Separating Iranians

8 May 2006

Iranian deputy Foreign Minister Ali Reza Sheykh-Attar said on 3 May that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had found nothing to show that Iran’s programme was aimed at the development of weapons. “Why do other countries like Brazil and Argentina have the right to use this technology, while Iran does not,” he asked. “India has not even signed the non-proliferation treaty, but has nuclear weapons.”

His comments came after the IAEA’s latest eight-page report on Iran was submitted to the UN Security Council (UNSC) on 28 April. The report says, “All the nuclear material declared by Iran to the agency is accounted for,” but “gaps remain” with respect to “the scope and content of Iran’s centrifuge programme.” It concludes that, because of these and other gaps, “the agency is unable to make progress in its efforts to provide assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran.”

The report says clarification “requires full transparency and active cooperation by Iran — transparency that goes beyond the measures prescribed in the Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol — if the agency is to be able to understand fully the twenty years of undeclared nuclear activities by Iran.” While Iran “continues to facilitate the implementation of the Safeguards Agreement” its decision to stop voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol will limit the ability to clarify any outstanding issues, the report notes.

Much of the report examines areas already discussed in previous reports, notably the one presented to the IAEA board of governors in February. This resulted in a resolution sponsored by several European countries under pressure from the USA calling on Iran to:

  • Re-establish full and sustained suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development, to be verified by the agency.
  • Reconsider the construction of a heavy water research reactor.
  • Ratify promptly and implement in full the Additional Protocol.
  • Pending ratification, continue to act in accordance with the provisions of the Additional Protocol, which Iran signed on 18 December 2003.
  • Implement transparency measures which extend beyond the formal requirements of the Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol, and include such access to individuals, documentation relating to procurement, dual use equipment, certain military-owned workshops and research and development as the agency may request in support of its ongoing investigations.
The resolution asked for a progress report in time for the March meeting of the board which would then be to reported to the UNSC. After UNSC members failed to agree on how to proceed with the matter the council president issued a statement asking Iran to comply with the IAEA demands and requesting a further report in 30 days.

The April report clearly shows that far from stopping its nuclear R&D, Iran has speeded up its programme, although it has continued to allow IAEA monitoring at its facilities. Iranian officials have repeatedly pointed out that there was never any undertaking to curtail the programme. Iran’s earlier suspension of activities was a purely voluntary goodwill gesture supposed to give the time needed to put in place the guarantees and assurances required by the international community concerning the nature of the programme. They were not legally binding and therefore Iran has committed no violation by restarting its activities. An Iranian source close to the negotiations told NEI that after three years of futile talks, “it was more than evident that the USA and its European allies had no interest at all in developing such assurances and simply sought to close our programme down.”

The report notes that in a 27 April letter to the IAEA Iran said it had “fully cooperated with the agency during the past three years in accordance with the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty Comprehensive Safeguards, the Additional Protocol and even beyond the Additional Protocol which was voluntarily implemented as if it was ratified.” Iran had also “granted the full and unrestricted access to nuclear facilities during the past three years in the course of around 2000 man-day inspections.” All nuclear facilities and activities have been under safeguards, and nuclear materials have been declared and accounted for, the letter said. It affirmed that Iran was “fully prepared to continue granting the agency’s inspection in accordance with the Comprehensive Safeguards provided that the Iran’s nuclear dossier will remain, in full, in the framework of the IAEA and under its safeguards.” Iran was also “prepared to resolve the remaining outstanding issues” listed in the February 2006 report “in accordance with the international laws and norms” and would “provide a timetable within the next three weeks.”

With respect to Iran’s enrichment programme, the report says additional information is still needed on high enriched uranium (HEU) contamination of imported centrifuges, and the acquisition of both P-1 and the more advanced P-2 machines. “The results of the agency’s analyses to date tend, on balance, to support Iran’s statement regarding the foreign origin of most of the HEU contamination which was found at locations where Iran has declared that centrifuge components had been manufactured, used and/or stored,” it notes, but investigations are continuing. On the centrifuges, the agency is awaiting clarification of the dates and contents of shipments containing certain components. The report further notes that the IAEA is seeking clarification of press reports from mid-April about statements by high level Iranian officials concerning R&D and testing of P-2 centrifuges.

Other issues include a document describing procedures for the reduction of UF6 to uranium metal in small quantities, and for casting enriched and depleted uranium metal into hemispheres. The report notes that there is no indication about the actual use of the document, although “its existence in Iran is a matter of concern.” The agency is also awaiting further information concerning experiments involving the separation of small (milligram) quantities of plutonium and says it “cannot exclude the possibility” that the plutonium analysed was derived from source(s) other than the ones declared.

The report says that on 22 April, the agency visited the Iran Nuclear Research Reactor (IR-40) at Arak to carry out design information verification and confirm that civil engineering work on the heavy water reactor was continuing.

As to safeguards measures at the uranium conversion facility (Esfahan) and pilot enrichment plant (Natanz), it notes that “when fully implemented, the measures proposed by the agency should allow it to meet all of the safeguards objectives for these facilities.”

