By Kelsey Davenport and Daryl G. Kimball
Iran is continuing to make slow but steady progress on its nuclear program, according to the August 2013 quarterly report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Tehran continues to install more centrifuges, including its second generation model. Iran's accumulation its stockpiles of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent has increased modestly, while the quantity of uranium hexaflouride enriched to 20 percent remains roughly the same as reported in May.
Iran is also moving forward on construction of its heavy water reactor at Arak, which could potentially provide it with a second path to producing material for nuclear weapons, but on a slower schedule than previously reported. The report also says that Iran still has not provided the IAEA with the cooperation it needs to resolve the outstanding questions regarding the potential military dimensions of the program. For the first time in the August report, the agency outlines the key steps necessary to resolve these concerns (pg. 3). A meeting between Iranian and IAEA officials to resume talks on this issue is scheduled for September 27.
The findings underscore the urgent need for the United States to work with its negotiating partners, (China, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Russia) to negotiate a solution that guards against a nuclear-armed Iran. The August 3 inauguration of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran provides an important opportunity to resume negotiations. Rouhani has called for "greater transparency" in Iran's nuclear activities and a resumption of serious negotiations.
Key Highlights from the Report:
Less than a Bomb's Worth of 20 Percent
Iran currently has a stockpile of 185.8 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent, only a slight increase since the IAEA's May 2013 report, when Iran had 182 kilograms available. This is still below the approximate 240-250 kilograms which, when further enriched to weapons grade (over 90 percent enriched U-235), is enough for one bomb. It is unlikely, at this point, that Iran could dash toward further enrichment to weapon's grade without the IAEA detecting Tehran's activities.
This stockpile keeps Iran below the "red-line" drawn by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a September 2012 speech at the UN General Assembly. In the speech he said that that accumulating enough 20 percent enriched material for one bomb's worth would precipitate an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. (See Beyond a Bombs Worth... below for more details on timelines)
Despite the small increase in the size of the 20 percent stockpile, Iran is continuing to produce uranium enriched to this level at a relatively constant rate. In total, Iran has produced 372 kilograms of 20 percent enriched material, an increase of about 48 kilograms from the 324 kilograms noted in the May 2013 report. (See the chart at the end of this report for a look at how Iran's 20 percent stockpile has grown over the past year)
Iran, however, continues to convert 20 percent uranium hexafluoride gas to a solid uranium oxide powder to make fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes. Iran has 185 kilograms converted, or awaiting conversion to powder form.
Uranium oxide can be converted back into uranium hexafluoride gas, and Iran has the capabilities to do so, but it is unclear how much of the material would be lost in the process. Although the exact amount of wastage is not known, experts assess that it could be as much as 60 percent and that reconversion would take as little as 1-2 weeks. Even in that short of time, however, it would be difficult for Iran to complete the conversion without the IAEA inspectors noticing, because it would require moving the materials.
Advanced Centrifuges Installed But Not Operating
Iran is continuing to install advanced centrifuges (IR-2M) at its Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant, but these centrifuges are not enriching uranium. According to the August 2013 report, Iran now has 1,008 IR-2Ms installed. In the May 2013 report, the number was 689. Iran first began installing the IR-2m centrifuges in February.
As of August 24, six cascades of IR-2M cenrifuges have been vacuum tested. Iran said that the performance of the IR-2m will be tested using these six cascades, but did not give a date as to when testing will begin.
The IR-2M has been undergoing testing for years, and is a second-generation variation of the gas centrifuge Iran currently uses for all enrichment activities, the IR-1, which is less efficient and prone to crashing.
When operational, it is unclear how much more efficient they will be because it is unlikely that Iran has been able to produce or procure the highest-grade of materials for the IR-2Ms. Independent experts assess that a tripling or quadrupling in efficiency might be realistic, but that it is difficult to estimate until the machines are operating in cascades.
Iran has said that when running, the IR-2Ms will produce reactor grade uranium, which is enriched to 3.5 percent.
In the remaining halls at Natanz, Iran has installed 15,416 IR-1 centrifuges to produce uranium enriched to 3.5 percent, of which approximately 9,200 are operational in 54 cascades. As of the May 2013 report, Iran had 13,555 installed centrifuges, of which approximately 9,000 were operational in 53 cascades.
The additional 328 IR-1 centrifuges that are producing uranium enriched to 20 percent at the Pilot facility at Natanz remained unchanged since the last report.
