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Comment | IAEA Iran Report: Little New except Reduced Bomb-Making Capacity


03 Sep 2012 21:58Comments

Half of 19.75 percent enriched uranium stockpile consumed; no rise in production rate.

Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California, is a columnist for Tehran Bureau and contributes regularly to other Internet and print media.
[ comment ] The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last week released its latest safeguards report on Iran's nuclear program to its favorite media outlets. Although not as sensationalized as its report of last November, the mainstream Western media has tried to present it as a fearsome dossier that indicates Iran is making "rapid" progress toward a speculative point of no return, or as Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has put it, a "zone of immunity" -- the stage at which Iran's alleged march toward the production of nuclear arms will be irreversible -- whereas a careful reading of the report indicates that Iran has reduced, apparently intentionally, its capacity to make a nuclear weapon on short notice.

The media

The New York Times devoted a front-page article to the report, written by Jodi Rudoren and David E. Sanger. The article, datelined Jerusalem, could be taken as offering an Israeli perspective on the IAEA report. After describing the "tough box" that Israel has gotten itself into, repeating the claim that Iran's nuclear program is an "existential threat" to Israel -- something that even many Israeli leaders have disputed. Sanger and Rudoren finally mention, on the article's 183d line, that "Iran contends that its nuclear work is for peaceful purposes." I will come back to this point shortly. The article also claims that Iran's nuclear program is "speeding up" and "close to crossing what Israel has said is its red line: the capacity to produce nuclear weapons in a location invulnerable to Israeli attack."

According to the Washington Post story by Joby Warrick -- headlined "Iran Speeding Up Uranium Enrichment at Underground Plant" -- Iran has "substantially increased the production of a more enriched form of uranium in recent months."

The Rupert Murdoch-owned Times of London published a brazenly deceptive headline over its item on the IAEA report, falsely claiming that it found that "Iran is stockpiling weapon-grade uranium."

The story by Reuters' Fredrik Dahl was titled "Iran Doubles Underground Nuclear Capacity," but it did not mention that only one third of the centrifuges at the underground Fordow site are working (see below), and the newly installed centrifuges are of the inefficient IR-1 type.

David Albright and his organization, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), among the report's early recipients, also quickly released their analysis of it. Over the past several months, ISIS has fueled the hysteria over Iran's alleged cleanup operations at the Parchin military -- not nuclear -- site in southeast Tehran (see, for example, here, here, and here). ISIS's latest analysis routinely uses the phrase "military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program," although even the IAEA, politicized by its director-general, Yukiya Amano, still uses "possible military dimensions" when it discusses its suspicions.

The Guardian, whose security reporter Julian Borger has been a critic of Iran's nuclear program, offered more reasonable coverage of the IAEA report. In his story, Borger states that in the view of Western officials, "there is no sign of a 'game-changing' acceleration in the program that would warrant the military action threatened by Israel." Tom Collina and Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association reported correctly that although Iran has installed more centrifuges, it is not using them.

Analysis of the report

It must be emphasized that the report plainly states,

[T]he Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear materials at the nuclear facilities and LOFs [locations outside facilities] declared by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement...

So, once again, there is no direct evidence that Iran is making nuclear weapons, which is in line with what many senior U.S. political and intelligence officials, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, CIA Director David Petraeus, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have been saying over the past several months. In the following analysis of the report, I move sequentially through its various sections and subsections, discussing only the most important or "controversial" elements.


The introduction to the IAEA report is utterly politicized. Under Amano, the agency has arrogated the role of enforcer of the United Nations Security Council resolutions -- a power that the Statute of the IAEA does not bestow upon it. Multiple sections of the report begin with some variant of the following phrase:

Contrary to the relevant resolutions of the Board of Governors and the Security Council, Iran has not suspended its [X] activities...

Apparently, the agency has felt compelled -- no doubt as a result of the criticism to which it has been subjected by objective analysts and experts -- to justify its new political role, which it tries to do in the introduction.

Clarification of unresolved issues

The main sticking point has been the IAEA demand to be allowed to visit Parchin. Having analyzed Iran's nuclear program for years, I support a visit to the site. But the fact of the matter is that the agency has no authority to visit Parchin, unless permitted to do so by Iran under a separate agreement. Iran's Safeguards Agreement with the agency stipulates that the IAEA inspectors can visit only those sites that have been declared by Iran as being nuclear. Even the agency acknowledges this, albeit implicitly, because it has been negotiating with Iran over the visit to Parchin.

