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– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
June 1, 2018
Iran Provides Detonator Details to IAEA

Kelsey Davenport

Iran provided the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with information about the country’s past development of a detonator that could be used as a trigger in nuclear weapons, the agency said last month in a quarterly report.

The report also found that Iran is complying with the measures outlined in an interim agreement it reached Nov. 24 with six world powers that restricts its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.

The “technical exchange” with the IAEA on the issues related to possible nuclear weapons development was the first since 2008, the May 23 report said.

According to the report, Iran supplied information on its need for exploding bridge wire detonators and said that the tests were for civilian applications. Although the report did not specify the application, this type of detonator can be used in drilling for oil and gas.

In the report, the IAEA said its assessment of the information that Iran provided is ongoing. The agency will need to evaluate all of the issues related to possible weapons development together as a “system,” the report said. Iran maintains that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful.

Exploding bridge wire detonators were among the issues included in a November 2011 report to the IAEA Board of Governors in which the agency detailed its allegations of Iranian activities with possible relevance for developing nuclear weapons. (See ACT, December 2011.)

Providing information on the detonators was one of seven actions that Iran on Feb. 9 had agreed to take by May 15 to further the agency’s investigations into unresolved IAEA concerns about Iran’s current nuclear program and past actions.

The Feb. 9 announcement followed an agreement reached Nov. 11, in which Iran and the IAEA pledged to cooperate to “resolve all present and past issues.” (See ACT, December 2013.)

The other actions Iran agreed to take during the February talks include providing the IAEA with access to the Saghand uranium mine and to Iran’s uranium-concentration plant for refining uranium ore; information on the heavy-water reactor at Arak, which is under construction; and access to a center that was used in the past for laser uranium-enrichment experiments.

The May 23 IAEA report said that Iran completed these actions.

Man Charged for Violating Iran Sanctions

The U.S. Justice Department indicted a Chinese national April 28 for violating sanctions on Iran. The indictment’s seven counts include several for the sale of materials that could be used in Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.

The charges against Li Fangwei, also known as Karl Lee, include using the U.S. financial system to facilitate the illegal transactions.

The United States has imposed a wide range of sanctions that prohibit Iran from buying goods that could be used for its nuclear and missile programs. The sanctions are part of a broad effort by the United States and other countries, prompted in large part by concerns that Iran could choose to develop nuclear weapons. Additional sanctions are aimed at preventing any entity from using U.S. financial institutions for illicit business transactions with Iranian banks.

According to an April 29 Justice Department press release, Li’s companies have conducted business totaling $8.5 million with Iranian entities since 2006. The release said Li is a “principal contributor to Iran’s ballistic missile program” and is a supplier of Iran’s Defense Industries Organization and Aerospace Industries Organization.

Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in the press release that the allegations showed that Li used “subterfuge and deceit to continue to evade U.S. sanctions.”

In 2009, Li was prohibited from doing business within the United States without a license from the Treasury Department after investigations concluded he was supplying Iran with banned items that could be used to develop weapons.

According to the press release, Li never applied for a license, and the 2009 restriction forced him “to operate much of his business covertly.” Li developed a network of “China-based front companies to conceal his continuing participation” in activities that violate U.S. sanctions, the release said.

The U.S. government has seized more than $6.8 billion from bank accounts attributed to Li’s front companies. In addition, the Treasury Department added eight of the companies to a list of entities that are blocked from doing business in the United States.

Li is currently a fugitive, and the United States is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest.—KELSEY DAVENPORT

    New Measures

    Iran and the IAEA have agreed on five new actions that Iran is to take by Aug. 25, according to a May 21 joint statement by Tehran and the agency. In one of the actions, Iran has pledged to give the IAEA information dealing with allegations that Iran conducted experiments with certain kinds of high explosives that could be relevant to nuclear weapons. Iran also said it would provide information on studies “in Iran in relation to neutron transport and associated modelling and calculations and their alleged application to compressed materials,” another area with direct relevance to nuclear weapons development.

