The United States and five other world powers in April invited Iran to renewed talks to address international concerns over Tehran's nuclear program. The move came as Washington was finalizing a new Iran policy, which U.S. officials have indicated will include diplomatic outreach to Tehran. During an April 5 speech on arms control in Prague, President Barack Obama said his administration "will seek engagement with Iran based upon mutual interests and mutual respect."
Meanwhile, Iran celebrated its "National Nuclear Technology Day" April 9 by declaring that it has mastered the nuclear fuel cycle as it inaugurated a nuclear fuel manufacturing facility, with Iranian officials suggesting that such a development alters the terms for any diplomatic initiative.
U.S. to Join Nuclear Talks With Iran
In the first public statements revealing some of the conclusions from the ongoing U.S. policy review on Iran, U.S. officials indicated in April that Washington would break from previous practice and send a representative to all future meetings of a six-country dialogue with Tehran. During an April 8 press briefing, Department of State spokesperson Robert Wood expressed the U.S. commitment to the "P5+1 process" but explained "what is different is that the U.S. will join P5+1 discussions with Iran from now on."
The P5+1 process refers to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Germany, which have pursued a dual-track approach since 2006 to respond to Iran's nuclear program. The two tracks involve proposals for a negotiated resolution to concerns about the nuclear program and sanctions for Iran's failure to comply with UN obligations.
The six countries issued a statement April 8 warmly welcoming "the new direction of U.S. policy towards Iran" and indicating that they would formally invite Iran to take part in negotiations on its nuclear program with their representatives to "find a diplomatic solution to this critical issue."
The Bush administration had maintained that it would enter such talks only after Iran complied with UN Security Council demands to suspend its sensitive nuclear activities. It made an exception to this policy in June 2008 when Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns attended a discussion between the six countries and Iran. (See ACT, July/August 2008.) U.S. officials stated at that time that such participation would only occur once. Burns continues to serve as the key U.S. negotiator in the P5+1 process.
Obama has frequently indicated that the United States would be willing to enter negotiations with Iran "without preconditions," an apparent reference to the Bush administration's insistence that Iran first suspend certain nuclear work.
Although no longer a prerequisite for the start of talks, the nuclear suspension is still a key objective of negotiations with Iran, U.S. officials say. Wood told reporters April 9 that Iran's suspension of its uranium-enrichment program "is a fundamental international community requirement for us to be satisfied that Iran is pursuing a...peaceful nuclear program."
Uranium enrichment can be used to create fuel for nuclear power reactors as well as material for the explosive core in nuclear weapons.
Iran appears to have responded positively to the U.S. interest in diplomatic engagement and the invitation for renewed talks with the P5+1 countries on its nuclear program. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated during an April 15 speech that Iran has "designed a new package for negotiations which will soon be ready and delivered" to the six countries. He did not provide any details of what the package would include.
Iran Touts Nuclear Progress
As the six countries sought to renew talks to address Iran's nuclear program, Tehran continued to claim advances in its nuclear efforts. Celebrating Iran's third annual National Nuclear Technology Day, Ahmadinejad declared that Iran had mastered the nuclear cycle with the inauguration of a nuclear fuel manufacturing plant near the city of Isfahan.
The head of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Alaeddin Borujerdi, told reporters April 9 that suspending uranium enrichment cannot be discussed with Iran now that the country has completed the nuclear fuel cycle.
The nuclear fuel cycle refers to a series of processes by which nuclear fuel is produced, used in nuclear reactors, and disposed of or recycled for further use. Certain aspects of this cycle, including enriching uranium for fuel in certain types of reactors and separating plutonium from spent reactor fuel, may be used to create material for nuclear weapons.
Iran has facilities and operations encompassing all of the processes involved in the production of nuclear fuel and the disposition of nuclear waste, although, according to estimates by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the country has limited "reasonably assured" sources of domestic uranium. (See ACT, April 2009.) In 2003 Iran acknowledged carrying out undeclared small-scale experiments with plutonium separation between 1988 and 1992, but no such work is believed to be ongoing.
Iranian officials indicated that the fuel manufacturing plant would be used to produce fuel for Iran's heavy-water reactor, currently under construction near the town of Arak. A Feb. 19 IAEA report stated that the agency had carried out an inspection of the plant earlier that month and that fuel rods for the Arak reactor were being produced. Both facilities are covered under Iran's safeguards agreement with the IAEA.
A senior UN official stated during a background briefing last September that the Arak reactor is likely to be completed in 2011 and come online in 2013. The reactor is designed for research purposes rather than to produce nuclear power, but it could be used to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. (See ACT, March 2007.)
To meet the needs of the Arak reactor, the fuel manufacturing facility will only need to produce natural uranium fuel, rather than the enriched uranium fuel generally used for light-water nuclear power reactors. Because of the demands of the enrichment process, the latter fuel is more difficult to manufacture.
It does not appear that Iran would be able to use the plant to manufacture fuel for its only currently existing nuclear power reactor, at Bushehr. Russia has agreed to provide the initial enriched uranium fuel for that reactor, which was recently completed and underwent a trial run in March; and the specification for its production is proprietary information maintained by Rosatom, Russia's state-owned nuclear conglomerate. (See ACT, April 2008.) In an April 13 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a Russian diplomat said he doubted that Rosatom sold the right to manufacture such fuel to Iran.
When contacted by Arms Control Today April 20, Rosatom officials would not comment on any arrangements made with Iran.
In addition to inaugurating the fuel plant, Iranian officials declared that they had made additional advances in uranium enrichment, including the installation of about 7,000 centrifuges at the commercial-scale uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz.
The Feb. 19 IAEA report indicated that, as of that month, Iran had installed about 5,400 machines.
Additional Targets for Treasury Sanctions
While the Obama administration expresses its intention to chart a new course for negotiations with Iran, it continues to levy sanctions on firms and individuals believed to be contributing to Iran's nuclear and missile programs.
The Department of the Treasury April 7 sanctioned six Iranian firms and one Chinese individual under Executive Order 13382, which freezes any U.S.-held assets of these entities. The order also blocks their access to the U.S. financial system and prevents U.S. firms from doing business with them. (See ACT, November 2008.)
Stuart Levey, undersecretary of the treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in an April 7 press release that the administration applied the sanctions to prevent those entities "from abusing the financial system to pursue centrifuge and missile technology for Iran."
The six Iranian entities are all owned by or affiliated with Iranian defense firms that have been placed under U.S. and UN sanctions. Five are suspected of involvement in Iran's uranium-enrichment program. The United States says the sixth firm manufactured power units for Iran's ballistic missile systems.
Two of the Iranian entities were sanctioned by UN Security Council Resolution 1803, adopted in March 2008. (See ACT, April 2008.)
The sanctioned Chinese individual, Li Fangwei, is the commercial manager of LIMMT Economic and Trade Company Ltd., a firm that the United States sanctioned in June 2006. In addition to placing restrictions on Li, the Treasury Department listed eight front companies as aliases used by LIMMT to skirt U.S. financial restrictions.