In total, Iran has a stockpile of 6,774 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent. While Iran has produced more material enriched to 3.5 percent (9,704 kilograms in total), the difference has been further enriched to 20 percent. As of the May 2013 report, the stockpile of 3.5 percent enriched uranium was 6,357 kilograms.
According to the August 2013 report Iran is also continuing to test more advanced models. In its Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plan at Natanz, testing is currently underway for the IR-4, the IR-5, the IR-6 and the IR-6s.
Between Arak and a Hard Place
Iran is continuing to move forward on its heavy water reactor (the IR-40) at Arak, according to the August 2013 IAEA report. The IAEA noted in its August 2013 report that Iran now has the reactor vessel in place, but several other key components have not yet been installed.
Iran initially declared that the reactor would begin operations in the first quarter of 2014. However, on August 25, Iran informed the IAEA that this date is no longer achievable due to construction delays. Iran did not give a revised timeline for completion, but said it would notify the agency six months before introducing fuel in the reactor.
Iran says the reactor will be used to produce medical isotopes.
The heavy water reactor at Arak is a source of concern to the international community because it opens to Iran the plutonium route for developing nuclear weapons, and UN Security Council resolutions have called on Iran to halt construction of the facility.
Plutonium produced by heavy water reactors is more suitable for use in nuclear weapons. Independent experts assess that if Arak functions at optimal capacity, it could be used to produce sufficient plutonium to yield 9 kg annually, after separation, enough for approximately 1.5 nuclear weapons. However, the reactor at Arak would need to be operational for perhaps up to a year before the plutonium could be extracted. Even then, Iran does not have a reprocessing facility for separating the plutonium to produce weapons-usable material, having revised its declaration to the IAEA regarding the Arak site in 2004. The revision eliminated plans for a reprocessing facility at the site. Tehran maintains that it does not intend to build a plant to separate plutonium from the irradiated fuel that the reactor will produce.
In May 2013, Iran provided "some information regarding the reactor vessel recently received at the IR-40 Reactor site." However, as of the August 2013 report, the agency has still not received updated design information for the site since 2006, which also complicates the assessment of progress Iran has made on the facility. In a letter to Iran dated 8 May 2013, the IAEA said that an update is "urgently required."
A prior report of February 2013 noted that Iran has begun testing prototype fuel assemblies for the reactor at the Tehran Research Reactor.
Fordow Remains Unchanged
According to the August 2013 IAEA report, the number of centrifuges enriching uranium at Fordow remains at 696, as it has since the facility began operations in 2011. The 696 centrifuges are enriching uranium to 20 percent in four cascades.
Fordow is designed to hold 2,976 centrifuges in 16 cascades, of which 2,710 have been installed. As of the February 2013 IAEA report, an additional 11 cascades had been vacuum tested and are ready to begin enriching uranium. Only 1 cascade remains incomplete.
No Progress on IAEA Investigation into PMDs
Iran also continues to refuse to cooperate fully with the IAEA's investigation into activities with possible military dimensions (PMDs). At the June meeting of the agency's board IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano described the ten meetings that the IAEA has had with Iran since February 2012 as "going around in circles." Since that meeting, there have been no further talks between Iran and the IAEA. According to the August 2013 report, the IAEA and Iran have made no progress on negotiating an approach to the agency's investigations on these activities.
The report does say, however, that a talks between the IAEA and Iran will resume on September 27. With the replacement of Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, Iran's envoy to the IAEA, with Reza Najafi, on September 1 and IAEA Deputy Director-General Herman Nackaerts with Tero Varjoranta later this fall, new negotiators will represent both parties.
The IAEA's November 2011 report laid out in detail the information collected by the agency regarding Iran's alleged past nuclear weapons activities. Since early 2012, the IAEA and Iran have been discussing a way forward—through a "structured approach"—for the agency to investigate these alleged activities, but have been unable to reach an agreement on the scope and sequence of the investigation. The August 2013 report does not present any new evidence or information regarding these potential military activities.
While the IAEA has stated it is committed to dialogue it is unclear how long they will keep negotiating with Iran over the structured approach, given that Amano said last December that talks should not continue "without producing any concrete result."
In May 15 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman said that the talks between Iran and the IAEA should not continue indefinitely without a result and that at some point Amano will have to tell the Security Council that it must take further action.
Sherman said she was not sure if this would happen at the Board of Governors meeting in June or September. Sherman is the top U.S. representative to the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, an the United States) negotiations with Iran.
