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IAEA Reports Progress on Questions About Iran's Nuclear Program, Compliance with JPoA

Arms Control NOW

By Kelsey Davenport

IAEA Deputy Director-General Tero Varjoranta (right) and Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, Reza Najafi, shake hands after a meeting in Tehran in February. (Photo Credit: AFP-Jiji)

Iran is complying with the terms of an agreement made with P5+1 (United States, China, France, United Kingdom, Germany and Russia) on November 24, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) most recent quarterly report.

The May 23 report confirms that Iran is continuing to implement its commitments under the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action. The actions that Iran has taken halted nuclear activities in the areas of greatest proliferation concern and rolled back its program in other key areas.

The report also confirms that Iran provided the IAEA with additional information related to the agency's investigation into Iran's activities possibly related to the development of nuclear weapons. This is the first technical cooperation on these issues since 2008. The IAEA and Iran reached an agreement on November 11 to resolve the agency's concerns about Tehran's nuclear facilities and the possibly military dimensions (PMDs) of its nuclear program. Up to this point, however, the activities discussed were related to Iran's nuclear facilities and non-weapon related activities.

Taken together, Iran's actions on the Joint Plan of Action and the November 11 agreement with the IAEA that are outlined in this report demonstrate that Tehran is fulfilling its obligations and willing to be more transparent about its nuclear activities. The cooperation provides some positive momentum as the P5+1 and Iran enter the final rounds of talks on a comprehensive agreement by July 20.

Key Findings:

  • Iran provided the IAEA with information on exploding bridgewire detonators, one of the activities with possible military dimensions (PMDs), laid out in a November 2011 IAEA report. The IAEA is assessing that information.
  • Iran agreed to an additional set of actions to provide the IAEA with more information regarding PMDs and outstanding concerns, including information on neutron initiators and explosives.
  • Iran's stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium hexafluoride gas has dropped to 38.4 kilograms, down from 160 kilograms in the February report.
  • Iran's stockpile of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent has increased to 8,475 kg, up from 7,609 kg in the February report.
  • Iran commissioned a facility that will convert 3.5 percent enriched uranium from hexaflouride gas to a less-proliferation sensitive powder form.
  • Iran declared a new facility to the IAEA, a light-water reactor to produce medical isotopes that will be constructed near Shiraz.
  • Iran and the IAEA are making progress on an updated safeguards approach to the Arak heavy water reactor.

Progress on Possible Military Dimension (PMDs)

The May 2013 IAEA report shows progress on the agency's investigations in the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program for the first time since 2008. The IAEA laid out its suspicions about past military activities related to weapons development in detail in a 2011 report, but discussions on these issues predated the public release of this information.

Under the November 11 agreement, Iran agreed to complete six actions by February. More actions were agreed to at that point, including Iran's agreement to provide the IAEA with information related to its development of exploding bridgewire detonators by May 15.

According to the May 23 IAEA report Iran provided this information and explanations that "the simultaneous firing of EWB (exploding bridgewire detonators) was tested for civilian application." The IAEA is continuing to assess the information provided on this issue and said irrespective of the information provided on this single area of concern, it will need to assess the entirety of the PMD activities before reaching a conclusion about applicability to nuclear weapons development. The agency also noted the information provided on the detonators is the "first time that Iran has engaged in a technical exchange with the Agency" on PMDs since 2008.

Iran also agreed to undertake a third set of actions on May 21. Two of the seven steps agreed to between Iran and the IAEA will deal with PMD issues: initiation of high explosives and modeling and calculations related to neutron transport and their application to compressed materials. This information is to be provided to the agency by August 25.

While progress is being made on the questions related to PMDs, a number of other issues remain unresolved. The May report said that satellite imagery indicates further activity at Parchin, a site of interest in the IAEA's investigations. Continued construction activities will make it difficult for the IAEA to conduct their investigation into the activities at this site.

An understanding of the scope and extent of Iran's past work related to nuclear weapons, and evidence that these experiments are no longer ongoing, will also assure the international community that Iran's nuclear program is entirely peaceful. Completion of this investigation will allow the agency to close its file on Iran's unresolved issues and should allow the agency to declare that Iran's nuclear activities are entirely peaceful.

Continued progress on this front is also significant for the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1.

In addition to the PMD issues, the IAEA reported that Iran completed an additional six steps as part of the November 11 agreement. These steps include vists to a uranium mine and uranium concentration plant. Access to a laser enrichment center, updated information on the Arak heavy water reactor and discussions on its safeguards agreement, and information about uranium source material not being enriched.

This information will help the IAEA evaluate whether or not Iran's nuclear program is entirely peaceful, and build a baseline that can help ensure that materials are not being used for covert activities.

20 Percent Enriched Uranium Stockpile Drops

Iran's stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium has dropped dramatically since implementation of the Joint Plan of Action. Iran now has 38.4 kg of uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to 20 percent in its stockpile.

As of January 20, Iran had 209 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium hexafluoride gas. Under the terms of the Joint Plan of Action, Iran committed to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent for six months and to downblend half of its 20 percent stockpile of hexafluoride gas to 3.5 percent enriched uranium hexafluoride gas. The IAEA report confirmed that in April, Iran completed the downblending of 105 kilograms of 20 percent enriched material to 3.5 percent.

