By Kelsey Davenport
Iran is making progress on the additional measures it agreed to take in July to roll back parts of its nuclear program, according to the most recent quarterly report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
These steps include moving part of Iran's stockpile of uranium powder enriched to 20 percent even further from the potential option of producing weapons-grade uranium.
According to the Sept. 5 report, Iran is continuing to comply with the conditions of the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), an interim deal that Iran and the P5+1 reached in November 2013. In total, these actions have halted Iran's nuclear progress and rolled back key elements of proliferation concern. Iran and the P5+1 agreed on July 19 to extend the JPOA through November 24, 2014.
The report also confirms that Iran provided information to the IAEA on three of the five actions Tehran pledged to complete by Aug. 25, although two actions were not completed until Aug. 31. This includes an updated safeguards agreement for the Arak heavy-water reactor and access to Iran's centrifuge production facilities.
The incomplete activities are two of the so-called possible military dimensions (PMDs) that the IAEA laid out in its November 2011 quarterly report.
Iran's delay in providing information on the two PMD actions is a serious problem, and it is essential that Tehran work with the agency to complete these activities in a timely fashion.
However, this delay should not disrupt the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 that are set to resume on Sept. 18. Negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear deal can result in a more intensive monitoring and verification regime that helps to ensure that any activities with possible military dimensions that may have been pursued in the past do not continue in the future.
New Steps on Track
When Iran and the P5+1 announced on July 19 that nuclear negotiations would be extended through November 24, Iran committed to convert another 25 kilograms of uranium powder enriched to 20 percent to fuel assemblies for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). In total, Iran produced 162 kilograms of the powder (U3O8) using 20 percent enriched gas.
As of the Sept. 5 report, Iran had converted 65.2 kilograms of uranium powder into 27 fuel assemblies for the TRR and one experimental assembly. Its stockpile of uranium powder enriched to 20 percent is now 97 kilograms. Based on the estimated amounts of U3O8 in each assembly, approximately 22 kilograms more will be fabricated into fuel assemblies before Nov. 24, some of which is currently in the process.
This is a positive step. Converting the gas to fuel plates makes it more difficult for Iran to further enrich this material to make weapons, should it chose to do so.
As part of its JPOA commitments, Iran neutralized its entire stockpile of uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to 20 percent by July 20. When implementation of the JPOA began on Jan. 20, Iran had 209 kilograms of 20 percent enriched material in gas form. Half was blended down to less than 5 percent enrichment and the remaining half was converted to a uranium powder.
According to the special monthly IAEA reports issued by the agency to track implementation of the JPOA, Iran completed these actions by July 20 and the entire stockpile of uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to 20 percent has been converted to solid form or diluted.
Prior to the JPOA, Iran had been converting some of the gas to powder form and then into fuel plates. The JPOA and terms of the extension are accelerating this process.
The 20 percent stockpile of uranium hexafluoride gas was of particular concern to the P5+1 because it can be much more easily enriched to weapons grade (greater than 90 percent U235) than beginning with civilian power-reactor grade, which is less than five percent enriched. Iran was moving closer to the 250 kilograms of 20 percent gas which, when further enriched to weapons grade is enough for a bomb.
While Iran has the technology to convert the plates back into gas for further enrichment, Tehran pledged not to set up a process that would allow conversion back to gas as part of the JPOA. If Iran did attempt such a move, it would be detected immediately by the IAEA.
Iran also said it would blend down its uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to less than 2 percent. This stockpile, known as the "tails" from the enrichment process, is to be blended down to natural uranium.
According to the Sept. 5 report, Iran told the agency on Aug. 17 it would blend down 4,118 kilograms of uranium enriched to less than 2 percent to natural uranium.
JPOA Still Being Implemented
The Sept. 5 report also finds that Iran is continuing to implement all of the agreed-upon actions from the JPOA.
According to the IAEA, the number of centrifuges enriching uranium to less than 5 percent continues to remain constant at about 10,200 first generation IR-1 machines.
Iran also has not installed any additional centrifuges at its Natanz and Fordow enrichment facilities. The number of installed centrifuges remains at about 19,000 first generation IR-1 machines and 1,008 IR-2M machines.
Natanz houses 15,420 IR-1s, of which 9,156 are operating, and the 1,008 IR-2Ms at its Fuel Enrichment Plant and 328 IR-1s at its Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant. Fordow houses about 2,700 IR-1s, of which 696 are operational.
The IAEA continues to have daily access to Natanz and Fordow for monitoring and verification purposes.
Under the JPOA, Iran also pledged to keep its stockpile of uranium enriched to less than 5 percent at the same level it had on Jan. 20, which was about 7, 560 kilograms. To maintain this level, Iran is converting uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to less than 5 percent into a powder form (UO2) that is suitable for making reactor fuel.
