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Iran and the IAEA: Continuing Contentions

Dr S. Samuel C. Rajiv is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • September 10, 2010

    The Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on September 6, 2010 presented his report to the Board of Governors – the thirtieth since 2003, delineating Iran’s compliance or otherwise with the provisions and requirements of the IAEA and UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. A perusal of the report indicates that contentious issues persist between the world nuclear body and the Islamic Republic. These are - implementation of previous IAEA and UNSC requirements, provision of information on facilities and activities, provision of access to facilities, and clarifications regarding activities which are possibly weapons-related.

    The IAEA expresses particular concern at Iran’s continuing uranium enrichment activities – despite UNSC and IAEA resolutions to the contrary. It notes that 2803 kgs of low-enriched uranium hexa-flouride (UF6) has been produced at Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) since it began operation in February 2007. At the Pilot FEP (PFEP), also at Natanz, the report states that 22 kgs of UF6 has been enriched to 20 per cent from over 300 kgs of low-enriched UF6 which was fed into centrifuge cascades. The Agency however notes that this enrichment is within the levels as committed by Iran in its Design Information Questionnaire (DIQ) provided to the IAEA and that all of this enriched uranium is under Agency safeguards. The report also notes that all of the 2803 kgs of low-enriched UF6 is under the Agency’s safeguards as well.

    Apart from implementation issues, the Agency also expresses concern at Iran’s refusal to provide it the required information on the design and construction of the Fordow FEP near Qom, the existence of which was informed to the IAEA in September 2009. Iran later allowed IAEA inspectors to visit the plant and informed the IAEA in November 2009 that it began construction of the plant in the ‘second half of 2007’.

    The IAEA then as well as in the current report maintains that it had ‘extensive information from a number of sources alleging that design work on the facility had started in 2006.’ Iran however states that the IAEA has no legal basis in eliciting such information which was beyond the scope of the 1974 Safeguards Agreement that Iran entered into with the IAEA. The IAEA on its part insists that it has every right to do so as Iran had agreed to the terms of the modified Code 3.1 of Subsidiary Agreement in 2003 which require it to inform the IAEA about any construction-related activity as soon as a decision to undertake such an activity is taken. Iran voluntarily decided not to be bound by the revised Code 3.1 in 2007, an act which the IAEA points out is not legal as such a decision cannot be taken unilaterally. The latest report however indicates that no centrifuges have been introduced (as of August 18, 2010) and that there have been no traces of uranium at the Fordow facility, at least until February 2010. Iran therefore continues to contend that it is only required to inform the IAEA 6 months ahead of introducing nuclear material into a facility, under the terms of the 1976 Subsidiary Arrangement. The Agency also notes that Iran is not providing it information on such aspects like laser uranium enrichment facility (which Iran said it possessed in February 2010), or third generation centrifuges (which Tehran said it was developing in April 2010), or the construction of 10 new uranium enrichment facilities, the first of which is to be constructed beginning March 2011.

    Another broad area of contention includes issues relating to access of its personnel for inspecting facilities like heavy water production plants. The IAEA in particular expresses consternation at Iran’s refusal to allow two veteran IAEA inspectors into the country, on the charges that they had filed ‘false and wrong’ reports to the IAEA DG. The Agency asserts that it has ‘full confidence in the professionalism and impartiality’ of the inspectors concerned and that Iran’s action ‘detracts from the Agency’s capability to implement effective and efficient safeguards’.

    Finally, regarding clarifications on activities with possible military dimensions, the agency notes that it is concerned about current and past activities, including ‘activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile’. It adds that some of these activities have continued beyond 2004. Iran on its part dismisses allegations of military-related activities as ‘baseless’ or as contentions based on forged documents. It has termed the overall content of the current report as being highly ‘politicised’ in nature and urged the Agency to ‘maintain its technical dignity within the framework of NPT’. A government spokesperson asserted that Iran was going about its tasks under the ‘full 24-hour watch of the IAEA’s cameras’.

    Key interlocutors have reacted predictably to the latest report, with the US stating that the report was ‘troubling’ as it showed that Iran was still trying to develop a nuclear weapons capability. China urged Iran to fully cooperate with the IAEA and to ‘seek a comprehensive, long-term and appropriate solution’. The Russian Foreign Minister urged Iran to ‘fulfil the requirements of the IAEA’. The IAEA report incidentally came two weeks after Russia supplied the first batch of nuclear fuel for the Bushehr power plant.

    In the backdrop of the report, the sanctions regime mandated by the UNSC Resolution 1929 of June 9, 2010 continues to be tightened. South Korea for instance listed over 100 Iranian companies and individuals for sanctions on September 8, 2010, despite indications from Tehran that such a move could hurt bilateral ties. Tehran is the fourth biggest supplier of crude oil to Seoul, providing it almost 10 per cent of its requirements. Meanwhile, there seems to be no end to debates about the pros and cons of a possible military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, with Bruce Reidel’s article in the September-October issue of The National Interest clearly capturing the dilemmas involved. Reidel’s contention that ‘the era of Israel’s monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East is probably coming to an end’ seems however a possibility many more IAEA reports down the road!