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"In my home there are few publications that we actually get hard copies of, but [Arms Control Today] is one and it's the only one my husband and I fight over who gets to read it first."

– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
IAEA Issues Mixed Findings on Iran

Peter Crail

The Nov. 15 release of a key report on Iran’s nuclear program and cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) does not appear to have mended a split in the UN Security Council. The body’s permanent members remain divided on the virtue of adopting a third sanctions resolution aimed at pressuring Iran to comply with the council’s demands to suspend sensitive nuclear fuel-cycle activities.

The mixed IAEA report found that Iran had made some progress implementing a work plan that the IAEA and Iran agreed on in August to resolve a series of outstanding questions about Iran’s past nuclear activities. However, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei also noted in presenting his report to the IAEA Board of Governors Nov. 22 that the agency’s knowledge of current activities is “diminishing” and that the agency is “unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities.”

Moreover, ElBaradei reported that Iran has not suspended its enrichment-related activities and the construction of its heavy-water reactor at Arak as demanded by Security Council Resolution 1737, adopted December 2006, and Resolution 1747, adopted in March.

In September, the five permanent members of the council and Germany agreed to press ahead with sanctions barring evidence of progress detailed in the IAEA report and one forthcoming from the European Union’s high representative, Javier Solana. (See ACT, November 2007.) Since the report’s release, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States have expressed their intention to pursue additional sanctions, while the remaining two permanent Security Council members, China and Russia, continue to resist efforts to impose further punitive measures on Iran for the moment. Other efforts to pursue sanctions outside the UN framework are also under consideration.

IAEA Cites Progress on Work Plan

The IAEA report contains several important conclusions regarding Iran’s current and past nuclear activities.

In one of the report’s key assessments, the IAEA declared that its knowledge about Iran’s current nuclear activities is diminishing. The report said that Iran continues to cooperate in regard to its declared nuclear activities and has recently agreed on a specific safeguards mechanism for its Natanz uranium-enrichment facility. Yet, since early 2006, Iran has not been providing the agency with the same level of information as during the period from 2003 to 2005 when it implemented an additional protocol and other transparency measures. The 1997 Model Additional Protocol allows the IAEA to conduct more invasive inspection measures than standard agency safeguards in order to provide confidence of the absence of undeclared nuclear activities.

The report also noted that Iran had reached a key enrichment milestone by successfully operating nearly 3,000 centrifuges. If operated efficiently on a continuous basis, these 3,000 centrifuges could be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one nuclear weapon within a year.

By the time of a Nov. 3 visit by IAEA inspectors, Iran had successfully installed and operated 18 centrifuge cascades at its commercial facility at Natanz, for a total of 2,952 centrifuges. These 18 cascades also complete the first module of the facility, which is separated into about 18 different areas that will each house a module of 18 cascades, for an eventual total of approximately 53,000 centrifuges. The report notes, however, that no further work has been conducted on installing additional centrifuges beyond the initial 18 cascades.

The report cites that since February Iran has fed about 1,240 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride into its centrifuges at Natanz, adding that this feed rate has “remained below the expected quantity for a facility of this design.” ElBaradei similarly assessed in his last report issued in August that Iran was underfeeding its centrifuges. At that time, Iran had fed 690 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride into its centrifuges between February and August. Uranium hexafluoride gas is fed into gas centrifuges in order to enrich uranium to low levels for energy or high levels for weapons.

Moreover, the agency provided a mixed assessment of Iran’s cooperation in resolving past questions about its nuclear program. Noting that Iran provided “sufficient access” to individuals and responded to questions in a “timely manner,” the report also describes Iran’s cooperation as “reactive rather than proactive.” The agency then stressed the need for Iran to provide active cooperation and full transparency.

The IAEA report indicated that its work to clarify its outstanding questions on Iran’s past nuclear program activities was being completed largely in the time frame foreseen in the August work plan. According to this agreement, after resolving questions regarding Iran’s plutonium experiments in August, the remaining questions surrounding Iran’s procurement efforts and work on P-1 and P-2 centrifuges were to be resolved by November.

Iran obtained designs and components for P-1 and P-2 centrifuges from Pakistan via the proliferation network run by Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan. The centrifuges at Natanz are based on the P-1 design, and the P-2 centrifuge can enrich uranium twice as fast as the P-1.

The report notes that the IAEA and Iran sought to address the centrifuge questions through a series of meetings and inspections and the disclosure of documentation by Tehran. The IAEA and Iran appear to have a different assessment of the outcome of this cooperation. Speaking to the IAEA board Nov. 23, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Tehran’s envoy to the IAEA, stated in reference to the centrifuge issue that “based on this report, the most important issue related to Iran’s past nuclear activities is concluded and closed.” However, the IAEA report indicated that the agency would “continue to seek corroboration” and verify Iran’s declarations regarding the centrifuge question, and the report did not declare the issue to be closed.

One of the primary reasons that the centrifuge issue had been unresolved was that Iran’s explanations regarding its procurement activities were in conflict with the explanations provided to the agency by members of the Khan network and the IAEA investigations of the Khan network’s cooperation with Libya.

