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Iran's Uranium Enrichment Program (Part I)

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

13 Mar 2010 19:46Comments
Iran-nuclear-celebration.jpgAmid the deep crisis faced by Iran since the June 2009 rigged presidential election and its aftermath, tension between the Islamic Republic and the United States and its allies has been rising over Iran's uranium enrichment program. In Washington and elsewhere, bogus alarms have sounded, warning that Iran's nuclear program is close to producing weapons, or at least has made such production possible.

This article is the first in a series dedicated to Iran's uranium enrichment program. Between 2003 and 2007, I published a seven-part series on Iran's nuclear program here, covering among many aspects its history and finances and the role the United States has played in it. This past series was dedicated mostly to nuclear energy, rather than to the uranium enrichment program. The goal of the present series is to survey all relevant aspects of the enrichment program and the developments that have occurred at a rapid pace.

The Geneva Agreement

On October 1, 2009, a preliminary agreement was reached between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to transfer three quarters of Iran's low-enriched uranium (LEU) abroad; in return, the West agreed to supply Iran with fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which produces medical isotopes for tests affecting roughly 1 million patients in Iran. The LEU is at 3.47‒3.58 percent enrichment, while the TRR fuel must be at 19.75 percent. Iran's current stockpile of the fuel will run out in about 15 months. As of February 18, 2010, when the IAEA issued its latest report on Iran, Iran had produced 2065 kg of LEU.

The initiative for the deal was first taken by the United States. In June 2009, Iran informed the IAEA that the reactor fuel was running out. Argentina, which had previously supplied the fuel for the TRR, was not willing to do so again, prompting Iran to ask the IAEA for help. The Geneva proposal was then ironed out in Vienna during an October 19‒21 meeting. Delegates from Iran, France, Russia, and the United States and experts from the IAEA took part in the negotiations.

Resistance in Tehran

When the preliminary agreement was taken to Tehran, it was met with stiff resistance, not only by the hardliners, but also by the democratic opposition. Some consider Iran's stockpile of LEU as its most important bargaining chip, which should not be given up easily and without any major concession by the West. Some are afraid that once the current stockpile is shipped out of the country, it becomes a permanent feature of any possible compromise with the West over Iran's uranium enrichment program.

One of the most important expressions of opposition to the preliminary agreement was expressed by Mir Hossein Mousavi. He is said to have been an ardent supporter of Iran's nuclear program during his premiership in the 1980s, the era when the nuclear program was restarted. Mousavi decried the loss of the LEU stockpile that would have been required under the preliminary agreement: "If we go ahead with it, the achievement of thousands of our scientists will be lost, while if we do not accept it, tough sanctions may be imposed."

The main sticking point has been the manner by which the swap of Iran's LEU with the fuel for the TRR should take place. Tehran has insisted that the swap must be simultaneous, whereas the United States and its allies want Iran's LEU to be shipped out of the country as soon as possible, so that the possibility that Iran might try to enrich it to 90 percent -- the level required for a nuclear weapon -- will be eliminated for now. There is, however, no evidence (at least so far) that Iran actually wants to produce a nuclear arsenal.

The West argues that it takes time to fabricate the fuel for the TRR. The reactor is old. It came online in 1967. Argentina overhauled the reactor in 1992, but it is still regarded as outdated and the suitable fuel is not produced routinely. In this sense, the West does have a valid argument.

But, on the other hand, Iran does not trust the West, and for good reasons. One main source of suspicion is France, which must be involved in any deal. History is on Iran's side when it comes to whether or not it can trust France. The distrust has nothing to do with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government, its loss of legitimacy in the eyes of a large majority of the Iranian people, and its internal problems--indeed, it predates the 1979 Revolution.

Eurodif is a consortium that operates a uranium enrichment plant in France. The consortium was founded in 1973 by France, Belgium, Spain, and Sweden. In June 1974, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Dr. Akbar Etemad, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, visited Paris. France and Iran then ratified an earlier agreement according to which France was to supply five 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactors plus enriched uranium as their fuel, as well as help Iran set up a nuclear research center.

To make sure that Iran would receive the enriched uranium, the Shah agreed to buy Sweden's 10 percent share in Eurodif. A joint Iranian-French company was then established by Cogéma, a French government subsidiary, and Iran, called the Sofidif (Société Franco-Iranienne pour l'enrichissement de l'uranium par diffusion gazeuse). France and Iran owned 60 and 40 percent, respectively. Sofidif then purchased 25 percent of the Eurodif share, thus giving Iran its 10 percent share of Eurodif.

Iran paid $1 billion in 1975 and $180 million in 1977 in return for the right to 10 percent of the company's LEU production. Ever since the Shah's regime was overthrown in February 1979, France has refused either to deliver Iran's share of the LEU or refund its payments with interest. This has angered the Iranians for years and is a central justification for Iran's suspicions of France.