However, from Iran’s point of view, further suspension of activities is no longer on the agenda. In February, Iran started enrichment tests at Natanz using a single P-1 centrifuge and in March a 164-machine cascade was completed and tested. On 13 April, Iran said it had achieved an enrichment of 3.6% and on 18 April, the IAEA took samples “the results of which tend to confirm as of that date the enrichment level declared by Iran.” At the time, UF6 gas was again being fed into the 164-machine cascade, “and two additional 164-machine cascades were under construction.” The report says the process at the plant “including the feed and withdrawal stations, is covered by agency safeguards containment and surveillance measures.”

On 3 May, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Gholamreza Aghazadeh, announced that Iran was enriching uranium to 4.8%. However, he stated that Iran had no intention of enriching beyond 5%. Mohammad Ghannadi, deputy chief for nuclear research and technology, told a conference in Qom, south of Tehran: "We need enriched uranium to produce electricity” he said, continuing, “we have been given orders to enrich uranium only up to 5%.”

Aghazadeh also announced the discovery of more uranium deposits in southern Iran near the port city of Bandar Abbas. "The deposits have not been identified fully but studies show that there are considerable amounts of uranium (ore) at the site and Iran planned substantial investment to extract the uranium," he said, adding that additional exploration at the site was underway. Ghannadi, said the ore was at three new sites in the central Khoshoomi, Charchooleh and Narigan areas.

The next day Iran announced that researchers in technical and engineering department of the AEOI, despite the international sanctions, had succeeded in manufacturing reactor control rods of better quality than similar foreign-made products.

Iran is also pushing ahead with its nuclear power programme. Iran's energy minister Parviz Fattah said on 17 April there was no alternative to the use of nuclear energy to meet electricity needs. He noted that Iranian power plants are now generating electricity from fossil fuels but they would be unable to meet future demands. On 22 April, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's envoy to the IAEA, said that Iran would tender for two new nuclear power plants next month. He noted and all countries could bid in this project. Vladimir Pavlov, who heads Russia’s Atomstroyexport's business in Iran, said on 3 May that Moscow was ready to examine conditions for taking part in the tenders.

Atomstroyexport is building the first PWR at Bushehr, which Pavlov says is 90% complete and should be ready by the end of the year. Russia has dismissed US demands that it should stop cooperating on the Bushehr project. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin pointed out that spent fuel from Bushehr “will be repatriated to us, which rules out the possibility of it being used for military purposes." He added: "By virtue of its technical characteristics the reactor of the Bushehr plant cannot be used to make materials suitable for a military nuclear programme. The Americans also know this full well." He added that every country "is entitled to decide for itself whom to cooperate with and how."

Nevertheless, in the wake of the April report, France and the UK, backed by Washington, drafted a Security Council resolution invoking Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, making mandatory all previous IAEA resolutions on Iran and allowing the council to take "further measures" if Tehran does not comply. However, continuing opposition from Russian and China suggest its adoption is unlikely. The USA has indicated that in this case it will bypass the UN and form a coalition to impose sanctions on Iran.

Iranian officials, in any case, remain apparently unfazed by the threat of sanctions. Iran does not feel threatened by the introduction of economic sanctions, Iranian Minister of Commerce Masoud Mir-Kazemi said on April 21. "Since the Islamic Revolution in Iran, we have always been under sanctions," he pointed out. "Iran possesses modern technologies and has made significant headway in petrochemical, mining, pharmaceutical, food processing and many other industries. With this in mind, we are not overly concerned by sanctions." Iran has also indicated that sanctions could seriously backfire. Majlis Research Centre director Ahmad Tavakkoli noted on 2 May that sanctions would “come as a great shock and would severely jolt international markets, ” referring to Iran’s exports of 2,450,000 barrles of oil per day.

Over the past three years of investigations, reports and negotiations, various compromise proposals have emerged for solving the Iranian nuclear crisis. Most of these have involved a recognition that Iran must be permitted to continue with some level of nuclear research.

This was under discussion over the past few months as a possible element in Russia’s compromise proposal for a joint Russian-Iranian enrichment joint venture in Russia. IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei was also reported to have privately said he supported this option, but pressure from Washington eventually forced Moscow to drop this from the offer. ElBaradei was also reported to have explicitly warned the West not to reject Iran’s minimum demand for 3.5% enrichment, saying that it would be an affront to Iran’s national pride. During his recent visit to Iran El Baradei reportedly told the head of IAEO that the referral of the Iranian dossier to the UNSC was based not on IAEA rules IAEA but according to a political decision made by France, Germany, the UK and the USA. This has been confirmed to NEI by sources close to the IAEA.

By backing Iran into a corner, the West is undermining the already fragile NPT regime. Iran’s official bottom line is its right conduct low-level uranium enrichment within the framework of the NPT. If that is not granted, then calls within the country for withdrawal from the treaty are likely to become a deafening roar.

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