IAEA Cites Possible Iran Warhead Efforts

Peter Crail

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for the first time raised a warning flag last month that Iran may be currently working to develop a nuclear warhead.

In a Feb. 18 report, the agency said it has “concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” Previous reports have focused on alleged nuclear weapons-related activities occurring in the past.

In the February report, the IAEA says its concerns are based on information that countries have given the agency over the past several years on suspected Iranian nuclear activities.

The new assessment was contained in the first full report issued by IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano, who took the helm of the agency Dec. 1. It appears to indicate a subtle shift in the way the agency presents its appraisals under its new head.

Experts and former IAEA member-state officials have noted that the language in the report, as well as in a separate report on Syria issued the same day, is more direct than that of Amano’s predecessor, Mohamed ElBaradei. Commenting on the agency’s latest reports on Iran and Syria (see box), for example, a former Western representative to the IAEA said that they are “refreshingly straightforward and factual.”

“The IAEA seems to be returning to its roots as a technical agency charged with verification,” the former diplomat said.

Iranian officials responded by criticizing Amano, claiming that he did not show “independence” in his report. “Unfortunately, Mr. Amano is relenting to the pressure of the U.S.,” Kyodo News quoted Atomic Energy Organization of Iran chief Ali Akbar Salehi as saying Feb. 22.

Beyond raising questions about ongoing warhead development, the new report detailed a variety of additional IAEA concerns, including Iran’s failure to cooperate with agency inspectors to clarify a number of nuclear activities and Iran’s recent efforts to further enrich most of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to 20 percent.

The agency’s 35-member Board of Governors is expected to consider the report when it meets March 1-5. The report has also been submitted to the UN Security Council, which is currently discussing a potential fourth round of sanctions on Iran.

Investigating Military Dimensions

The assessment that Iran may be currently working on developing a nuclear warhead comes about two years after the agency provided its first public assessment of information it has been receiving from states on suspected Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. A February 2008 report detailed a number of weapons-relevant activities Iran is known or believed to have pursued. (See ACT, March 2008.) IAEA officials have since described the agency’s efforts to confirm or clarify those activities as a “stalemate.” (See ACT, October 2008.) The new report states that, since August 2008, Iran has refused to discuss these issues or provide information to prove its assertion that allegations of weapons work are “baseless” and “based on forgeries.”

Addressing these questions by providing access to documentation, sites, and personnel “is important for clarifying the agency’s concerns about these activities…which seem to have continued beyond 2004,” the report said.

A 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) assessed “with high confidence” that Iran suspended its weapons-related activities in 2003, but judged with “moderate confidence” that the halt continued to mid-2007. (See ACT, January/February 2008.) U.S. officials have indicated that a new NIE is expected in the coming weeks.

Uranium Metal Activities

Tehran also appears to be engaged in declared activities that could be relevant to weapons development. In particular, Iran is constructing or is planning to construct a number of process lines at its uranium-conversion facility at Isfahan intended to produce uranium metal. Nuclear weapons experts say that such work can be useful for converting highly enriched uranium (HEU) into a form usable in nuclear weapons.

Former U.S. nuclear weapons designer Richard Garwin told Arms Control Today Feb. 19 that “working with 20 percent uranium-235 in these forms is not only good experience for dealing with 80 or 90 percent HEU, but if the equipment is made sufficiently small in diameter or total volume, it could be used intact for HEU” for a weapon.

According to the report, Iran has also initiated work on pyroprocessing research and development “to study the electrochemical production of uranium metal.” Siegfried Hecker, former head of Los Alamos National Laboratory, said Feb. 19 that uranium pyroprocessing could be used to extract uranium-235 unburned from reactor fuel. “It should also be of concern,” he said.

Iran did not inform the IAEA that it was carrying out its pyroprocessing research until the agency conducted inspections at the Jabr Ibn Hayan Multipurpose Research Laboratory in Tehran, where the work was being done, the February report said. The IAEA has asked for additional information on those activities.

Safeguards Requirements Still Resisted

Adding to concerns about Iran’s nuclear intentions is its continuing refusal to fully implement its IAEA safeguards agreement and cooperate with agency inspectors, as described in the new report. Key among Iran’s safeguards failures is its nonadherence to the requirement that countries provide design information on new nuclear facilities as soon as the decision is made to construct them. The requirement is designed to give the IAEA enough time to develop and implement appropriate safeguards for those facilities. That obligation is contained in a safeguards provision called Code 3.1, which was modified in 1992 by the IAEA board.