Beyond a Bomb's Worth...
While Netanyahu's "red-line" is attached to the size of Iran's 20 percent stockpile, fissile material production is only one of several components necessary for a nuclear weapons arsenal, therefore timelines differ significantly on how long it would take Iran to build nuclear weapons, should it decide to do so.
Since 2007, the U.S. Intelligence Community has assessed that Iran has already gained a nuclear weapons capability—that is, "Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so." Senior intelligence officials continue to assess that it has not made such a decision.
Most independent experts, using the IAEA's quarterly reports, are in general agreement on Iran's centrifuge capabilities, but they differ on what constitutes a so-called "break out" capability.
Some suggest that having enough 20% enriched uranium -- if further enriched -- for one bomb constitutes a "critical capability" and they use a hypothetical, worst case scenario for doing so without detection to estimate a timeline for when Iran could achieve such a benchmark.
Most other experts and U.S. and Western intelligence agencies, however, understand that even if Iran had enough fissile material for a bomb, it would have to design a warhead, fashion the uranium hexafluoride gas into the metallic form needed for the warhead, and possibly conduct an explosive test of that design to assure its reliability.
Therefore, Iran would require, not a few weeks, but many months to build a nuclear weapon and more time to build a deliverable arsenal.
While Iran's potential to build nuclear weapons is worrisome, it is important to keep in mind that once and if Iran accumulates enough 20%-enriched uranium to make a bomb, it would still take at least two months to enrich it further to weapons grade. If Iran started immediately enriching toward weapons grade from its existing 3.5%-enriched stockpiles, it would take several months to accumulate enough for a single bomb using its existing IR-1 centrifuge set-up.
However, because Iran's uranium enrichment facilities and uranium stockpiles are regularly monitored by the IAEA -- at least once a month and in some cases more often -- it would be very likely that any diversion of nuclear material for further enrichment would be detected long before it could be used to build a weapon.
If Iran were to move toward building nuclear weapons, it would need to expel IAEA inspectors, use existing facilities and stockpiles to produce weapons grade uranium, and probably test a nuclear device, all of which would raise the alarm to the international community.
Time to Accelerate Progress of P5+1 Talks with Iran
While Iran is continuing to make progress on its nuclear program, Tehran apparently has not made a decision to pursue nuclear weapons. Additionally, in July, newly elected President Rouhani said that nuclear weapons do not have strategic value for Iran.
However, the time available to conclude an arrangement that halts Iran's most proliferation sensitive nuclear activities — including limiting the production and stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, halting development of the Arak reactor, and securing more extensive IAEA monitoring — in exchange for the supply of medical isotopes and sanctions relief should not be wasted.
It is in the interest of all sides to seize this opportunity created by the election to achieve progress in the next round of talks, which could resume in September or October.
The two rounds of negotiations held by Iran and the P5+1 in early 2013 showed that both sides must show more flexibility and pragmatism to achieve a breakthrough: a new Iranian administration and negotiating team offers an opportunity to do just that. Further rounds of talks should be scheduled as soon as Iran names its new negotiators.
In the meantime, the United States needs to send the right messages to Iran that it is serious about engaging in good-faith negotiations. On such action that Washington can take is to refrain from passing further sanctions against Iran before negotiations resume, including a measure, H.R 850, which passed the House on July 31, and could come up in the Senate when Congress returns in September. If the bill becomes law as written, it could send the wrong signals about negotiations to Iran and seriously undermine the international cooperation on sanctions that the United States has worked hard to achieve and is integral to maintaining pressure on Tehran.
In its current form the legislation, H.R. 850, would require countries still importing oil from Iran, like China and India, to cumulatively cut their imports by one million barrels of oil per day over the next year. Iran currently produces about that much, meaning the cuts would result in a defacto embargo.
Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of state for political affairs and head of the U.S. delegation for the P5+1, warned Congress in testimony at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing May 15 that if the United States wants to require further reductions in the oil imports, it has to "work very carefully" with the six importing countries. The Senate should heed this warning and delay any further sanctions to give negotiations time to proceed.
It is likely that when negotiations resume, the P5+1 will present a revised package of the deal brought to the "Almaty II" negotiations on April 5-6. This represents a step in the right direction; it proposed a halt to production of uranium enriched to 20 percent, which remains the primary concern of the United States and the P5+1, as well as offering limited but significant sanctions relief to Iran. Now, the parties should think creatively about how this proposal could be modified and sequenced to build confidence and prevent escalation.