In the preliminary agreement reached in Geneva on October 1, 2009, France was to play a critical role. First, because only Argentina and France can produce the fuel for the TRR, and Argentina is apparently unwilling to do so. Second, although in principle the Natanz facility can enrich the LEU to 19.75 percent, the yellow cake that is converted to uranium hexafluoride (the main feedstock for enrichment) in the uranium conversion facility in Esfahan is contaminated with molybdenum and other contaminants. After enrichment to 19.75 percent, the same impurities and contaminants remain in the enriched fuel. Hence, not only is the fuel severely contaminated fuel (even at 3.5 percent enrichment) and potentially useless, but the centrifuge cascades are also contaminated.

This point is never discussed in the mainstream Western media, but it is crucial. France has the know-how to clean up the contaminated fuel, which means that even despite Iran's well-founded mistrust of France, it has to be involved. Of course, with patience, sufficient funds, and growing knowledge in materials science, Iran can eventually produce the fuel, but the necessary circumstances are years away.

Since the negotiations are at an impasse, Iran announced that it had begun enriching its 3.5 percent LEU at the Natanz under IAEA supervision, which the agency confirmed. But Iran is using only a single cascade of 164 centrifuges, and has also stated that it will stop the efforts to produce the 19.75 percent LEU, if the international community is willing to sell it the fuel for the TRR.

The news that Iran began enriching its LEU to the 19.75 percent needed for the TRR has been sensationalized by the Western media. There is much "alarm" over the "fact" that Iran is getting ever closer to making a nuclear bomb. But, amid all the sensationalism, rhetoric, propaganda, and threats, few are asking whether Iran is anywhere close to making a nuclear weapon. Consider, for example, the question of whether Iran is technically equipped to produce 19.75 percent LEU, let alone the 90 percent level needed for a weapon.

Based on presently available information about Iran's nuclear program, that is not a given. Certainly, Iran has acquired a considerable amount of experience and skill with uranium enrichment, but it still has difficulty producing the 3.5 percent LEU smoothly. Iran's centrifuges malfunction on a regular basis. In fact, the Washington Post quoted Mohammad Ghannadi, vice president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, as saying that while Iran could try to produce the fuel itself, "There would be technical problems. Also, we'd never make it on time to help our patients."

Even if Iran could produce the 19.75 percent LEU in a timely fashion, it would still need to fabricate it into fuel rods. But Iran has no experience doing so. It may take quite some time to acquire the know-how. If Iran tries to use the knowledge that has been accumulated abroad, the safety of the reactor may be jeopardized.

The Latest IAEA Report

Adding to the complications is the latest IAEA report on the status of Iran's nuclear program, issued on February 18, 2010. The tone and content of this most recent report are in sharp contrast with those issued under Mohamed ElBaradei, the former IAEA director general. The new director general, Yukiya Amano, has set aside ElBaradei's cautious approach and measured tone in favor of blunt language. In itself, this is not a problem. The core problem is that Amano seems to be allowing the IAEA to be transformed from an objective international organization to one used by the United States and its allies to advance their agenda regarding Iran's uranium enrichment program.

To see this, all one need do is compare the recent report with the last one issued by the agency right before ElBaradei stepped down. One significant difference is that, whereas the reports issued by the ElBaradei-led IAEA largely avoided delving into the United Nations Security Council resolutions concerning Iran, the new report raises them very prominently. Another important difference is that, unlike the ElBaradei-led IAEA, the new report resorts to making unreasonable, and sometimes totally illegal, demands on Iran.

After four pages devoted to the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and the one under construction in Fordow, near Qom, article 25 of the report states,

As previously indicated to the Board [of Governors], in light of Iran's refusal to permit the Agency access to the Heavy Water Production Plant [near Arak], the Agency has had to rely on satellite imagery to monitor the status of that plant.

But a heavy water production plant is not covered by Iran's Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA, which was signed in 1974 and ratified two years later. In fact, heavy water is not even considered as nuclear material covered by any IAEA Safeguards Agreement. Why should Iran open such a plant to the IAEA when it has no such obligation?

Another dispute between Iran and the IAEA is about the modified Code 3.1 of the Subsidiary Arrangements General Part of Iran's Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA.

Before its modification, Code 3.1 of the Arrangements stipulated that Iran must declare to the IAEA the existence of any nuclear facility no later than 180 days before introducing any nuclear materials into the facility. That is why, despite all the rhetoric, the construction of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility was perfectly legal, as was the choice no to notify the IAEA of the construction.

In 1992, the Board of Governors of the IAEA replaced the original Code 3.1 with a modified Code 3.1, which requires a member state to notify the IAEA, "as soon as the decision to construct or to authorize construction has been taken, whichever is earlier" (emphasis mine). It also developed the Additional Protocol to the Safeguards Agreement, which endows the IAEA with the authority to conduct intrusive inspections of any site in any signatory state.

