Iran's enrichment deal "not a legal obligation"

24 November 2004

Predictably, the eve of the IAEA November board of governors meeting saw new accusations surfacing that Iran was seeking a nuclear weapons capability. The more extreme allegations came from the Iranian opposition National Council of Resistance, the political front for the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organisation (MeK), which had been named as a terrorist organisation in the uranium enrichment suspension agreement between Iran and the European Union (EU). The allegations included charges that Iran had bought blueprints for a nuclear bomb and obtained weapons grade uranium on the black market. The group also said that Iran was still secretly enriching uranium at an undisclosed defence ministry site in the Lavizan district of Tehran.

Outgoing US secretary of state Colin Powell gave credence to these allegations saying he had corroborative intelligence. However, David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a non-partisan arms control group in Washington, said: "The timing of these revelations raises suspicions that the group is attempting to derail Iran's deal with the Europeans, particularly since there is no evidence to back up any of these claims."

A spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna said the agency would follow up the latest disclosure "just as we follow up every serious lead."

The other allegations, from unnamed ‚'diplomatic sources', were that Iran was rushing to produce uranium hexafluoride gas before the voluntary uranium enrichment suspension came into force on 22 November.

The suspension was agreed following intensive discussion between Iran and the EU represented by France, Germany and the UK (EU3). Iran agreed on a voluntary basis, to continue and extend its suspension to include all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, specifically:

  • The manufacture and import of gas centrifuges and their components.
  • The assembly, installation, testing or operation of gas centrifuges.
  • Work to undertake any plutonium separation, or to construct or operate any plutonium separation installation.
  • Any tests or production at any uranium conversion installation.
The IAEA was invited to verify and monitor the suspension, which would be implemented in time for the IAEA to confirm it had been put into effect before the November board meeting. The suspension would continue while negotiations were underway on "a mutually acceptable agreement on long-term arrangements." However, the EU3/EU recognised that "this suspension is a voluntary confidence-building measure and not a legal obligation." The agreement would aim to provide objective guarantees that Iran's nuclear programme was exclusively for peaceful purposes and would also provide firm guarantees on nuclear, technological and economic cooperation and firm commitments on security issues. A steering committee would launch these negotiations within weeks and set up working groups on political and security issues. The committee would meet again within three months to review progress.

Under the agreement, the EU recognised "Iran's rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) exercised in conformity with its obligations under the treaty without discrimination." Iran reaffirmed that it does not and will not seek to acquire nuclear weapons and committed itself to full cooperation and transparency with the IAEA including continued voluntary implementation pending ratification of the Additional Protocol on enhanced safeguards.

The EU3/EU agreed to support IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei in inviting Iran to join the Expert Group of Multilateral Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle, the agreement said. The expert group, set up earlier this year, comprising experts from 23 countries, is chaired by Bruno Pellaud of Switzerland, a former IAEA deputy director general and head of the Department of Safeguards. It is investigating the need to develop a more 'proliferation resistant' fuel cycle through the use of multilateral approaches.

Once Iran's enrichment suspension has been verified, negotiations with the EU on a Trade and Cooperation Agreement will resume and the EU3/EU will actively support the opening of Iranian accession negotiations at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Finally the EU3/EU and Iran confirmed their determination to combat terrorism, including the activities of MeK and the ubiquitous Al-Qaeda.

The agreement was widely welcomed by all states with the exception of the USA, which continued to press for referring Iran's nuclear dossier to the United Nations Security Council despite the fact that the director general's report on Iran to the IAEA November board meeting said inspectors had found no evidence of a military programme.

REPORTING ON IRAN


ElBaradei's report noted that Iran had "made substantial efforts over the past two decades to master an independent nuclear fuel cycle," and to that end, had "conducted experiments to acquire the know-how for almost every aspect of the fuel cycle." Before October 2003, some activities and experiments, particularly uranium enrichment, uranium conversion and plutonium separation, were not declared to the agency in accordance with Iran's obligations under its Safeguards Agreement, the report said. However, "since that time, good progress has been made in Iran's correction of those breaches and in the agency's ability to confirm certain aspects of Iran's current declarations, which will be followed up as a routine safeguards implementation matter."

The report identified two outstanding issues which required further investigation to provide assurance that there are no undeclared enrichment activities in Iran: the origin of low- and high-enriched uranium particles found at various locations in Iran; and the extent of Iran's efforts to import, manufacture and use P1 and P2 centrifuges. On the first issue, the report said the current overall assessment was "that the environmental sampling data available to date tends, on balance, to support Iran's statement about the foreign origin of much of the observed contamination," although other possible explanations could not yet be excluded. On the second issue, "further investigation is required into the clandestine supply network in order for the agency to be able to conclude its assessment on the extent of Iran's centrifuge enrichment programme."

