Iran's growing uranium enrichment capability

Can We Rely on the IAEA?

By Ephraim Asculai—— Bio and Archives--December 28, 2007

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The November 15, 2007 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report to its Board of Governors and to the Security Council produced two extreme reactions among those who are most concerned with Iran’s nuclear project:


Dismay among those who foresee a possible Iranian nuclear weapon in the foreseeable future if nothing is done to block it, and joy among the Iranians who see themselves vindicated by this report. However, this report was not a surprise, since it continued a troublesome IAEA trend of diverting attention from the burning issues and concentrating on less relevant issues. By doing this, the IAEA gave Iran a chance to demonstrate cooperation without harming its progress on the central issue of uranium enrichment. Moreover, the report did not sound the alarm that should have brought a Security Council consensus on new international sanctions.

The report made its impact by almost totally ignoring the most important cause of concern – Iran’s growing uranium enrichment capability – and choosing to concentrate on almost irrelevant past issues. It utilized these past issues to commend Iran on better transparency and cooperation than in the past. Only in the report’s 40th paragraph (out of 44) did it mention that “contrary to the decisions of the Security Council, Iran has not suspended its enrichment related activities, having continued the operation of PFEP [Pilot Fuel (uranium) Enrichment Plant] and FEP [Fuel Enrichment Plant]. Iran has also continued the construction of the IR-40 [nuclear reactor] and operation of the Heavy Water Production Plant.”

The purpose of the paper is to analyze the IAEA actions on the Iranian case that manifest the political bias of the organization’s management as presented in its reports and in statements made by its Director General (DG). Five major problems are discussed, accompanied by suggestions on the possible means to counter this trend. The recent publication of the US NIE on Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities does not change the validity of this analysis and recommendations. The “civil” Iranian uranium enrichment program continues unabated, according to both the IAEA and the NIE.

Problem I: Avoiding Indictment of Iran

a) As early as 2003, the IAEA safeguards activities uncovered many undeclared materials, facilities, and activities in Iran, but the determination of the degree of violation was left to the Board of Governors (BOG). This mode of operation was correct, since the IAEA Secretariat (headed by the DG) carries out only the technical work and leaves the political interpretation to the agency’s Policy Making Organs, mainly the BOG. As time went on, the Secretariat uncovered more and more concealed activities and incriminating evidence until finally in November 2003 it reported to the BOG that Iran was in “breach” of its obligations under its safeguards agreement with the IAEA. Semantics played a role in the subsequent unfolding scene since the reports of the DG to his BOG refrained from indicting Iran for “non-compliance” with its safeguards obligations, a technical determination that would have mandated transferring the issue to the Security Council.

During the next two years and in spite of two suspension agreements, Iran went on with the construction of its enrichment facilities until, in the beginning of 2006, the issue was finally transferred by the BOG to the Security Council. Had this been done sooner, the IAEA could have been more effective in stopping the Iranian program.

b) In spite of much evidence that at least until 2003 pointed to the high probability (if not certainty) that Iran was bent on acquiring a military nuclear capability, and despite citing such evidence in his reports, the DG would not sound the alarm on this possibility. As late as November 2007, he said that he hasn’t seen “any concrete evidence” of a secret Iranian weapons program. This is not strictly true. There are several such indicators reported by the IAEA: the documentation concerning the conversion of uranium hexafluoride into metal and then machining this into hemispheres – two of which constitute (if the uranium is of military grade enrichment) the core of a nuclear explosive device; the discovery of polonium and beryllium activities, which serve as a neutron initiator for a nuclear explosive device; high enriched uranium particles; and activities with explosives. These should have been enough at least to alarm the IAEA and prompt it to alarm others. Instead, it took a long time and much pressure for Iran to come up with some explanations that are probably false. If there were simple explanations of these facts, they should have been presented years ago. The combination of all indicators is sufficient cause for very deep concern.