After the Natanz facility was officially declared to the IAEA in February 2003, Iran agreed on February 26, 2003, to the modified Code 3.1. More precisely, Iran agreed to voluntarily implement the modified Code 3.1 until the Majles, the Iranian parliament, ratified the change. Though the Majles refused to ratify the modification, Iran continued to observe it from February 2003 to March 2007.

In February 2006, the Board of Governors of the IAEA sent Iran's nuclear dossier to the UN Security Council. Iran contends that the IAEA acted illegally. In retaliation, it notified the IAEA on March 29, 2007, that it would no longer voluntarily abide by the modified Code 3.1, and would revert to the original Code 3.1.

Despite this clear history, the IAEA's latest report insists in article 29,

In accordance with Article 39 of Iran's Safeguards Agreement, agreed Subsidiary Arrangements cannot be changed unilaterally; nor is there a mechanism in the Safeguards Agreement for the suspension of a provision agreed to in Subsidiary Arrangements. Therefore, the modified Code 3.1, as agreed to by Iran in 2003, remains in force for Iran.

This statement is correct only if the Majles had ratified the change covering the modified Code 3.1. But, given that it did not, Iran has assumed no new obligations as a consequence of the code's modification. No country is obligated to carry out the provisions of any international agreement that it has signed if the country's parliament has not ratified the treaty. The United States has signed some international agreements, such as the nuclear test ban treaty, for instance, that have not been ratified by the Senate -- the United States is thus not obligated to abide by these agreements. This is a view that has been supported by various legal scholars.

In article 31 of the report, the IAEA complains again about the modified Code 3.1:

Both in the case of the Darkhovin facility [a 350-megawatt light-water nuclear reactor that Iran intends to construct] and FFEP [Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant], Iran did not notify the Agency in a timely manner of the decision to construct or to authorize construction of the facilities, as required in the modified Code 3.1...

But, once again, Iran has withdrawn from the modified Code 3.1, and has no obligation other than the 180-days advance notification required under the original Code 3.1. In article 40, the report once again makes a political statement that demonstrates a basic disregard for international law:

Previous reports by the Director General have detailed the outstanding issues and the actions required of Iran, including, inter alia, that Iran implement the Additional Protocol...

And again in article 50:

The Director General requests Iran to take steps towards the full implementation of its Safeguards Agreement and its other obligations, including the implementation of its Additional Protocol.

These statements even run contrary to the report's own article 6:

Since the last report, the Agency has successfully conducted 4 unannounced inspections at FEP, making a total of 35 such inspections since March 2007.

Such unannounced visits are covered only by the Additional Protocol (AP). So, while Iran is in fact carrying out this aspect of the AP, the IAEA still complains about it and declares its formal implementation obligatory! What is the truth?

Beginning on December 18, 2003, Iran began to carry out the provisions of the AP on a voluntary basis, pending ratification by the Majles. Even the European Union, which had negotiated the implementation of the AP by Iran, recognized its voluntary nature. Iran continued to carry out the provisions until October 2005, when it declared to the IAEA that it would no longer abide by the AP. The reason was that the proposal presented by the European Union that August, according to which Iran was to receive significant economic concessions and security guarantees, was deemed by Iran to be totally inadequate.

At the same time, angered by the European Union attitude toward Iran, the Majles never ratified the AP. Thus, belying the IAEA claim, Iran cannot be required to implement the protocol.

Articles 42 and 43 of the report concern the documents contained on a laptop that had purportedly been stolen in Iran, taken out of the country, and made available to Western intelligence agencies in Turkey. Many experts have cast doubt on the authenticity of the material on the laptop. A senior European diplomat was quoted by the New York Times in a Nov. 13, 2005, article as saying, "I can fabricate that data. It looks beautiful, but is open to doubt." Another European official said, "Yeah, so what? How do you know what you're shown on a slide is true, given past experience?"

But, the IAEA, led by Olli Heinonen, the agency's deputy director general of safeguards -- a man not exactly known for impartiality and objectivity -- continues insisting that Iran explain the documents, while also refusing to present Iran with the originals, or check the laptop for its digital chain of custody that would show when the dubious documents were uploaded to it.

The IAEA makes its most outrageous statement in article 46 of the report:

While the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran, Iran has not provided the necessary cooperation to permit the Agency to confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.

Thus, what the report seems to be implying is that there are undeclared nuclear material in Iran, whereas there has never been a shred of evidence that such materials exist.

Finally, the report prominently mentions the Security Council resolutions against Iran. As I explained elsewhere, sending Iran's nuclear dossier to the Security Council, which was the basis for approving resolutions 1737, 1747, 1803, and 1835 against Iran, was illegal because the IAEA statute stipulates that the dossier should be sent to the UNSC only if there is a diversion of nuclear materials from peaceful to nonpeaceful purposes. Thus, even the legality of the Security Council resolutions is, in my opinion, questionable.

