Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reached agreement in early April on an action plan to complete the agency’s investigation of Iran’s nuclear program. As a critical IAEA meeting approaches, however, Tehran’s simultaneous decision to move forward with two nuclear projects seems likely to perpetuate international suspicions that Tehran is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability.
After meeting with senior Iranian officials in Tehran April 6, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei reached an “agreement on a joint action plan with a timetable to deal with outstanding issues regarding the verification of Iran’s nuclear program,” according to an IAEA press release. ElBaradei suggested April 6 that the plan “will hopefully pave the way for progress.” Among other steps, the plan calls for Iran to provide the IAEA with information about its centrifuge program by the end of April.
In May, ElBaradei is to present a report on Iran’s progress. The IAEA Board of Governors will consider the results in June during what is widely seen as a crucial meeting.
The agreement marked the latest attempt to put a satisfactory end to a nearly two-year-old investigation into Iran’s effort to acquire a nuclear fuel cycle. Last October, after months of hesitant cooperation, Iran struck a deal with Germany, France, and the United Kingdom in which it promised to cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation, sign an additional protocol to its existing safeguards agreement with the IAEA, and suspend uranium-enrichment work. That same month, Iran provided the agency with what was supposed to be a complete declaration of all its nuclear activities.
Both Iran’s declaration and the agency’s investigation provided enough information for the board to adopt a resolution the following month condemning Iran’s pursuit of undeclared nuclear activities in violation of its IAEA safeguards agreement. Such agreements commit states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to provide sufficient transparency in their nuclear activities to assure other member states that they are not diverting civilian nuclear activities to military purposes.
Moreover, a February report from ElBaradei said Iran omitted several nuclear activities from its October declaration. Prodded by this report, the board’s March resolution called on Iran “to resolve all outstanding [nuclear] issues.”
In particular, the resolution called on Iran to answer questions regarding traces of uranium found at two facilities associated with Iran’s gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program; Iran’s experiments with a possible nuclear-weapon trigger; and the scope of Iran’s uranium-enrichment programs. (See ACT, March 2004.)
As part of the April action plan, Iran has agreed to provide the agency with “detailed information regarding aspects of its centrifuge program” by the end of April. Gas centrifuges can be used to produce highly enriched uranium for use in nuclear weapons, as well as low-enriched uranium for use in civilian nuclear reactors. NPT states-parties are permitted to own uranium-enrichment facilities without restraint, but they are only supposed to operate these facilities under a safeguards agreement with the IAEA, which monitors the use of the equipment. The board already condemned Iran in November 2003 for secretly testing centrifuges with nuclear material—a violation of its safeguards agreement.
In a step designed to ease these concerns, Iran agreed in April to further comply with a key provision in its October pledge to the Europeans: suspending its uranium-enrichment activities. Mohammad Saeedi, an official from Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, told Reuters April 12 that Iran had stopped making centrifuge components 3 days before, thereby fulfilling a February pledge to the IAEA. ElBaradei’s February report stated that Iran had suspended work on its centrifuge facilities but had continued to assemble some individual centrifuges and manufacture related components.
This month, Iran is also set to provide the IAEA with a fuller declaration of its nuclear-related activities. This declaration will be Tehran’s first under its additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement. The protocol requires Iran to declare significantly more nuclear-related activities than it would under its original safeguards agreement and provides the IAEA with more freedom to investigate any questions or inconsistencies. Since agreeing to conclude the protocol as part of its October deal with the Europeans, Iran has signed the agreement and has pledged to act as if it were in force until it is approved by the Majlis, Iran’s parliament. (See ACT, January/February 2004.)
Upcoming Controversy Likely
Iranian Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, told reporters April 6 that “Iran strongly expects” its outstanding issues with the IAEA to be settled at the June board meeting. However, several recent Iranian actions seem likely to perpetuate controversy over its nuclear programs.
In particular, Iran’s March decision to postpone for about two weeks an IAEA inspection scheduled for that month may impede the board’s ability to render a definitive judgment about Iran’s programs. A Department of State official told Arms Control Today April 20 that the postponement not only led to a two-week delay in agency inspections of civilian nuclear-related sites but also caused a significant delay in inspections of military facilities. As a consequence, the official said, samples taken from these sites may not be ready in time for the June board meeting. IAEA spokesperson Melissa Fleming confirmed the next day that samples “taken during recent inspections might not be available” in time for the report.