Problem II: Misleading the International Community

a) This is a serious accusation, based on the fact that statements made by the IAEA led to unfounded optimism and avoidance of action. One example is a statement of the DG to the BOG in November 2007 that there was a “need to restore confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.” How can one restore something that was never there?

b) However, there are even more serious issues than this example. One is the oft repeated statement that the IAEA can, under the Additional Protocol, provide assurances about “the absence of nuclear materials and activities.” There is absolutely no way that such negative assurances can be provided. At most, the IAEA can state that it has not found any evidence to the contrary.

c) Beginning in 2005, the IAEA Secretariat began pursuing some “remaining” or “outstanding” issues, stating that unless they were cleared, “the Agency will remain unable to make further progress in its efforts to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran…including through the implementation of the Additional Protocol.” This implies that clearing them will verify the absence of undeclared material and activities, but these outstanding issues were mostly a diversion from the real issues.

Problem III: Misdirection – the Diversion of Attention

It is an acceptable tradition in international organizations to find something good to say about an inspected state even when it is not easy. In the case of Iran, the resolution of unimportant issues was the material to say that it cooperated. It was possible because the list of outstanding issues is a compendium of issues, some of which are historical and have little relevance to the present-day burning issues, and some of which are very important. By lumping them all together, it gives the opportunity to those who wish to commend Iran on its cooperation, which it certainly did on issues it deemed unimportant.

Actually, it is Iran who suggested this line of action by producing a document in August 2007 (which was distributed by the IAEA), according to which the work on resolving these issues was to be carried out. This document contained an apparent agreement between Iran and the IAEA. It is interesting to note the concluding general remarks of the document [emphases added]:

“1. These modalities cover all remaining issues and the Agency [IAEA] confirmed that there are no other remaining issues and ambiguities regarding Iran’s past nuclear program and activities.

“2. The Agency agreed to provide Iran with all remaining questions according to the above work plan. This means that after receiving the questions, no other questions are left. Iran will provide the Agency with the required clarifications and information.

“3. The Agency’s delegation is of the view that the agreement on the above issues shall further promote the efficiency of the implementation of safeguards in Iran and its ability to conclude the exclusive peaceful nature of the Iran’s nuclear activities.

“4. The Agency has been able to verify the non-diversion of the declared nuclear materials at the enrichment facilities in Iran and has therefore concluded that it remains in peaceful use.”

Since the IAEA has not published any corrections to this document, it has willingly put a lid on all possibly investigations of future findings. In accepting the wording of this document, the IAEA did in fact accept the prescription for “closing the Iran File.”

The DG’s November 2007 report to the BOG demonstrated the use to which this document was put. This report was written at the request of the Security Council and the BOG to verify the full suspension of the enrichment activities.

The IAEA answered the Security Council request to report on the suspension of activities not in the main body of the report but in a section relegated to the Summary, at the end of the report, in paragraph 40 (out of 44). It devoted the first and major part of the report to such items as chronology of answers to questions on enrichment machines and a long description of the history of fuel cycle facilities between 1972 and 1995. Then came a long history of the acquisition of P-1 centrifuge technology; then came the same history for P-2 technology. Only then, more than halfway down, came the more important issues that could be linked to nuclear weapons development. The very relevant report on the present situation in Iran came only after these, and this was the description of the progress of the enrichment program, from which the timeline for achieving the potential for nuclear weapons production could be deduced. A more reasonable editing would have put the present situation at the top, with the history relegated to an appendix.

As a matter of fact, the report does contain most of the important issues, such as the limitations on the inspections, several important issues that remain open, and the statement, in paragraph 43, that “Iran needs to continue to build confidence about the scope and nature of its present programme. Confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme requires that the Agency be able to provide assurances not only regarding declared nuclear material, but, equally important, regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran.” Once again, the IAEA cannot and will never be able to provide such assurances.

Problem IV: A Political Director General

One must commend the IAEA Department of Safeguards on its technical work, which is at present greatly hampered by the limitations of access imposed by Iran. As Iran progresses in its program, the inspectors will probably encounter more hardships and perhaps even be cut out if they get too close. The professionalism demonstrated by the technical staff is unfortunately diluted by the political considerations of the Agency’s leadership.
The worst example of this is perhaps the DG’s suggestion that Iran be permitted to develop a small scale enrichment capability, since it had already achieved the breakthrough it needed. One could hope that this utterance came out of ignorance. The suggested small scale could produce enough enriched uranium sufficient for one bomb a year. The Security Council realized this and demanded the complete suspension of all enrichment-related activities.

