by Peter Jenkins
The latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), issued on May 23, suggests a determined and so far impressive effort by Iran to dispel suspicion of its nuclear intentions.
Tehran is complying fully with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) safeguards obligations — both de facto and, with one small exception, de jure. It is implementing fully the “voluntary measures” it undertook in the context of the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) Iran signed November 24, 2013 with the US and five other powers in Geneva. It has also implemented thirteen “practical measures” pursuant to its November 11, 2013 Cooperation Framework agreement with the IAEA. (Five additional practical measures were announced on May 21, 2014.)
The IAEA continues to certify that all the nuclear material declared to it by Iran is in peaceful use. The Agency mentions no evidence for Iranian possession of undeclared nuclear material, but cannot yet say with confidence that there is no undeclared nuclear material in Iran. That is a logical consequence of the incomplete nature of the IAEA’s information of Iran’s nuclear program; the November 11, 2013 agreement will help the IAEA round out its knowledge.
Since 2008, the stoking of suspicion as to Iran’s nuclear intentions has relied heavily on fragmentary indicators of what the IAEA refers to, more or less interchangeably, as “a possible military dimension” (PMD) or “nuclear-related activities”. So, arguably, the most interesting paragraph in the latest report is paragraph 56. There the IAEA states that Iran has “shown” the Agency that simultaneous test firings of Explosive Bridge Wire (EBW) detonators (one of the above indicators) took place for a civilian (and not a nuclear weapon) application.
This explanation is credible. There is widespread use of EBW technology in the mining industry, for example. But paragraph 57 makes clear that we must not expect the Agency to pronounce the explanation credible until they have obtained clarifications in relation to the other fragmentary indicators in their possession.
What the Agency says in paragraph 57 is that it needs to be able to conduct a “system assessment” of the outstanding [PMD] issues. That suggests a comprehensive but protracted process.
Also of particular interest is Iranian submission of preliminary design information for a 10MW reactor that will burn low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel. The reactor is to be situated near the city of Shiraz. It seems likely that it is the first of four medical isotope-producing reactors of which the President of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Ali Akbar Salehi, has spoken.
A 10 MW LEU reactor will probably be of less concern to Western counter-proliferation experts than the 40 MW natural uranium reactor under construction at Arak, since the plutonium content of spent LEU fuel is smaller and lends itself less to weaponization purposes. Indeed, one of the options under negotiation pursuant to the JPOA involves modernizing the Arak design to lower the reactor’s output and allow it to burn LEU.
Furthermore, the fuel needs of the newly announced reactor (and of a modernized Arak reactor) can provide Iran with a “practical needs” justification for retaining a limited LEU production capacity at its Natanz enrichment plant. Fuelling indigenously designed research reactors is a far more credible need than the oft-asserted need to fuel Russian-designed power reactors, since Russia will want to supply fuel for the latter throughout their operating lives, and since there could be proprietary data obstacles to Iran’s fabricating fuel for them.
Finally, the latest report confirms that, in fulfilling its JPOA commitments, Iran ceased producing 20% U235 UF6 on January 20 and has reduced its 20% UF6 stockpile to 8% of total production up to that date. Iran is now far from being in a position to use 20% U235 material as feed in the “break-out” scenario that some people, such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, assume Iran’s leaders are secretly conceiving.
The IAEA’s next report will be due in late August. Between now and then falls the deadline for the conclusion of negotiations pursuant to the JPOA. It would be nice if the reassuring picture of Iran’s nuclear program in this latest IAEA report were to influence downwards the demands made of Iran by US negotiators.
In reality, the reassuring picture is more likely to be discounted, cynically, as an indicator that Iran is making a show of cooperation to obtain better terms — and US demands are more likely to be influenced by unshakeable mistrust, and fear of Israeli displeasure, despite all the indicators that Iran’s leaders do not want nuclear weapons and believe NPT-compliance to be in Iran’s interest.
Photo: IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano (left) and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Abbas Araghchi shake hands October 28, 2013 at IAEA headquarters in Vienna. Credit: Veysel Kuecuektas/IAEA