Iran did sign the Additional Protocol of the Safeguards Agreement in October 2003, which allows the IAEA to conduct intrusive inspections of both nuclear and nonnuclear sites. While the necessary ratification by the Majles was pending, Iran carried out the Additional Protocol's provisions on a voluntary basis until January 2006. Because Britain, France, and Germany, which had negotiated the voluntary implementation with Iran reneged on their promises, the Majles ultimately refused to ratify the Additional Protocol, and Iran stopped implementing its provisions.

Concerning a particular building at Parchin that the IAEA wants to visit, the report states,

Iran has been conducting activities at that location that will significantly hamper the Agency's ability to conduct effective verification.

This is a reference to the assertions in several of ISIS's many "urgent" reports on the Iranian nuclear program.

Uranium enrichment: Natanz

The report affirms that the vast majority of uranium enrichment at the Natanz facility involves the production of low-enriched uranium (LEU) at no more than 5 percent enrichment. According to the report, Iran's stockpile of such LEU reached 6,876 kilograms, of which 1,566.8 kilograms were then used to produce LEU at 19.75 percent. Iran has also produced 124.1 kilograms of LEU at 19.75 percent at Natanz. (The ISIS analysis, as is routine for the group, adds the statement that this much LEU, "if further enriched to weapon grade," is enough to produce so many nuclear bombs. Currently, the stockpile of LEU at 5 percent enrichment or lower is enough for five bombs. However, so long as the LEU is monitored by the IAEA, there is no way of enriching it to bomb grade; to do so, Iran would have to expel the IAEA inspectors, thus alerting the world.) Iran has also not increased production of 19.75 percent LEU at Natanz.

The report also states that Iran has made little progress in installing more advanced centrifuges. Even the more than 6,100 empty IR-1 centrifuge casings that Iran has placed at Natanz have not become operational, implying either caution on Iran's part, or that it is finding it difficult to obtaining all the required materials to complete the installment and bring them online.

In summary: nothing new. Iran continues to produce LEU, but there is no evidence of diversion from peaceful to nonpeaceful purposes.

Uranium enrichment: Fordow

The most important news here is that Iran has installed 1,076 IR-1 centrifuges at Fordow, -- not any of the more advanced ones, such as the IR-4 and IR-6, which Iran had announced its intention of installing. This brings the total at the facility to 2,140 IR-1 centrifuges, of which only 696 were enriching as of August 14. The rest are not even connected by pipes. According to the report, 65.3 kilograms of 19.75 percent LEU have been produced at Fordow, bringing the national total to 189.4 kilograms. The rate of production of LEU at 19.75 percent is more than Iran needs for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR); Iranian officials have discussed plans to build four more such research reactors.

In summary: More centrifuges have been installed, but only about one third of all the centrifuges are operating, production of LEU at 19.75 percent has not increased, and the idle centrifuges are not even connected.

Reprocessing activities

Reprocessing activity refers, for example, to the separation of plutonium from spent fuel so it that can be used for bomb making. In February 2008, Iran informed the IAEA that it was not conducting any reprocessing activities. The agency sought to cast doubt on this assertion, stating, "It is only with respect to TRR" and other declared nuclear facilities "to which the Agency has access that the Agency can confirm that there are no ongoing reprocessing related activities in Iran" (emphasis mine). In other words, Iran is under pressure to prove a negative, an impossible task.

Heavy water related projects

Iran operates a heavy water production plant near Arak. Such a plant is not covered by Iran's Safeguards Agreement. Yet in its report, the IAEA laments that Iran has not allowed it to visit the plant since last year.

A 40-megawatt heavy water nuclear reactor under construction in Arak is safeguarded by the IAEA. It will not come online before 2014 at the earliest.

Parchin military site

The report rehashes ISIS's "urgent" reporting on the alleged activities at one building in Parchin, interpreting the available evidence -- satellite images -- in the most extreme way. Perhaps clandestine nuclear-related work is going on there. But there are other equally plausible interpretations of what is observable in the satellite images. Iran has rejected the allegations about the site, as in an August 29 letter to the IAEA that states, "The recent activities claimed to be conducted in the vicinity of the location of interest to the Agency, has nothing to do with specified location by the Agency." The images do provide a valid rationale for the agency to visit the site; Iran has said it will permit such a visit if the agency shows its documents related to the allegations, which the IAEA has so far refused to do.