In its report, the agency declared that the answers provided by Iran to most of its remaining centrifuge questions were “consistent with its findings.” The IAEA is still not able to confirm Iran’s claim that the Khan network initiated the “1993 offer” to provide enrichment technology to Iran. The agency was also unable to corroborate a claim by a member of the Khan network that Iran obtained components prior to 2002, when Iran claims that its P-2 work had begun.

Moreover, the IAEA is continuing to seek information regarding continued research and testing of P-2 centrifuges. According to a Nov. 8 communication by Iran to the agency, this issue will be discussed in December 2007.

In addition to answering questions regarding its centrifuge efforts, Iran also provided the IAEA with a copy of a document it received from the Khan network describing the procedures for processing uranium hexafluoride into uranium metal and casting it into hemispheres. The agency had been requesting a copy of this document since 2005. Unlike the other activities under the work plan, however, there was no specified time frame for this cooperation, allowing Iran to determine when this information was provided to the IAEA.

International Reactions to IAEA Report

States took advantage of the mixed nature of the IAEA report to highlight either its positive or negative conclusions.

Western states focused on Iran’s failure to implement the suspension required by the Security Council, as well as the agency’s calls for more active cooperation and transparency. The U.S. envoy to the IAEA, Gregory Schulte, said in a Nov. 19 speech that the report “told us two things…that Iran was not providing full cooperation…and secondly, it told us that Iran is continuing to pursue uranium enrichment,” contrary to the demands of the Security Council. He added that Iran remains in violation of Security Council resolutions and that the sanctions process “needs to continue.”

European countries have expressed similar reactions. A French diplomat told Arms Control Today Nov. 20 that “suspension remains the key requirement” by the Security Council and IAEA. Moreover, the diplomat noted that Iran’s insufficient cooperation and its refusal to implement its additional protocol has “worrying consequences,” in the form of increasingly limited knowledge of its nuclear efforts.

Similarly, a German diplomat told Arms Control Today Nov. 15 that “Iran must take a more active role” in providing transparency and that the issue is not just one of the clarification of past activities but of the re-establishment of confidence in the peaceful nature of the program.

Chinese and Russian reactions have been characterized both by concern regarding Iran’s failure to comply with Security Council resolutions and by encouragement for continued efforts to carry out the IAEA-Iranian work plan.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Jianchao told reporters Nov. 20 that China hoped that Iran “will effectively abide by UN Security Council resolutions.” He indicated that Beijing did not favor pursuing additional sanctions, believing rather that “dialogue and negotiation should be given more time and scope.”

Similarly, a Russian diplomat told Arms Control Today Nov. 20 that Moscow has a positive attitude toward the report and believes that Iran should continue its cooperation with the agency, which should not be jeopardized by further sanctions. Indeed, Iranian lead nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili warned Nov. 17 that additional sanctions would “impact” Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA.

At the same time, Moscow continues to stress the need for Iran to agree to the suspension demanded by the Security Council. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mikhail Kamynin stated Nov. 19 that the conditions of the council “remain in effect and Iran should fulfill them.” The Russian diplomat interviewed Nov. 20 added that Moscow will continue to work with the Security Council in further meetings on this issue.

Iran, on the other hand, focused on the fact that the IAEA has not uncovered evidence of any proscribed activities. Speaking to the IAEA board Nov. 23, Soltanieh highlighted the report’s claim that Iran’s declarations are consistent with the agency’s findings. Noting also the IAEA’s verification of the nondiversion of nuclear material, he questioned the “technical and legal bases of the resolutions of the Board of Governors and UN Security Council demanding Iran to suspend the activities which do not exist.”

According to the September statement by the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, both the IAEA and Solana reports would be considered in the decision for an additional resolution. Solana has a mandate to see if Iran would be willing to enter negotiations by implementing a suspension, but expectations for a positive report appear low. Following a Nov. 30 meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Solana told reporters that he was “disappointed” with its outcome.

Over the last several months, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States have vocally supported taking additional sanctions measures outside the Security Council if another resolution is not passed. (See ACT, September 2007.) Although Germany has previously expressed resistance to such actions and has preferred to focus its efforts on Security Council action, it appears to be warming to the prospect of more unilateral or EU sanctions.

Speaking to reporters Nov. 16, German Foreign Ministry spokesperson Martin Jaeger stated that if the Security Council was unable to agree on a third resolution, Germany would “take up this issue in Europe and consider together what steps could be taken by Europe.”

A German diplomat told Arms Control Today Nov. 15 that Germany is still looking toward the Security Council for additional measures and the diplomat stated that Berlin “has not seen that it will be unable to get a third sanctions resolution.” The diplomat reiterated, however, that “there will be thinking about autonomous measures in the EU.”

In the past two years, Germany has taken steps to reduce its bilateral trade with Iran. As Tehran’s most significant European trading partner, Berlin has been under pressure from Washington and Paris to continue to scale back its business in Iran.