The report said the agency was still assessing other aspects of Iran's past nuclear programme, including statements about plutonium separation experiments, in particular the dates they were carried out. "In addition, while Iran has provided preliminary design information on the IR-40 heavy water research reactor, the construction of which should commence in 2004, the agency has raised some questions regarding Iran's attempts to acquire manipulators and lead glass windows for the hot cells. With respect to the latter issue, in October and November 2004, Iran provided some clarifications, which are now being assessed." There also remains the outstanding question of construction of the IR-40: the IAEA had asked Iran to reconsider this but has so far received no response to the request.

While "all the declared nuclear material in Iran has been accounted for, and therefore such material is not diverted to prohibited activities," the report said the agency was not yet in a position to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran. "The process of drawing such a conclusion, after an Additional Protocol is in force, is normally a time consuming process," it added.

Significantly, however, unlike previous reports, there were no issues of 'serious concern' raised and it concluded that the secretariat would "continue its investigation of all remaining outstanding issues‚" and the director general would continue to report to the board as appropriate. In an additional section, relating to suspension of enrichment activities in the wake of the EU3/EU agreement, the report quoted a letter from Iran dated 14 November 2004 confirming its decision "on a voluntary basis and as a further confidence-building measure" to suspend enrichment including the testing or operation of gas centrifuges; and all tests and production for conversion at any uranium conversion installation. The letter said material at Esfahan uranium conversion facility (UCF) would be brought to a safe, secure and stable state, not beyond UF4, in coordination with the IAEA. Iran invited the agency to verify this suspension started from 22 November 2004.

In the run up to the board meeting the USA had made Iran's conversion activities a public issue implying that Iran was rushing to stockpile the gas before enrichment suspension took effect. However, the report showed that Iran has only begun to produce UF4 and not UF6, which would be required as feed for enrichment. During the IAEA's October 2004 visit to UCF, Iran said 22.5 of 37 tonnes of yellowcake had been processed and that, by 14 October 2004, approximately two tonnes of UF4 had been produced. In his introductory statement to the board on 25 November, IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei said that from the time of the last meeting of the board until Iran's decision to proceed with full suspension took effect, 3.5 tonnes of UF6 had been produced and a number of new centrifuge rotors assembled. However, the UF6 had been placed under agency containment and surveillance measures. He noted that as nuclear material continued to become available from Iran's clean-out operations, it would be verified and sealed by the agency. This process is expected to take one month and will be followed by a physical inventory verification.

IMPROVED RELATIONS


Europe clearly has much to gain from improved relations with Iran. The EU3/EU agreement was described as "an excellent platform for step change" in Iran's relations with the EU, by the British ambassador in Tehran, Richard Dalton. He told a conference in London entitled Fuelling Economic Growth in Iran that it was a 'good moment' for Iran and the UK to develop a trading and investment relationship. "The opportunities in Iran for British business are many and go well beyond getting oil and gas out of the ground," he said, describing Iran as a 'tasty raisin'. However he warned that Iran was not an easy economy to break into requiring patience, time and commitment. Nevertheless it represented "a market that has major potential now and massive potential for the future."

Iran, for its part, has been keen to stress that the uranium suspension is not a permanent stoppage. According to the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), Hassan Rowhani, Iran is determined to apply nuclear energy for civilian purposes and the agreement is not about 'indefinite suspension'. He said uranium enrichment was a 'red line' among nuclear issues. "We had insisted many times that it is our legitimate right and Iran cannot relinquish it." He stressed that the EU agreement explicitly declared that suspension was a voluntary measure intended to build further confidence. "We guarantee that the level of enrichment will only meet our required fuel," he said. Iran would continue suspension of uranium enrichment only until the end of negotiations.

Some tension arose at the board meeting when Iran argued that it wanted to exempt 20 centrifuges from the suspension arrangement for continued research, although no nuclear material would be used in these experiments. This delayed the board decision for several days while frantic behind-the-scenes diplomacy took place. In the event, Iran did not insist on the exemption and it was agreed to place the machines under IAEA cameras — but not official seal.

The resolution finally adopted by the board on 29 November welcomed Iran's decision "to continue and extend its suspension of all enrichment related and reprocessing activities." While it reaffirmed strong concern at Iran's policy of concealment up to October 2003 it also acknowledged the corrective measures. It welcomed the director general's intention to pursue his investigations into the remaining outstanding issues. It was milder in tone than earlier drafts, which had threatened Iran with immediate referral to the UN Security Council in the event of any evidence of non-compliance with IAEA safeguards.

Iranian officials continued to make clear that suspension of enrichment did not mean permanent stoppage, which clearly makes for difficult and intense discussions with the Europeans over the coming months. The USA, for its part, while not voting against the resolution, reserved the right to unilaterally refer Iran to the UN Security Council.


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