by Peter Jenkins
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has issued its latest quarterly report on Iran. The IAEA Board will consider the Sept. 5 report during the week of Sept. 15.
Much initial comment has centred on signs that the process launched on Nov. 11, 2013, when the IAEA and Iran agreed on a framework for addressing all outstanding IAEA concerns about the nature of Iran’s nuclear program, is starting to stall. But first the good news:
- Iran no longer possesses any declared uranium enriched to 20% U235 in gaseous form. Fed into a sufficient number of centrifuges, 20% U235 can quickly be enriched to weapon grade. All this material has either been down-blended or converted into uranium oxide for fuel plates.
- Iran has started to convert its stock of uranium enriched up to 5% U235 from gaseous form into uranium oxide. Once the whole stock has been converted, drawing on it to produce weapon-grade U235 would be an unattractive option.
- Iran has not brought any additional centrifuge cascades into service since the last IAEA report. It is operating 54 cascades at the Natanz plant and four cascades at Fordow.
- IAEA inspectors have been granted access to Iran’s centrifuge workshops and storage facilities, and have had access to a centrifuge research and development centre. These visits have enabled the agency to confirm that the production rate of rotors, a crucial centrifuge component, is consistent with a program for replacing damaged centrifuges (and points away from any clandestine centrifuge acquisition program).
- Iran continues to meet all its commitments under the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) agreed between the US and the P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China plus Germany) last November.
- All nuclear material known to be in Iran’s possession continues to be accounted for and to be in peaceful use.
Together these findings suggest that the purpose of Iran’s uranium enrichment program is the production of reactor fuel, as declared, and not the production of nuclear weapons, which would be a violation of Iran’s obligations as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It is open to Iran at any time to change course and start using facilities that are inherently capable of serving both civil and military purposes for a military end, but there is no indication in the latest report that Iran has the ‘political will’ to do any such thing.
There is cause for concern, however, in what the agency reports about the implementation of the Nov. 11, 2013 Cooperation Framework. Having addressed all the issues raised by the agency on that date and Feb. 9, 2014, Iran has been slow to address two of the five issues raised on May 20 (but has now done so) and has only just begun to discuss two more.
The two issues on which Iran appears most reticent relate to allegations that Iran has engaged in research and experimentation into certain uses of high explosives, and has studied the application of neutrons to compressed materials.
What concerns the IAEA is that this work could have been relevant to a clandestine nuclear weapon research program. (It is not clear whether the agency has evidence that the work is ongoing. The US intelligence community has stated on record that Iran abandoned systematic nuclear weapon research in 2003.)
Worryingly, the agency reports that on Aug. 28 Iran wrote that “most of the issues” that the agency views as outstanding are “mere allegations and do not merit consideration”. This echoes the Iranian position during a long period that preceded the agreement last November, which seemed to herald a more constructive approach.
Neither party is to be envied. The IAEA has said that its concerns are based on more than intelligence material (which, almost by definition, may or may not be worthy of trust), and cannot retreat without losing credibility. Iran has backed itself into a corner by often denying ever having had any interest in developing nuclear weapons, and may well be nervous about the consequences of self-incrimination, not least because US politics make those unpredictable.
It must be recalled, however, that this process is entirely independent of the process launched two weeks later by the JPA. The JPA does not stipulate that resolution of all IAEA issues is an indispensable pre-condition for the conclusion of a comprehensive agreement. The IAEA has made clear that it is working to a much longer time-scale than those trying to negotiate a peaceful outcome to their nuclear dispute within the framework of the JPA.
So Iran has time to reflect on its position. It also has time to consult the US and others about how they would react to any admission of past weapon-related research, and to exchange assurances. That could be one way out of this impasse.
Photo: IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano at a press conference with Dr Ali Akbar Salehi, Vice President and Chairman of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran during his official visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran Aug. 17, 2014. Credit: Conleth Brady/IAEA