    Under the other measures, Iran is to give the IAEA information on and access to a centrifuge research and development center and centrifuges assembly workshops and to reach agreement with the agency on the “safeguards approach” for the heavy-water reactor at Arak.

    The IAEA and Iran met May 5 to discuss safeguards for the Arak reactor after Iran provided the agency with updated information on the reactor’s design.

    Iran has said it intends to use the Arak reactor for making medical isotopes, but the international community is concerned about the weapons-grade plutonium the reactor will produce in its spent fuel.

    The May 23 report found that Iran is complying with the terms of the Nov. 24 Joint Plan of Action, an initial agreement reached between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). These countries are currently negotiating a comprehensive deal during the six-month implementation of the initial agreement, which ends July 20.

    One of the key provisions of the initial agreement deals with Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent. Uranium refined to that level is more easily enriched further to weapons grade than if it begins as reactor-grade uranium, which is enriched to less than 5 percent.

    As part of the Nov. 24 deal, Iran agreed to dilute half of its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium to an enrichment level of less than 5 percent. The May report confirmed that Iran had completed this dilution as required by April 20.

    The remaining half of the 20 percent-enriched uranium is to be converted to a powder form that can be used to make fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes.

    The IAEA reported that Iran had converted about 67 kilograms as of May 19 and that about 38 kilograms remained to be converted before July 20.

    Talks Continue

    Iran and the P5+1 met again May 13-16 in Vienna to continue negotiations and begin drafting the comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.

    In a press conference after the talks, Iran’s deputy chief negotiator, Seyed Abbas Araqchi, said that there was a good “atmosphere” during the talks but that progress is slow and there is “much difficulty.”

    This meeting was preceded by three rounds of talks in February, March, and April, during which both sides laid out their positions.

    A senior U.S. official said during a May 16 press briefing that the talks have entered the “drafting and negotiating phase,” which both sides knew would be difficult. The official said that there are “significant gaps” between the positions of the two sides.

    A European diplomat familiar with the talks said in a May 20 interview that the size of Iran’s uranium-enrichment program will be “one of the more difficult areas [on which] to find compromise” because the sides remain “very far apart in their assessments of Iran’s fuel needs.”

    Under the interim agreement that Iran and the P5+1 reached in November, Iran’s uranium-enrichment program has been frozen at its current levels for six months. The interim agreement says the program should be defined in the comprehensive agreement by Iran’s “practical needs.” (See ACT, December 2013.)

    Iranian officials define “practical needs” as including the projected needs of Iran’s current and future nuclear power plants, so they are pushing to increase Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium over the next decade.

    Iran currently has one nuclear power plant, Bushehr, for which Russia is supplying the fuel under an initial contract that runs until 2021. Tehran has said it plans to build as many as 20 additional power reactors over the coming years.

    Reuters reported May 15 that a senior Iranian official said Iran would need 100,000 IR-1 centrifuges to produce enough fuel for each plant. Under the interim deal, Iran is currently operating about 10,200 IR-1 centrifuges. The IR-1 centrifuge is Iran’s first-generation model. Tehran is testing more-advanced models.

    The P5+1 “will not accept a 100,000-centrifuge uranium-enrichment program in the earlier phases of the deal,” the European diplomat said.

    The P5+1 has not made any public statements regarding the ideal size of Iran’s centrifuge program under the comprehensive agreement, but independent experts say that the P5+1 is likely to ask for reductions in the current number of operating centrifuges.

    In contrast to the three previous rounds of talks, the two sides did not issue a joint statement after the May talks.

    The diplomat said that the lack of a statement should not be seen as a “negative indication.” Deciding on a joint text for a statement was “not a priority” during the discussions because all sides are committed to reaching a deal, he said.

    During the May 16 briefing, the senior U.S. official said that the parties are “concerned about the amount of time left” but that all parties believe an agreement can be reached by the July 20 expiration of the interim agreement. That accord can be extended for six months if all the parties agree.