Politicizing the IAEA

Thus, the IAEA is being fundamentally politicized by the United States and its allies to advance their agenda against Iran. This is being done while Iran is by and large abiding by its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its Safeguards Agreement, while U.S. Allies such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Egypt have grossly violated their comparable obligations. Not only has the IAEA not taken any punitive action against these countries, there is minimal official reportage about their illegal nuclear activities.

As expected, the latest IAEA report has been used by the United States to justify its stance on Iran's uranium enrichment program. Using the report as background information, Glyn Davies, Permanent Representative of the United States to the IAEA, declared to the agency's Board of Governors, with little supporting evidence,

We must face reality and acknowledge that, far from having resolved the international community's longstanding concerns, Iran's provocative actions in further defiance of its obligations have deepened the concerns of all responsible members of the international community. And the Director General has found additional cause for alarm. Iran continues to play a cat-and-mouse game with the IAEA, providing only the most minimal level of access to declared sites. Iran has failed to provide much-needed confidence in the nature of its nuclear program, and its activities have caused the IAEA to conclude that the Agency cannot confirm that "all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities." This increases our conviction that full Iranian cooperation with the IAEA needs to be immediately forthcoming.

Davies made these claims though the IAEA itself has acknowledged that its ongoing inspection of Iran's nuclear program represents the most intrusive and extensive such monitoring in the agency's entire history. He then again enumerated all of Iran's "sins" that had been mentioned in the report and described and discussed above.

While I reject the hardliners' regime in Tehran as totally illegitimate, I do have sympathy with many aspects of what the Islamic Republic has been saying with regards to the country's uranium enrichment program. In my view, the West is biased and discriminates against Iran. The least evidence for the bias is the totally different treatment that South Korea, Taiwan, and Egypt have received from the IAEA, though Iran's cases of compliance failures do not approach those of these three nations. Even the IAEA has repeatedly labeled Iran's noncompliance cases as largely minor.

Note that the Non Aligned Movement (NAM), representing 118 countries, issued a strong statement in support of Iran's nuclear program. Read by Egypt's ambassador to the IAEA, Mohamed Mostafa Fawzy, the statement declared,

NAM notes with concern, the possible implications of the departure from standard verification language in the summary of the report of the Director General, when stating that "Iran has not provided the necessary cooperation to permit the Agency to confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities," and would like to seek clarification from the Agency on this matter.

This is precisely the point I raised above. I believe that the IAEA insinuation about the existence of undeclared nuclear materials in Iran is totally outrageous, and only provides ammunition for those who want to impose crippling economic sanctions on Iran that may eventually lead to war.

The Non-Aligned Movement also noted the point that I have raised in the past and above about the supposedly stolen laptop and its contents.

The fact is that, despite demanding an explanation from Iran regarding the forged documents, the United States and its allies have refused to allow the IAEA to present to Iran the documents themselves. According to the Movement's statement,

NAM fully supports the previous requests of the Director General to those Member States that have provided the Secretariat information related to the "alleged studies" to agree that the Agency provides all related documents to Iran. NAM expresses once again its concerns on the creation of obstacles in this regard, which hinder the Agency's verification process.

In this regard, NAM recalls that the Director General previously reported that:

The Agency has limited means to authenticate independently the documentation that forms the basis of the alleged studies.

The constraints placed by some Member States on the availability of information to Iran are making it more difficult for the Agency to conduct detailed discussions with Iran on this matter.

The NAM nations also noted the nonroutine nature of the IAEA's inspection of Iran's nuclear program -- coded language suggesting Western bias against Iran:

NAM still looks forward to the safeguards implementation in Iran being conducted in a routine manner. NAM reiterates its principled position that diplomacy and dialogue are the only way for a long term solution of Iran's nuclear issue. NAM encourages all Member States to contribute positively to that effect.

After the IAEA issued its latest statement on the status of Iran's uranium enrichment program, Ali Asqar Soltaniyeh, Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, angrily rejected many aspects of the report. Questioning the shift in tone and direction it represents, he asked, "Is there a new development in Iran's nuclear program since Yukiya Amano was appointed the new Director General of the IAEA?"

Soltaniyeh also accused the IAEA of passing confidential and national security information about Iran, which are made available to the inspectors of the IAEA, to Western nations. The same complaint was also made by Iraq when its nuclear program was being inspected by the IAEA in the 1990s and 2000-2003, as well as by North Korea. Former IAEA inspector Scott Ritter confirmed Iraq's contention.

The politicization of the IAEA, in combination with the Iranian hardliners' inability to make the hard decisions that would both preserve Iran's rights and protect the nation against those in the West who seek war, has put the country on a dangerous path.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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