Iran is making progress on the additional measures it agreed to take in July to roll back parts of its nuclear program, according to the most recent quarterly report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). While some of these actions are not yet completed, it may be possible for Iran to meet these requirements by the Nov. 24 deadline.
According to the Nov. 7 report, Iran is continuing to comply with the conditions of the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), an interim deal that Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) reached in November 2013.
Over the past year, these actions have halted Iran’s nuclear progress, rolled back key elements of proliferation concern, and increased international monitoring. Iran and the P5+1 agreed on the additional measures July 19 when the two sides decided to extend the JPOA through November 24, 2014 while they continued negotiating a comprehensive nuclear agreement.
The report also says that Iran is continuing to meet with the IAEA regarding two areas of past activities related to nuclear weapons development, or possible military dimensions (PMDs), but has not yet provided any information or explanations to the agency on these questions. Iran missed an Aug. 25 deadline for giving the agency information about these activities. The IAEA and Iran have continued meeting to work out a way forward on these issues.
Iran’s delay in providing information on the two PMD actions is a serious problem, and it is essential that Tehran work with the agency to complete these activities in a timely fashion. Resolution of the IAEA’s investigation into its unresolved concerns about Iran’s nuclear program is critical to ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful. Without resolution, the ultimate lifting of U.S. sanctions is unlikely.
However, this delay should not disrupt the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 that are entering the final weeks before the Nov. 24 deadline. A comprehensive deal would result in a more intensive monitoring and verification regime that will help to ensure that any activities with possible military dimensions that may have been pursued in the past do not continue in the future.
If a comprehensive deal is not reached, Iran could quickly ramp up its uranium enrichment program. Reaching an agreement is the best way to verifiably limit Iran’s nuclear activities and put them under a microscope.
New Steps on Track
When Iran and the P5+1 announced on July 19 that nuclear negotiations would be extended through November 24, Iran committed to an addition two actions, one of which has been completed.
Iran told the agency on Aug. 17 it would blend down 4,118 kilograms of uranium enriched to less than 2 percent (also known as “tails” from the enrichment process) to natural uranium. According to the Nov. 7 report, Iran completed blending down this stockpile on Oct. 19.
Iran also agreed to convert another 25 kilograms of uranium powder enriched to 20 percent to fuel assemblies for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). In total, Iran has produced 162 kilograms of the powder (U3O8) using 20 percent enriched gas.
As of the Nov. 7 report, Iran has converted into fuel plates 17 of the 25 kilograms of uranium powder enriched to 20 percent. This is an additional 10 kilograms since the previous Sept. 5 report.
This is a positive step and should be completed as soon as possible. Converting the gas to fuel plates makes it more difficult for Iran to further enrich this material to make weapons, should it choose to do so.
Iran has already taken several steps to neutralize its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium gas and move it away from the option of further enrichment. As part of its JPOA commitments, Iran neutralized its entire stockpile of uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to 20 percent by July 20. When implementation of the JPOA began on Jan. 20, Iran had 209 kilograms of 20 percent enriched material in gas form. Half was blended down to less than 5 percent enrichment and the remaining half was converted to a uranium powder.
According to the special monthly IAEA reports issued by the agency to track implementation of the JPOA, Iran completed these actions by July 20 and the entire stockpile of uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to 20 percent has been converted to solid form or diluted.
Prior to the JPOA, Iran had been converting some of the gas to powder form and then into fuel plates. The JPOA and terms of the extension are accelerating this process. Half of the 20 percent stockpile was converted to powder form and the other half was diluted to less than five percent enrichment as part of the JPOA. The dilution and conversion were completed by July 20.
The 20 percent stockpile of uranium hexafluoride gas was of particular concern to the P5+1 because it can be much more easily enriched to weapons grade (greater than 90 percent U235) than beginning with civilian power-reactor grade, which is less than five percent enriched. Iran was moving closer to the 250 kilograms of 20 percent gas which, when further enriched to weapons grade is enough for a bomb.
While Iran has the technology to convert the plates back into gas for further enrichment, Tehran pledged not to set up a process that would allow conversion back to gas as part of the JPOA. If Iran did attempt such a move, it would be detected immediately by the IAEA.
JPOA Still Being Implemented
The Nov. 7 report also finds that Iran is continuing to implement all of the agreed-upon actions from the JPOA.
According to the IAEA, the number of centrifuges enriching uranium to less than 5 percent continues to remain constant at about 10,200 first generation IR-1 machines.
