Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last month signed a framework agreement outlining future cooperation on the agency’s investigations into Tehran’s past activities that are suspected of having been part of an effort to develop nuclear weapons. The agreement included six initial actions for Iran to take by mid-February 2014 that will provide the IAEA with access to two nuclear sites and information on Iran’s planned nuclear power plants and research reactors.
IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano and Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, signed the agreement in Tehran on Nov. 11.
In a statement following the signing, Amano said that “subsequent steps” under the framework would address issues that the six actions do not cover.
In a separate statement, Salehi said the agreement represented Iran’s “will to resolve the dispute” over its nuclear program because Tehran is not formally required to grant the IAEA access to some of its nuclear sites. Iran says its nuclear program is entirely for peaceful purposes.
The IAEA first laid out its suspicions about Iranian nuclear efforts allegedly relating to weapons development in a November 2011 report to its board. (See ACT, December 2011.) Between January 2012 and June 2013, the two sides met 10 times in an attempt to reach agreement on the scope and sequence of the investigations, but were unable to make progress on a document drafted by the IAEA, which outlined the agency’s approach to the inquiry. (See ACT, July/August 2012.)
Less than three months after Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration as president of Iran on Aug. 3, Tehran made a new proposal to the IAEA on how to proceed with the agency’s investigations. The proposal was presented to Tero Varjoranta, the IAEA deputy director-general and head of the Department of Safeguards, during an Oct. 28-29 meeting in Vienna. In an Oct. 29 statement, Varjoranta described the proposal as a “constructive contribution” with a “view to future resolution of all outstanding issues.”
The framework agreement that was signed Nov. 11 was based on the progress made at the October meeting. It stipulated that the parties would “strengthen their cooperation and dialogue” to “resolve all present and past issues.”
Iran agreed to provide the IAEA with “timely information” on its nuclear facilities and the implementation of “transparency measures.” The IAEA agreed to “take into account Iran’s security concerns” through managed access to Iranian information and sites and the protection of confidential information.
The parties agreed to meet again on Dec. 11 to continue discussing the actions that remain to be taken to address the agency’s outstanding concerns.
Iran’s Six Actions
As part of its six actions, Iran is to provide the IAEA with access to the Gchine uranium mine and the Heavy Water Production Plant at Arak and information about the facilities.
The Gchine mine, located in southern Iran, began operations in 2004. The IAEA was able to conduct inspections of the mine between 2003 and 2006 when Iran was voluntarily implementing an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement with the agency. Such protocols give the IAEA expanded access to information and sites related to a country’s nuclear activities. The IAEA has not had access to Gchine since Iran stopped implementing that protocol in 2006.
The mine produces uranium ore that serves as the raw material for enrichment. Uranium enriched to different levels can be used to fuel nuclear reactors and for nuclear weapons.
The IAEA requested access to the Gchine mine in its original proposal, in February 2012, for its investigation. The IAEA stated that access was necessary in order to address its questions “related to undeclared nuclear material and activities” in Iran.
The heavy-water plant at the Arak complex began operating in 2010. It produces heavy water that will be used to operate the reactor that Iran is constructing at the same site.
The plant is not under IAEA safeguards, although Iran did allow the agency to inspect the facility in August 2011. Iran has not allowed the IAEA back, despite the agency’s request to return to the site and take samples of the heavy water.
On Nov. 12, Iran allowed the IAEA to perform an initial analysis on the heavy water produced at the facility, according to a Nov. 14 IAEA report. In a Nov. 12 letter to the agency, Iran also agreed to provide further access to and information on the plant in the “near future.”
The Nov. 11 agreement requires Iran to submit information on the sites for 16 nuclear power plants that Tehran says it intends to build and design information for four new nuclear research reactors for medical isotope production.
November IAEA Report
The IAEA released its most recent quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear program last month.
The Nov. 14 report said that Iran had dramatically slowed the expansion of its uranium-enrichment program, installing just four first-generation centrifuges since the last quarterly report was issued Aug. 28.
In comparison, the Aug. 28 report found that, from May to August, Iran installed 1,861 first-generation centrifuges and 319 advanced centrifuges.
In total, Iran has installed more than 18,000 IR-1 centrifuges at two facilities, Natanz and Fordow, of which about 10,000 are operational, and 1,008 advanced centrifuges, known as the IR-2M, in its enrichment facility at Natanz. According to the Nov. 14 IAEA report, none of the IR-2M centrifuges are enriching uranium.
Iran uses its IR-1 centrifuges to enrich uranium to 3.5 percent and 20 percent. Uranium enriched to 3.5 percent is used to fuel nuclear power plants, while uranium enriched to 20 percent is often used to fuel reactors that produce medical isotopes.
The IAEA reported that Iran has not installed any “major components” at the Arak heavy-water reactor during the time frame covered by the Nov. 14 report. Although the IAEA is inspecting the Arak reactor during construction, Iran has not provided the agency with up-to-date information on changes to the reactor’s design since 2006.
Once operational, the reactor could produce enough plutonium for one to two nuclear weapons every year, although the plutonium would need to be separated from the spent reactor fuel to be used for weapons. At one time, Iran had plans to build a facility that could be used for separating plutonium, but Tehran notified the IAEA in 2004 that it did not plan to construct that facility. Iran maintains that the reactor will be used to produce medical isotopes, but independent experts say that it is poorly suited to that task.
Earlier this year, Iran told the IAEA the reactor would begin operations in early 2014. But in an Aug. 25 letter, Tehran said startup in the first quarter of 2014 was no longer feasible. The letter did not set a new start date.
In the Nov. 14 report, the IAEA said Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent is growing. The report measured the stockpile at 196 kilograms, up from the 186 kilograms cited in the Aug. 28 report.
A principal goal of the six-country group that is negotiating with Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program is halting Iranian production of 20 percent-enriched uranium and limiting the size of its stockpile of that material (see "Iran, P5+1 Reach Nuclear Agreement," ACT, December 2013). Those talks are separate from the ones involving the IAEA.
Uranium already enriched to 20 percent is more easily enriched to weapons grade than reactor-grade uranium, which is enriched to less than 5 percent. Experts estimate that approximately 250 kilograms of uranium enriched to the 20 percent level, when further enriched to weapons grade, is enough for one bomb.