Iran could ship its LEU to Turkey to hold until Iran receives the reactor fuel, ElBaradei said. “Iran has a lot of trust in Turkey,” he told Charlie Rose during a Nov. 6 PBS interview.

The P5+1 issued a joint statement Nov. 20 calling on Iran to accept the fuel exchange proposed by the IAEA. “We urge Iran to reconsider the opportunity offered by this agreement to meet the humanitarian needs of its people and to engage seriously with us in dialogue and negotiations,” the countries said. Iran agreed “in principle” to the arrangement with the six powers Oct. 1. Iran says it needs a new supply of fuel for the research reactor to produce medical isotopes.

The United States has said that the time for Iran to provide a formal answer is limited. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters Nov. 17, “We always hesitate to give a formal deadline, but I would just say that time is very short.”