In March 2007, Iran announced it was reverting to a pre-1992 version of the code that requires the submission of design information only six months prior to the introduction of nuclear material into a new facility. The agency has disputed Iran’s right to take that step. In a report to the board last November, the IAEA secretariat said Iran could not unilaterally suspend implementation of the modified Code 3.1, which Iran agreed to carry out in 2003. Following that report, the board adopted a resolution urging Iran to reimplement the provision. (See ACT, December 2009.)

That resolution also called on Iran to confirm that it has not taken a decision to authorize or construct any nuclear facilities not yet declared to the agency. Shortly after the resolution was adopted, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Tehran had authorized the construction of 10 additional uranium-enrichment facilities and that five sites for those facilities had already been determined. The recent IAEA report indicated that when the agency sought to confirm that such a decision was made and acquire design information for any such facilities, Iran referred to its reversion to the out-of-date version of Code 3.1, stating in a Dec. 17 letter that it would “provide the agency with the required information if necessary.”

Iran’s ability to construct 10 additional enrichment facilities, however, is in serious doubt. According to a Feb. 8 Institute for Science and International Security report, Iran may be able to lay the groundwork for such facilities, “but outfitting them with centrifuge equipment is far-fetched.”

The IAEA also said that Tehran’s failure to provide design information on two additional facilities is “inconsistent with” its safeguards obligations.

Those facilities are an announced nuclear power reactor to be located at Darkhovin and an enrichment facility called Fordow under construction near the city of Qom. Iran declared the Fordow facility to the agency last September, shortly before the leaders of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States held a joint press conference claiming that Iran had been constructing the plant in secret for several years and that it was intended to produce material for nuclear weapons. (See ACT, November 2009.)

The new report says the IAEA has sought to clarify the purpose and time frame for the construction of the Fordow facility and has asked for access to documents and companies involved in the design of the plant. Iran has not cooperated with agency requests.

In addition, the agency cites Iran for a lack of cooperation in explaining the presence of several drums of heavy water at its uranium-conversion facility, where uranium ore concentrate is prepared for enrichment by being converted into uranium hexafluoride. In a January visit, the agency said it counted 756 50-liter drums said to contain the heavy water.

Heavy water is a substance used to moderate certain types of nuclear reactors, including a research reactor Iran is constructing at Arak. Due to concerns that reactor could be used to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, the IAEA requested—and the UN Security Council demanded—that Iran suspend all heavy-water-related projects. UN sanctions prohibit the export of heavy water to Iran.

According to the recent report, when asked by the agency about the origin of the heavy water, Iran merely replied that it was the origin. Tehran has since prohibited the agency from carrying out the requested sampling analysis of the material to verify its claims.


IAEA: Still No Syrian Explanation of Uranium Traces

Peter Crail

Syria has continued to obstruct a nearly two-year investigation into suspected nuclear weapons efforts, a Feb. 18 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report indicates.

The agency has determined that features of a building at a site called Dair al Zour, which Israel destroyed in 2007, and Syrian procurement activities could be consistent with a nuclear reactor. The West has claimed that Syria was building a nuclear reactor on the site in secret as part of a nuclear weapons program; Syria has claimed the structure was a nonnuclear military installation. Following a June 2008 investigation of the site, the IAEA uncovered uranium particles of a type that is not in Syria’s declared inventory, the agency reported later that year. The agency said that Syria has not yet provided an adequate explanation for these particles or provided additional access to the site or debris from the destroyed facility.

The IAEA is also continuing to investigate the presence of uranium particles at Syria’s sole declared nuclear research reactor, which is in Damascus. A November 2009 IAEA report said the agency’s findings did not support Syria’s initial explanations for the uranium. Syria has since provided new explanations, which the agency is continuing to assess, the new report said. One point the agency is trying to determine is whether there is any link between the particles at the Damascus reactor and the ones found at the Dair al Zour site.

The IAEA said in the February report that the presence of the uranium particles at both sites “calls into question the completeness and correctness of Syria’s declarations concerning nuclear material and facilities.”