Major Powers to Hold More Talks With Iran

Peter Crail

At a Dec. 6-7 meeting in Geneva on Iran’s nuclear program, six world powers and Iran agreed to hold further talks in Istanbul in late January.

The Geneva talks were the first such discussions over Iran’s nuclear program in more than a year between the so-called P5+1 group (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—plus Germany) and Iran. Diplomatic sources familiar with the talks said in December that the Geneva discussions were intended as a starting point for future negotiations, which will seek agreement on substantive issues.

In a statement released following the meeting Dec. 7, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, who represents the P5+1, said that the seven countries “plan to discuss practical ideas and ways of cooperating towards a resolution of our core concerns about the nuclear issue” at the Istanbul meeting. The six countries have insisted that Iran comply with Security Council demands to suspend its uranium-enrichment program and cooperate with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigations into its past and present nuclear activities.

Similarly, Department of State spokesman P.J. Crowley said during a Dec. 7 press briefing that the United States hoped the Geneva meeting “will be the start of a serious process” to discuss the Iranian nuclear issue and that Washington signaled before the meeting its openness to “multiple meetings in multiple locations.”

Prior to the Geneva meeting, the P5+1 had difficulties agreeing with Iran on a venue for the December talks, as Tehran sought a location in Turkey. (See ACT, December 2010.) Iran also had suggested previously that the roster of participants be expanded to include other countries, including Turkey.

When asked during the press briefing if an Istanbul meeting would entail Turkish involvement in the negotiations, Crowley said that Washington does not rule out any role for any country, “but obviously the P5+1 is the core group, and we expect next month’s [meeting] to revolve around that same group.”

Processing Domestic Uranium

In the days prior to the Geneva meeting, Iran announced that it had sent its first consignment of milled uranium, generally called yellowcake, from its Bandar Abbas Uranium Production Plant to its Isfahan conversion facility. The Isfahan facility processes yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride (UF6), the feedstock for uranium enrichment. The Bandar Abbas plant is Iran’s only yellowcake production facility, which mills uranium ore from the adjacent Gchine mine.

Iran has produced about 370 metric tons of UF6 since 2004 using the 500 metric tons of yellowcake it acquired from South Africa during the early 1980s. UN sanctions currently prohibit the export of uranium to Iran and bar Tehran from acquiring stakes in uranium mines abroad.

Apparently responding to international efforts to restrict Iran’s supply of uranium, Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) head Ali Akbar Salehi told reporters Dec. 5, “The West had counted on the possibility of us being in trouble over raw material, but today we had the first batch of yellowcake from [the] Gchine mine sent to [the] Isfahan facility.” Since then, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has appointed Salehi interim foreign minister to replace Manouchehr Mottaki, whom Ahmadinejad dismissed Dec. 11.

Iran announced in October 2010 that it would intensify its search for domestic sources of uranium, including expanding work at the Gchine mine. (See ACT, November 2010.) Bloomberg news reported Nov. 3 that efforts to expand the mine’s production capacity could be observed in satellite imagery taken in April and October 2010.

Iran began mining operations at Gchine in 2004 and started producing yellowcake at the Bandar Abbas plant in 2006. Iran says the mine and mill are capable of producing about 21 metric tons of yellowcake each year, although it is not believed to have been operating the facilities to that capacity. A second mill at Ardakan intended to process lower-grade ore from Iran’s Saghand mine is not operational yet.

It is unclear if Iran has enough domestic uranium resources to fuel a nuclear power reactor.

Iran’s uranium mines and milling facilities have not been subject to IAEA monitoring since 2006, when Iran halted the voluntary implementation of more-stringent inspections under its IAEA additional protocol. The IAEA and UN Security Council have called on Iran to reimplement its additional protocol, which Iran signed in 2003 but has not ratified.

Operations at the Gchine mine have been a subject of concern for the IAEA because, after 1993, the AEOI turned over operations at the mine to a firm called Kimia Madan while it focused instead on the less promising Saghand mine. Kimia Madan is believed to have ties to Iran’s military and to have been engaged in an undeclared project to produce uranium tetrafluoride, a precursor to UF6.

Despite agency requests for several years that Tehran explain “the complex arrangements governing the past and current administration of the Gchine uranium mine and mill,” as the IAEA put it in a September 2005 report, Iran did not do so until 2008. Iran’s prior failure to declare Kimia Madan’s activities at Gchine increased suspicions that the mine may have been part of a covert uranium-production effort.

The IAEA said in a February 2008 report that Iran’s explanation of the history of the Gchine mine was consistent with its own information and that it no longer considers the issue outstanding.

Iran Admits Virus Impact

In November, Ahmadinejad admitted for the first time that a computer virus that reportedly targeted Iran’s nuclear facilities had caused setbacks in Iran’s uranium-enrichment operations. The virus, called Stuxnet, “managed to create problems for a limited number of our centrifuges,” he told a press conference Nov. 29.

Iranian officials first admitted the presence of the Stuxnet worm in September, but said at that time that technicians prevented the virus from causing any damage.

A Dec. 9 Congressional Research Service report said that the Stuxnet worm appears to be the first such virus aimed specifically at the computer-aided control systems for nuclear plants, including uranium-enrichment facilities. According to the report, although Iranian officials claim that the disruptions from the virus were limited, “the potential impact of this type of malicious software could be far-reaching.”

Stuxnet specifically disrupts a Microsoft Windows-based application produced by the German company Siemens and is believed to have been introduced via compact discs or flash memory drives.

During the 1970s, Iran contracted Siemens for work on its nuclear program, including the construction of its first nuclear power plant at Bushehr. Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the German firm backed out of the arrangement, and the Bushehr plant ultimately was completed by Russia last year. Iranian and Russian officials confirmed that Stuxnet infected systems at the Bushehr plant as well, but Olga Tsyleva, spokeswoman for the Russian contractor Atomstroyexport, said the facility’s computers had not suffered any damage.

It is unclear whether Stuxnet was responsible for a halt in enrichment operations at the commercial-scale Natanz plant in mid-November. From Nov. 16 to Nov. 21, Iran’s centrifuges were not being fed with UF6, according to a Nov. 23 report by the IAEA. The report added that Iran informed the agency Nov. 22 that it had resumed enrichment with 28 of Natanz’s 164 machine-centrifuge cascades, one cascade fewer than had been operating earlier that month.