Developments at Natanz

29 January 2007

The UN Security Council has imposed sanctions for Tehran’s failure to suspend uranium enrichment and demanded suspension of “all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development,” and “work on all heavy water-related projects.” It called for a ban on trade in goods related to Iran’s nuclear programme.

The USA is pressing for an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) review of aid for Iran’s civilian nuclear energy programme to cut most of the 65 projects involved. Findings from the review will be presented to the 35-nation IAEA board of governors for a probable vote at its meeting in March.

Some projects deemed incompatible with UN Resolution 1737 had been provisionally shelved, Western diplomats said. However, some of Washington’s traditional supporters in the European Union (EU) and many developing nations are uncomfortable with a blanket withdrawal of assistance. The sanctions included a review of more than 15 IAEA technical programmes. The Americans want to cut half the technical cooperation programmes now in place with Iran but this is opposed by Germany and many other EU members.

The deputy head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) for international affairs, Mohammad Saeidi, said he expects the IAEA board of governors to block some 10% of present technical aid in response to Resolution 1737. He noted that the other 90% related to medical, food, agricultural and safety issues.

The Iranian parliament in December had passed a bill obliging the government to review its cooperation with the IAEA in response to sanctions. “If Iran is deprived of its rights under pressure, then the government will decide whether to continue its NPT membership or leave it,” said Gholamreza Aqazadeh, head of the AEOI. However, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani has repeatedly said that Iran remains committed to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The final version of the unanimously approved resolution was much milder than the USA had intended, following several revisions forced by Russia as a condition for its support. Russia and China have consistently pressed for a step-by-step approach to sanctions while the USA argued for tough sanctions with the sometimes reluctant support of Britain and France. Moscow and Beijing voted for the final text but only after one Iranian company was dropped from the list of companies and individuals subject to sanctions. During negotiations, a mandatory travel ban was also dropped at Russia’s insistence.

The first revision had removed any reference to the nuclear power plant being built by the Russians at Bushehr which is expected to go online in late 2007. Iran said it appreciated “the constructive role” Russia played in drafting the resolution.

Moscow has been working hard to sort out a series of problems which had arisen over the Bushehr project. These related to inefficiencies on the Russian side due to restructuring of export company Atomstroyexport (ASE) and late payment of financing by Tehran. However a new agreement between both parties was reached on 29 December.

Fuel cycle programme

Iran said on 15 January that it was continuing uranium enrichment development in spite of the December resolution, which demanded an end to such activities within two months. “The activities are continuing,” said foreign ministry spokesperson Mohammad Ali Hosseini, responding to media speculation that its enrichment work at a plant in central Iran had slowed or even ceased.

Later in January, a decision by Iran to turn away 38 IAEA inspectors was seen as a symbolic protest against the UN resolution rather than a serious move to prevent monitoring, and inspections are expected to continue, agency sources said.

Iran has also announced the installation of two cascades of 164 centrifuges each at the plant in Natanz and said it plans to have a total of 3000 centrifuges in place by March this year. Aqazadeh said recently that Iran has succeeded in producing more than 250t of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) and was now producing 4% enriched uranium. The UF6 project in Esfahan was designed by a 27-year-old Iranian, he added.

More than 3000 people were working in two shifts at Natanz, he noted, insisting that no real sanctions could be imposed on Iran’s activities because nuclear knowledge had already been institutionalised. He explained that Iran had been obliged because of earlier sanctions to build facilities for the entire nuclear fuel cycle inside the country. “Iran is now the eighth country in the world in the field of producing UF6,” he noted.

A specialised faculty for the nuclear fuel cycle specialists will soon be launched at Sharif University, he said, adding that almost 3000 experts (average age 30) had already graduated from the engineering faculties of Iran’s universities.

When Aqazadeh became head of the AEOI in the mid 1990s, he said, no foreign assistance was available to Iran for nuclear development. “I had to resort to uranium enrichment, to think about constructing a heavy water reactor without needing enriched uranium and also to plan for research reactors for the production of radiological drugs,” he explained.

Iran’s claims that nuclear power is necessary for its economy received some vindication in January with the publication of a study by the US National Academy of Sciences. Johns Hopkins University professor Roger Stern suggested in The Iranian petroleum crisis and United States national security that in five years, Iranian oil exports may be less than half their present level, and could drop to zero by 2015. “It therefore seems possible that Iran’s claim to need nuclear power might be genuine, an indicator of distress from anticipated export revenue shortfalls,” the study concluded.

Ahmadinejad's critics

Meanwhile, criticism has been growing from both conservatives and reformists of the ill considered statements made by president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with two Iranian newspapers speaking out strongly against his handling of the nuclear issue.

Reformist newspaper Aftab-e-Yazd said the nuclear policy was hurting Iran’s ability to gain nuclear technology. The conservative Jomhuri-e-Eslami, which reflects the views of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called on the president to stay out of all nuclear matters. This will undoubtedly have a restraining effect on Ahmadinejad, since the presidency has no official authority over foreign policy, which is controlled ultimately by the supreme leader.

IAEA officials are uneasy with the UN resolution. Director-general Mohamed ElBaradei said he was concerned sanctions would escalate rather than resolve the situation. He noted that international pressure had not weakened the consensus in Iran on the need to master uranium enrichment.


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