Iran also has not installed any additional centrifuges at its Natanz and Fordow enrichment facilities. The number of installed centrifuges remains at about 19,000 first generation IR-1 machines and 1,008 IR-2M machines. The IAEA continues to have daily access to Natanz and Fordow for monitoring and verification purposes
Natanz houses 15,420 IR-1s, of which 9,156 are operating, and the 1,008 IR-2Ms at its Fuel Enrichment Plant and 328 IR-1s at its Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant. Fordow houses about 2,700 IR-1s, of which 696 are operational.
Under the JPOA, Iran also pledged to keep its stockpile of uranium enriched to less than 5 percent at the same level it had on Jan. 20, which was about 7, 560 kilograms. To maintain this level, Iran is converting uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to less than 5 percent into a powder form (UO2) that is suitable for making reactor fuel at the Enriched Uranium Powder Plant.
According to the Nov. 7 IAEA report, Iran has 8,390 kilograms of uranium enriched to less than 5 percent in gas form. As part of the JPOA, Iran will need to convert over 800 kilograms into powder by Nov. 24, which is technically feasible. In early July, Iran fed 1,505 kilograms into the conversion process to bring its stockpile of enriched uranium gas down to 7,560 kilograms by July 20.
Construction on the Arak heavy-water reactor remains frozen as per the JPOA, and Iran is allowing the IAEA regular monthly access to the site. As part of a separate track of negotiations with the IAEA, Iran and the agency completed a new safeguards approach for the reactor on Aug. 31.
Research and Development
Under the JPOA, Iran is allowed to continue research and development on its advanced centrifuges at the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant if no LEU is withdrawn.
According to the Nov. report, on Oct 12, the agency was allowed to inspect the single IR-8 machine at the pilot plant that Iran installed in early 2014. The IAEA confirmed that a rotor was present inside the casing, but additional components required to operate the centrifuge have not yet been installed.
According to the Nov. 7 report, Iran is continuing to test other advanced centrifuges, the IR-2M, the IR-4, and IR-6, machines in single centrifuges test cascades at the facility, although these machines are not producing enriched uranium. There is also a single IR-5 machine that is now being fed with natural uranium. Iran also continues to test the IR-6s model as a single machine.
Slow Progress on IAEA-Iran Track
The report also noted that Iran has not yet provided the agency with information and explanations on two PMD issues: initiation of high explosives; and modelling and calculations related to neutron transport and their application to compressed materials.
These issues are part of a separate diplomatic track between Iran and the IAEA to resolve the agency’s outstanding concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. Iran agreed to provide the IAEA information on five areas of concern by Aug. 25 as part of this negotiation track. The three non-PMD activities were completed by the end of August.
Iran and the IAEA have met three times since the missed deadline, Aug. 31, Oct. 7 and Nov. 2. After the October meeting, Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, Reza Najafi, said that Iran and the agency had determined a path forward on these issues.
The IAEA report noted that Iran and the agency would not meet again before the Nov. 24 deadline for talks between Iran and the P5+1 on a comprehensive nuclear agreement.
These actions have been taken as part of a November 11, 2013 agreement between Iran and the IAEA to resolve the agency’s concerns about Tehran’s nuclear facilities and the PMDs of its nuclear program.
Between November and February, Iran provided the agency with information on seven areas of concern to the IAEA. These actions were largely related to Iran’s nuclear facilities, materials, and past work on laser enrichment. In February, Iran agreed to an additional six actions to be completed by May, including on one of the PMD issues, exploding bridge-wire detonators.
Iran provided the IAEA with information on these six areas by the May deadline. The information on exploding bridge wire detonators marked the first PMD cooperation since 2008.
The IAEA requested that Iran suggest new actions by Sept. 2, but as of this report, Iran had not complied as of the Nov. 7 report.
Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 are entering the final weeks before the Nov. 24 deadline. Representatives from all seven countries will return to Vienna on Nov. 18 to continue negotiations and hammer out the final details. Prior to that meeting, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and lead P5+1 negotiator Catherine Ashton in Oman on Nov. 8-9.
Reaching a comprehensive nuclear agreement that respects a limited, peaceful Iranian nuclear program in exchange for phased sanctions relief is in the best interests of all of the parties. An effective deal that meets the core goals of both sides is within reach in the next few weeks, if both sides demonstrate flexibility and creativity. Failure to reach an agreement will likely lead to escalation by both sides and could increase the risk of confrontation. An unrestrained, unmonitored Iranian nuclear program is a threat to U.S. national security. An agreement allowing a limited, heavily monitored civilian nuclear program, is not.