Modified Code 3.1

As part of the Sa'dabad Agreement of October 2003, reaffirmed by the November 2004 Paris Agreement, Iran agreed to abide by the modified Code 3.1 of the Subsidiary Arrangements of its Safeguards Agreement, until the Majles ratifies the modification in the Safeguards Agreement. The modified code obligates a member state to inform the IAEA of any decisions regarding the construction of any new nuclear site, rather than waiting until 180 days before the introduction of any nuclear materials into such a site. Iran observed the modified code until March 2007. After the Security Council began to issue resolutions sanctioning Iran for its nuclear activities, the Islamic Republic declared that it would no longer abide by the modified Code 3.1.

The IAEA contends that this is a unilateral alteration of the Safeguards Agreement, which Iran is not allowed to make. However, as I have previously described, the IAEA is correct only if the modification to the Safeguards Agreement was approved by the Majles, which never occurred.

Additional Protocol

A remarkable passage in the IAEA report states, "Contrary to the relevant resolutions of the Board of Governors and the Security Council, Iran is not implementing its Additional Protocol." Aside from the fact that Iran did implement the Additional Protocol on a voluntary basis for an extended period, Iran is a sovereign nation and, as such, cannot be compelled to ratify any international agreement. Even the U.N. Charter recognizes this. And if a sovereign nation chooses not to ratify a given agreement, it is obviously unacceptable to demand that it nonetheless implement the agreement. I am in favor of Iran implementing the Additional Protocol again, but presenting its refusal to do so as a violation of its obligations courts both ridicule and outrage.

Iran's reduced capacity for breakout

Breakout capacity is the ability of a nuclear nation to swiftly enrich its LEU to high-enriched uranium (HEU) to produce a nuclear weapon. Clearly, converting LEU that is at 19.75 percent enrichment to HEU is much easier than converting LEU at 5 percent or lower. According to the IAEA report, of Iran's 189.4 kilograms of 19.75 percent enriched uranium, 96.3 have been sent or fed into the uranium conversion facilities. Once uranium is converted to fuel pellets or rods, it is almost impossible to convert it back into materials that can be enriched to HEU. This implies that Iran now has only 93.1 kilograms of uranium enriched to 19.75 percent. This is much less than the approximately 143 kilograms of such uranium that Iran had at its disposal when the last IAEA report on its program was issued in May, which means that Iran's breakout capacity is actually lower than it was three months ago. About 200 kilograms of LEU at 19.75 percent would be needed for further enrichment for a single bomb.

As the Washington Post article noted, albeit several paragraphs after exaggerating the IAEA report, the agency had found that Iran had "converted much of the new material to metal form for use in a nuclear research reactor." The Washington Post even quoted an unnamed Obama administration official acknowledging that the converted 19.75 percent enriched uranium could not be "further enriched to weapons-grade material." But this admission appears deep within the article.

Even if Iran were to take that step -- which, at least for now, is highly unlikely -- it would probably do so when it has enough LEU at 19.75 percent for several bombs, which means at least a ton of the material, which would take about two years to produce. It would then need another six to nine months to develop the nuclear device. Developing and testing a nuclear warhead would require even more time.

This is a point that the politicized IAEA, ISIS, and many others fail to mention, even though it is extremely important. If one is to take seriously Ehud Barak's concept of a "zone of immunity," then Iran is already within the zone, but has not moved to build a nuclear weapon. As Jim Walsh of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an expert on the Iranian nuclear program put it, if Iran does want to make the bomb, it is too late to stop it because, "You can't bomb the knowledge out of their heads and you can't destroy Fordow."

In addition, I interpret Iran's reported activities as aimed at obtaining a better deal from the United States and its allies. Under tremendous economic pressure and facing the constant threat of an Israeli military strike, the Islamic Republic's leadership is trying to create maneuvering room for itself by increasing its enrichment capacity. Even the aforementioned New York Times article lends support to this interpretation, quoting a senior U.S. official on the Iranian regime: "They have been very strategic.... They are creating tremendous capacity, but they are not using it."

The best strategy is thus to focus on keeping Iran's capabilities latent. This implies reaching an agreement whereby Iran implements the Additional Protocol and the modified Code 3.1, and ships out its LEU at 19.75 percent; in return, the United States and its allies lift their sanctions, which have succeeded only in hurting ordinary Iranians. The framework for such a solution has been clear for some time.

All opinions are the author's own.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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