Iran committed to convert the other half to 20 percent enriched uranium powder that can be fashioned into fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). As of the May report, Iran had completed the conversion of 68 kilograms. The remaining 38 kilograms must be converted by July 20.

In powder form, the 20 percent-enriched material poses less of a threat because it would have to be converted back to gas form before further enrichment. Iran pledged not to set up a process that would allow it to reconvert the powder. Iran has also fashioned some of the powder into fuel assemblies for the TRR. As of May 11, Iran has produce 26 fuel assemblies, 20 of which have been transferred to the TRR. This makes reconversion to uranium hexafluoride form even more difficult.

The reduced stockpile of 20 percent enriched material to 38.4 kg puts Iran even further from the 250 kg which, when enriched to weapons grade, is enough material for one nuclear weapon. The continued downblending and conversion extends the time it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for a weapon, if it choses to do so.

3.5 Percent Enriched Uranium

Iran is allowed to continue enriching uranium to 3.5 percent under the November 24 interim agreement, but agreed to convert the uranium enriched to that level during the six months of the initial deal to a powder form that can be used to fuel nuclear power reactors. Delays to that facility caused concern that Iran may not be able to meet this deadline, but the new IAEA report saysthat the facility was commissioned on May 10.

The facility, the Enriched UO2 Powder Plant, began operations using natural uranium. This plant will convert 3.5 percent enriched uranium hexafluoride gas to a powder form, uranium dioxide powder (UO2), suitable for making fuel plates for civilian power reactors. As part of the Joint Plan of Action, Iran agreed to convert all 3.5 percent enriched material produced during the six months of the deal to powder form. The commissioning of the Enriched Uranium Powder Plant, should allow Iran to meet this commitment. Iran originally planned to begin operating the plant on December 7, 2013.

In total, Iran has produced 11,869 kg of 3.5 enriched material, but some had been further enriched to 20 percent in the past. According to the IAEA's May report, Iran's stockpile of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent is 8,475 kg, up from 7,609 kg in its February report. This reason for this increase is that, in addition to continuing to produce 3.5 percent enriched uranium, Iran completed downblending part of its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium to this lower level.

According to the interim agreement with the P5+1, Iran will need to reduce its stockpile back down to less than 7,500 kg by July 20 by converting the excess from hexafluoride gas to the enriched uranium powder.

New Arak Safeguards Underway

As per the terms of the November 24 agreement, Iran has halted installation of major components at the Arak heavy water reactor (IR-40), and provided the IAEA with updated design information on the reactor.

According to the May 23 report, Iran and the IAEA met on May 5 to continue discussions about an updated safeguards approach for the reactor. They agreed to conclude the safeguards approach by August 25.

New Facility Declared

Iran also updated its declaration to the IAEA by adding a new facility. In the previous report, Iran provided information to the IAEA about a planned light water reactor to produce medical isotopes. The May IAEA report says that Iran is planning to build that reactor at Shiraz. However, no timeline for construction was provided in the report.

This light-water reactor will be fueled by low-enriched uranium, an important consideration for negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 as they negotiate the size of Iran's uranium enrichment program. According to the Joint Plan of Action reached between Iran and the P5+1, uranium enrichment will be based on Iran's "practical needs."

Centrifuges Unchanged at Natanz

The May IAEA report confirms that the number of centrifuges installed at Natanz remains unchanged at 15,420 IR-1 machines in 90 cascades, and 1,008 IR-2Ms machines.

The number of IR-1 centrifuges enriching uranium to 3.5 percent at Natanz also remains unchanged from the prior two reports, with about 9,400 IR-1 machines operating in 54 cascades.

Under the November 24 agreement, Iran committed not to install any further centrifuges at it Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz and not to operate any additional centrifuges beyond the number that were enriching at the time of the November agreement.

The IAEA has set up additional surveillance at the Fuel Enrichment Plant that will allow the agency to confirm that Iran does not begin operating any additional centrifuges.

Fordow Producing 3.5 Percent Material

Under the Joint Plan of Action, Iran halted production of 20 percent enriched uranium at Fordow, and now uses the 696 operating IR-1 centrifuges there to produce uranium enriched to 3.5 percent.

The agency also has surveillance in place and daily access to the facility to ensure that Iran does not begin operating any of the 12 additional cascades at the Fordow facility.

Research and Development Continues

According to the May IAEA report, Iran has not begun testing a new centrifuge, the IR-8 at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz. Similar to the February report, the IAEA noted that a centrifuge casing for the IR-8 was installed, but it was not yet connected for testing.

The IAEA noted that Iran is continuing to test other advanced centrifuges, the IR-4, IR-6, and IR-6s machines in single centrifuges and cascades at the facility.

Iran is allowed to continue these research and development activities under existing IAEA safeguards as part of the November 24 deal.

A Comprehensive Deal

The IAEA May 23 report confirms that Iran is complying both with its commitments under the Joint Plan of Action and its agreement to cooperate with the agency's investigations into Iran's past nuclear activities.

While six months of cooperation cannot repair decades of mistrust, these actions demonstrate Iran's willingness to limit its nuclear activities and be more transparent about its nuclear program.

A diplomatic solution is the only way to resolve the impasse over Iran's nuclear program, but negotiations require compromise. Both sides must be willing to be flexible and creative.

A final agreement that limits the size of Iran's nuclear program, puts in place intrusive monitoring and verification measures, and provides Tehran with sanctions relief is within reach.