Inspecting military sites is important to the IAEA’s investigation because seven of the 13 Iranian “workshops” involved in producing centrifuge components are located on military sites, according to a March 30 agency document. IAEA inspectors visited one military facility in January, agency officials said.
Two other decisions from Tehran also seem certain to raise questions about its nuclear intentions. The State Department official said that Iran announced it will start construction on a heavy-water nuclear reactor in June, terming the decision a “deeply troubling move.” Tehran had previously announced its plans to construct the reactor sometime in 2004 at Arak. (See ACT, December 2003.) U.S. officials fear the reactor might be part of a nuclear weapons program because it is too small to contribute significantly to a civilian energy program but could generate plutonium for reprocessing into fissile material. Iran claims the reactor is for producing isotopes for civilian purposes and that its size is appropriate for that purpose.
Tehran also caused a stir when, according to Agence France Presse, Aghazadeh announced March 28 on state television that Iran would begin “experimental production” in April at its uranium-conversion facility at Isfahan. The facility can convert uranium oxide into uranium hexafluoride—the feedstock for centrifuges. Iran announced the facility’s completion in March 2003.
This is not the first time that the Isfahan facility has been the subject of controversy. The IAEA board said in its November resolution that Iran violated its safeguards agreement by failing to report nuclear experiments at the facility, in much the same way it failed to report similar activity related to its uranium-enrichment program.
An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson told reporters April 5 that Tehran only intends to produce uranium tetrafluoride—an intermediate step for producing uranium hexafluoride—at the facility, which IAEA inspectors visited in March. IAEA officials said that Iran had given prior notice to the agency that it would begin uranium conversion in March, adding that these “conversion activities” do not violate Iran’s October agreement to suspend its enrichment activities.
The State Department official said, however, that Washington believes Iran should be proscribed from conducting any conversion activities related to uranium hexafluoride production, including producing uranium tetrafluoride.
Iran’s European interlocutors also expressed their irritation at Tehran’s decision. On March 31, the British, French, and German governments stated that the “announcement sends the wrong signal about Iranian willingness to implement a suspension of nuclear enrichment-related activities.”
According to Agence France Presse, French President Jacques Chirac emphasized during an April 21 meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi that Tehran should continue to cooperate with the IAEA. A French Foreign Ministry spokesperson stressed April 20 that Iran needs to provide “confidence” that it is complying with its NPT obligations in order to receive cooperation on civilian nuclear power—another component of the October agreement.
U.S. officials have been dismissive of Tehran’s claims of cooperation and have argued that Iran is likely trying to hide aspects of its centrifuge and other nuclear programs, a charge Tehran has repeatedly denied.
“The delay in allowing inspectors into the country, the announcement about Isfahan, I think are further indications that Iran has still not made a strategic determination to surrender its nuclear program,” said Mitchell Reiss, State Department director of policy planning, in an April 9 interview with Arms Control Today. “What we appear to be seeing are tactical maneuvers to do as little as possible to avoid censure.”
Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton went so far as to say that “Iran is lying” at an annual meeting of NPT states-parties in New York.
“It is clear that the primary role of Iran’s ‘nuclear power’ program is to serve as a cover and a pretext for the import of nuclear technology and expertise that can be used to support nuclear weapons development,” Bolton said April 27.
Still, the June meeting appears unlikely to produce either Washington’s or Tehran’s preferred outcomes. Although Iran may not get the clean bill of health it desires, the United States may also be unable to provide sufficient proof to convince other countries to find Iran in noncompliance with its obligations under the NPT. Such a finding requires the board to refer the matter to the UN Security Council.
A State Department official argued June 20 that the lack of full sampling results from the military sites will make it more difficult for Washington to push the board to take “the strongest possible response” at the June meeting, adding that U.S. leverage will largely depend on the “tone and substance” of ElBaradei’s report. Washington may encourage the IAEA board to say it “cannot verify” Iran’s suspension of its centrifuge program because of the country’s demonstrated ability to manufacture relevant components at various locations throughout the country, the official said.
Whether Washington will push for the board to find Iran in noncompliance is unclear. The United States not only failed to persuade the board to adopt such a stance in its November resolution, it did not even attempt to do so during the debate over the March resolution.
Corrected online August 29, 2008. See explanation.