Iran began operating its Enriched Uranium Powder Plant in July 2014. According to the IAEA Iran has fed 1,505 kilograms into the conversion process. The Sept. 5 IAEA recorded Iran's stockpile of uranium enriched to less than 5 percent at 7,765 kilograms. As of the May report, the stockpile was about 8,470 kilograms.
Construction on the Arak heavy-water reactor remains frozen as per the JPOA, and Iran is allowing the IAEA regular monthly access to the site. As part of a separate track of negotiations with the IAEA, Iran and the agency completed a new safeguards approach for the reactor on Aug. 31.
Research and Development
Under the JPOA, Iran is allowed to continue research and development on its advanced centrifuges at the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant.
According to the Sept. 5 report, Iran is continuing to test other advanced centrifuges, the IR-4, IR-6, and IR-6s machines in single centrifuges and cascades at the facility, although these machines are not producing enriched uranium. There is also a single IR-5 machine that is not being fed with uranium hexafluoride.
The Sept. 5 report does not offer any new information or indicate any developments related to a centrifuge casing installed in the research and development facility that Iran refers to as the IR-8. The casing was noted as well in the May and February reports.
New Info on New Facilities
In the two prior quarterly reports in February and May, Iran provided information about a new light-water reactor it intends to build near Shiraz. In the Sept. 5 report there are no additional details or timeline for the facility.
Slower Progress on IAEA-Iran Track
Iran is also negotiating separately with the IAEA to resolve the agency's outstanding concerns about Iran's nuclear program. Iran agreed to provide the IAEA information on five areas of concern by Aug. 25 as part of this negotiation track. Two of the areas were PMD issues, and three related to Iran's nuclear facilities.
The two PMD issues are: initiation of high explosives; and modelling and calculations related to neutron transport and their application to compressed materials.
According to the Sept. 5 report, Iran has provided the IAEA with information and access on three areas related to its nuclear facilities, but has yet to submit information on the PMD issues. Iran and the IAEA discussed these issues at the Aug. 31 meeting.
Included in the three areas are an updated safeguards approach for the Arak heavy-water reactor and IAEA access to Iran's centrifuge production areas and centrifuge research facilities.
The IAEA was given access to the centrifuge assembly shops before the Aug. 25 deadline. On August 30, Iran granted agency inspectors access to its centrifuge research and development centre (note: this is different than the research and development area at Natanz where advanced centrifuges are tested. The IAEA has daily access to the Natanz site). The safeguards approach was concluded on Aug. 31.
These actions will give the agency a clearer picture of Iran's nuclear program and help ensure that materials are not being siphoned off for covert activities.
These actions have been taken as part of a November 11, 2013 agreement between Iran and the IAEA to resolve the agency's concerns about Tehran's nuclear facilities and the PMDs of its nuclear program.
Between November and February, Iran provided the agency with information on seven areas of concern to the IAEA. These actions were largely related to Iran's nuclear facilities, materials, and past work on laser enrichment. In February, Iran agreed to an additional six actions to be completed by May, including on one of the PMD issues, exploding bridge-wire detonators.
Iran provided the IAEA with information on these six areas by the May deadline. The information on exploding bridge wire detonators marked the first PMD cooperation since 2008.
According to the May 23 IAEA report, Iran provided this information, explaining that "the simultaneous firing of EWB (exploding bridgewire detonators) was tested for civilian application."
The Sept. 5 report indicated that the IAEA followed up on this issue with Iran. Despite urging from Tehran to close the bridge-wire detonator issue, IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano said on an Aug. 17 visit to Tehran that the agency must assess all of the PMD issues together before making any determinations.
The IAEA requested that Iran suggest new actions by Sept. 2, but as of this report, Iran had not complied.
As the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 on a comprehensive nuclear deal are about to resume on Sept. 18, this IAEA report is an important indication that Iran is following through on its JPOA commitments. Delays on the Iran-IAEA track should not be an excuse to stall negotiations. If anything, it underscores the necessity of intrusive monitoring and verification for the future to ensure that PMD activities do not resume.
The interim deal has halted progress on Iran's nuclear program, rolled back some of the most proliferation sensitive aspects, and put in place more intrusive monitoring and verification.
A comprehensive deal must build on this success and define Iran's nuclear program in a way that allows Tehran to continue civil nuclear activities with IAEA monitoring and verification and assures the international community that Iran's nuclear program is entirely peaceful. In return, Iran should receive phased sanctions relief from the US, EU, and UN Security Council.
The next three months are critical. A diplomatic solution is the only way to resolve the impasse over Iran's nuclear program, and over the past decade, negotiators have never been this close to reaching an effective and long-lasting agreement.
A deal is within reach, if both sides are willing to be flexible and creative.