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IAEA's Continuing Uncertainty on Iran

Dr. Rajesh Kumar Mishra was Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • March 03, 2006

    The Board of Governors of IAEA is scheduled to meet on March 6, 2006 to decide the next step after the passage of the February 2006 resolution against Iran. The crisis is deepening fast. The controversies related to Iran's past procurements and associated deeds seem to be far from coming to a close soon.

    The IAEA Board in its February 4, 2006 resolution called on Iran to: re-establish full and sustained suspension of all enrichment related and reprocessing activities, including research and development; reconsider the construction of a research reactor moderated by heavy-water; ratify promptly and implement in full the Additional Protocol and implement transparency measures as required by the IAEA in its earlier reports on the implementation of Safeguards in Iran.

    The resolution not only requested the Director General to report to the Board in its March meeting about the progress in Safeguard inspections with reference to earlier assessments, but also "immediately thereafter to convey, together with any resolution from the March Board, that report to the Security Council."

    What has been the level of confidence between the IAEA and Iran, before the P-5 decided to favour the February resolution?

    The Deputy Director General (DDG) of Safeguards in its brief report of January 31, 2006 provided factual information for further examination into Iran's nuclear programme. The report included the IAEA's demand for clarifications on issues such as procurements and activities related to P-1 and P-2 centrifuges; sources of contamination found in the samples collected from Iran's enrichment related facilities; activities at Lavizan-Shian Physics Research Centre; 'Green Salt Project' concerning the conversion of uranium dioxide into UF4 as well as tests related to high explosives and the design of a missile re-entry vehicle; and a few other technical activities related to other aspects of the fuel cycle. Talking about the activities related to the Green Salt Project, the DDG stated that these "could have a military nuclear dimension" and that they also "appear to have administrative interconnection."

    Such remarks tend to question the validity of Iran's claims that its nuclear programme is purely for peaceful purposes and that these are under the authority of the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran and thus separate from any connection with the military establishment.

    Meanwhile, Western media extensively reported about intelligence inputs on Iran's efforts regarding modifications in missile systems to enable nuclear payloads, something that Colin Powell had hinted almost two years ago. For now, neither does Iran admit, nor is the IAEA in a position to establish, any military link with the ongoing nuclear programme of the country. There is therefore a felt need to examine the veracity of Iran's declarations that it is adhering to its NPT obligations.

    Has Iran maintained appropriate transparency with the IAEA?

    Even after three years of extensive inspections, the IAEA still requires additional information to rule out inter-administrative linkages within Iran and its outside support agencies through the Pakistan based A Q Khan network.

    The IAEA finds that Iran's declarations on past procurements and interaction of Iranian officials with the Khan network are still not coherent. Iran admitted to have acquired the P-1 design with samples of centrifuge components in 1987; and between 1994 and 1995 it procured a duplicate set of P-1 drawings along with components for 500 centrifuges. The IAEA in its September 2, 2005 report raised the question as to why the P-1 design similar to those that had been provided in 1987 were delivered again with the offer made in 1994. Till date, Iran has shown inability to produce documents or other information about the meetings that led to the procurement of 500 sets of P-1 centrifuge components in the mid-1990s.

    Despite the fact that Iran acknowledges that it received the P-2 design in 1995 and that around 13 meetings took place between Iranian representatives and the Khan network intermediaries, Tehran denies that any delivery related to centrifuges took place after 1995. The international inspection agency is still awaiting clarifications concerning the delivery of large quantities of magnets (900 pieces for P-2 centrifuges) from a foreign entity in mid-2003.

    Iran also admits that a private contractor manufactured seven rotors for P-2 and had performed mechanical tests between early 2002 and June 2003 without using nuclear material (GOV/2004/83). However, the IAEA is still to verify the progress since then and come to a final conclusion on Iran's statement that it did not pursue any work on the P-2 design between 1995 and 2002 or after 2003.

    In addition, the IAEA is yet to complete the assessment of the 15-page document describing the procedures for the reduction of UF6 to uranium metal in small quantities, and for casting of enriched and depleted uranium metal into hemispheres, all of which is related to the fabrication of nuclear weapon components. This document was first made available to the IAEA by the Iranians during the October-November 2005 meetings. Till date, it is not clear as to when and why Iran received this document from the network. In its latest report, the Director General of the IAEA mentions that "Although there is no indication about the actual use of the document, its existence in Iran is a matter of concern."

    What is the IAEA's overall assessment of the situation?

    Iran is fast losing patience in its efforts to get a clean chit from the IAEA. But the international inspection agency is not in a position to "conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran." According to the latest report which is under review by the Board Members for the March 6 meeting, the Director General's assessment is that "It is regrettable, and a matter of concern, that the above uncertainties related to the scope and nature of Iran's nuclear programme have not been clarified after three years of intensive Agency verification. In order to clarify these uncertainties, Iran's full transparency is still essential." Implicit in this statement is the view that Iran has not provided satisfactory clarification to the IAEA on many outstanding issues.

    Another issue is of inadequate transparency. The Director General mentions: "Such transparency should primarily include access to, and cooperation by, relevant individuals; access to documentation related to procurement and dual use equipment; and access to certain military owned workshops and R&D locations that the Agency may need to visit in the future as part of its investigation."

    What is the status of implementation of Safeguards in Iran now?

    Confidence building has been the most significant aspect of Iran's cooperation with the IAEA. The measure of voluntary suspension of enrichment-related and reprocessing activities by Iran served as an effective tool to minimize the degree of mistrust among the views of US, Britain, Germany and France vis-à-vis Iran.

    However, over the last six months, Iran has been fast shifting gears to test the patience of the IAEA. Iran broke the voluntary suspension on enrichment related activities in August 2005 and started the conversion process line at Esafahan. It has produced approximately 85 metric tons of uranium hexafluoride gas (the feed material of enrichment) since September 2005. Subsequently, it removed the Agency seals on January 10, 2006 from the facilities at Natanz, Pars Trash and Farayand Technique and started 'small scale R&D' at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) in Natanz. It resumed enrichment tests on February 11, 2006 by feeding a single P-1 machine with UF6. On February 15, 2006, it started feeding a 10-machine cascade and, according to the latest IAEA report, a 20-machine cascade was subjected to vacuum testing on February 22, 2006. Despite the resumption of manufacturing of components, conversions and feeding of UF 6 into centrifuges, the level of success is not clearly known as yet.

    Another significant aspect of Iran's nuclear programme that has remained contested is its insistence on the construction of a heavy-water moderated reactor. Iran decided in the mid-1980s to replace the Tehran Research Reactor, since according to Iran it has been reaching the safety limits of operation. This new reactor, according to Iran, is being planned for medical, industrial isotope production and R&D purposes. Though the engineering construction of the plant is ongoing, its commissioning date of 2007 is likely to be postponed till 2011.

    In the given background of Iran's nuclear programme involving complex technical processes and gaps in information available to the IAEA, a definitive assessment of implementation of Safeguards in Iran remains difficult. However, previous IAEA assessments clearly indicate that Iran has failed in a number of instances over a long period of time to fulfil its Safeguards obligations.

    Based on the IAEA's reports, US, Britain, France, Russia and China (P-5 of UN Security Council) voted in favour of the February 2006 resolution requesting the Director General of the IAEA to report the developments on the implementation of inspections in Iran to the UN Security Council. Instead of attempting to improve the level of confidence and credibility with the IAEA, Tehran chose not to relent on the demands of the February resolution to restore voluntary suspension. Though the situation has still not reached the stage of posing an imminent threat to international peace and security, the loose ends of Iran's commitment to international agreements remain a cause of concern for the international community.