Notwithstanding the Security Council demands, this “small scale” program is proceeding unhindered. Is this not reason enough to sound a warning? It is not at all clear what prompted the DG to come out with a statement that Iran is still “at least a few years away’’ from being able to build a nuclear bomb, implying there is no urgency. In fact, it is not clear what would be the evidence of a nuclear weapons development program that the DG is looking for, since the IAEA inspectors are only empowered to inspect the facilities declared by Iran that are related to the production of fissile materials.

In a public statement the DG also recommended that Iran should not be indicted for “technical” offenses (e.g., not declaring nuclear materials imports). Nowhere in the IAEA Statute and in the Safeguards Agreements is such behavior condoned. He also related the Iranian issue to other Middle East issues, which, as a political issue, is inappropriate for the head of a technical organization.

Problem V: The Integrity of the IAEA and the Future of the Non-proliferation Regime

The NPT and its safeguards regime are the mainstays of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. The collapse of this regime would have severe implications. Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons could bring about such a collapse. The IAEA is commonly described in the media as the UN watchdog, but today this is somewhat of a misnomer. A watchdog barks at even a slight suspicion, which the Agency is reluctant to do. The IAEA failed in the past to detect and warn of nuclear weapons development programs in Iraq and Libya, to cite but two proven cases. The IAEA survived these cases. Yet given the amount of work invested in Iran, it is uncertain that it could survive another failure. The dissolution of trust in the safeguards regime could bring about the disintegration of the non-proliferation regime. The IAEA needs to be forceful; and it needs to enlist the support of the international community in forcing Iran to obey its requirements without giving it the option of sounding cooperative while proceeding undeterred in its nuclear program.


The timeline for Iran to achieve a potential for the production of a nuclear explosive device is getting short, and the current state of affairs cannot be permitted to go on. Once Iran started amassing a sufficient quantity of low enriched uranium (LEU), it would take a very short time, less than a year, after a decision was taken, to produce enough military-grade high enriched uranium (HEU) for a nuclear explosive device. Whether or not Iran is actually developing nuclear weapons at present is a secondary issue. The main issue today is its potential for doing so. Ignoring this potential is a prescription for failure.

As it seems the IAEA is unable to sound the warning that the time is running short, the Security Council should submit the issue to an independent international commission of technical experts who should conduct an independent investigation of the Iranian nuclear issue and come up with an estimate of the potential of Iran and the timeline for its potential development of nuclear weapons. The commission should be independent of the IAEA, but should be given all the technical data collected by that organization. It should present a reasonable worst case scenario with an estimate of the margins of error. It should then be empowered to continue its activities and publish bi-monthly reports on the progress of Iran. This commission should include experts on weapons development, a capability outside the IAEA terms of reference. The report must be devoid of any political judgments and inferences.

An additional task of this commission would be to oversee the inspectors’ activities in Iran and to assist them in any possible way. The commission’s report would then become the only one to be considered by the Security Council on the Iranian nuclear issue. There are precedents for the establishments of such commissions, UNSCOM and UNMOVIC, which were established to deal with the case of Iraq.

The policy of the government of Israel is not to take the lead in the international campaign against Iran’s nuclear project. This is a well justified position for many reasons. However, by initiating activity aimed at preserving the technical capabilities of the IAEA Secretariat while moving the misused political power away from it, Israel may make an important contribution to the cause of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. It does not seem that by pursuing this line of action Israel would measurably aggravate its already negative relationship with Iran. This suggestion also does not relieve the international community of the burden of dealing with this problem and transfer it to Israel, but it provides the international community with better tools to meet the challenge posed defiantly by Iran.


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INSS Ephraim Asculai -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Institute for National Securities Studies, INSS is an independent academic institute.

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