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"ACA's journal, Arms Control Today, remains the best in the market. Well focused. Solidly researched. Prudent."

– Hans Blix
Former IAEA Director-General
Peter Crail

China Releases Defense White Paper

Peter Crail and Nik Gebben

China formally released its seventh defense white paper March 30, providing an overview of China’s military strategy, its security threats, and its arms control policies.

During a press briefing that day on the release of the report, entitled “China’s National Defense in 2010,” Chinese military officials highlighted the document as part of Beijing’s efforts at greater military openness. However, it is unclear if the document addresses U.S. concerns about China’s lack of military transparency. An April 5 Congressional Research Service memorandum says that the white paper “did not provide a picture to assess whether China poses a threat [to the United States], because the White Paper is heavy on intentions rather than details on military capabilities.”

For example, the report does not mention China’s development of an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) capability, believed to be geared toward countering U.S. aircraft carriers. An annual Pentagon report on China’s military released last year said that “when integrated with appropriate command and control systems,” China’s ASBM capability “is intended to provide the [Chinese military] the capability to attack ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific Ocean.”

Much of the white paper’s discussion of China’s strategic nuclear forces and arms control efforts reiterates the policies described in previous versions. Beijing repeated its pledge not to use nuclear weapons first in any conflict and described its adherence to multilateral nonproliferation agreements.

It expanded its criticism of what it calls “the global missile defense program.” Apparently referring to U.S. missile defense cooperation efforts, it said that “China holds that no state should deploy overseas missile defense systems that have strategic missile defense capabilities or potential, or engage in any such international collaboration.”

 

China formally released its seventh defense white paper March 30, providing an overview of China’s military strategy, its security threats, and its arms control policies.

Syria Allows Uranium Plant Inspection

Peter Crail

Syria has given the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to an additional site tied to the country’s nuclear program, a move the agency characterized in a Feb. 25 report as a positive but insufficient step to address concerns about Syria’s nuclear activities.

The report indicated that Syria agreed in February to allow inspection of a pilot plant near the city of Homs that produces a uranium concentrate called yellowcake through the purification of phosphoric acid. Yellowcake is a precursor in the production of fuel for nuclear reactors. In April 2008, the United States formally accused Syria of constructing a nuclear reactor at Dair al Zour for the purpose of developing nuclear weapons, a charge Syria denies. Israel destroyed the suspected reactor building in September 2007.

The Homs visit is part of a “plan of action” agreed between Syria and the IAEA last September to address the agency’s concerns about undeclared nuclear experiments Syria conducted at its Miniature Neutron Source Reactor in Damascus using unreported nuclear material. (See ACT, October 2010.) In 2009 the agency discovered chemically processed uranium particles not declared as part of Syria’s nuclear research efforts. After initially providing explanations inconsistent with the IAEA findings, Syria admitted to carrying out small-scale uranium-conversion and -irradiation experiments at the facility using yellowcake produced at Homs.

The agency is seeking to determine whether the Homs plant had produced larger quantities of yellowcake than Syria has reported.

According to a November 2010 IAEA report, Syria told the agency last October that the Homs plant was not subject to IAEA safeguards and that “further aspects of the Agency’s request for access needed to be discussed and clarified” before Syria could admit inspection. The IAEA does not apply standard safeguards to yellowcake because it is a form of uranium at the very early stages of creating nuclear fuel or material for a nuclear weapon.

In its recent report, the agency said that Syria’s decision to provide access to the Homs plant and to work with the agency to resolve outstanding technical issues “could represent a step forward.” However, the report added that “Syria’s responses to date under the agreed plan of action do not resolve the inconsistencies identified by the Agency.”

Syria allowed the agency to visit the suspected reactor site at Dair al Zour only once, in June 2008, and has refused repeated IAEA requests for a return inspection. Damascus also has rejected IAEA visits to three additional locations the agency has said in its reports are “allegedly functionally related to the Dair al Zour site.”

The agency detected traces of chemically processed uranium at Dair al Zour in 2008; the existence of such material may indicate the presence of nuclear fuel. It is unclear, however, what the source of the fuel for a suspected nuclear reactor would have been and whether the uranium originated in Syria.

The United States welcomed Syria’s decision to provide the IAEA access to the Homs plant but insisted that it does not address the primary concern of Syria’s suspected reactor construction at Dair al Zour.

Glyn Davies, U.S. permanent representative to the IAEA, told the agency’s governing board March 9, “We must not accept Syria’s attempts to pick and choose those aspects of the plan of action—or, indeed, of Syria’s Safeguards Agreement—on which it would like to cooperate.”

Davies added that even without Syrian cooperation in providing information on the activities at the Dair al Zour site, the IAEA director-general can give the board “his best assessment as to whether the Dair al Zour facility was in fact an undeclared nuclear reactor.”

 

 

Syria has given the International Atomic Energy Agency access to a facility linked to the country’s nuclear program, but the agency and the U.S. government say Damascus must do more to address concerns about suspected undeclared activities.

 

Iran Prepares Improved Centrifuges

Peter Crail

Iran intends to begin its first full-scale testing of its second-generation centrifuge models, according to a Feb. 25 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report, a move that could allow Tehran to increase the rate at which it enriches uranium.

Even after the testing process, however, Iran would not be able to raise the rate significantly unless it were able to mass produce and operate new machines on a large scale. Current and former U.S. and IAEA officials said they doubted Iran maintained the capabilities to do that.

“Our understanding is that these advanced centrifuges are not yet ready for mass production,” Robert Einhorn, the Department of State’s special adviser for arms control and nonproliferation, said during a March 9 Arms Control Association briefing. “The Iranians don’t yet have sufficient confidence” in the new centrifuges to mass produce and operate them, he said.

Gas centrifuges spin at high speeds to increase the concentration of the fissile isotope uranium-235 from the levels found in natural uranium, a process called enrichment. Low-enriched uranium (LEU) commonly is used to fuel nuclear reactors while highly enriched uranium (HEU) can be used in the core of a nuclear weapon.

The IAEA report said that Iran informed the agency in January of its intention to install two 164-machine cascades of its newly developed centrifuges, called the IR-2m and the IR-4, at its pilot enrichment plant for testing. To date, Iran has tested these improved models only in cascades of up to 20 machines.

The cascades at Iran’s commercial-scale Natanz plant, where it produces its enriched uranium, operate in 164 linked machines using an older, crash-prone centrifuge model called the P-1.

An eventual move to make use of the new centrifuge models would likely increase Iran’s uranium-enrichment capacity. “The increase from 20- to 164-machine cascades for the second-generation centrifuges heightens concern that Iran may be on the edge of a breakthrough that would sharply reduce the timeline for HEU production,” Mark Fitzpatrick, former deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, said in a March 21 e-mail.

Although the performance of Iran’s newer centrifuge models is unclear, former IAEA safeguards chief Olli Heinonen indicated in a March 2 presentation that the IR-2m has about three times the potential capacity of the P-1.

Tehran obtained the P-1 centrifuge, as well as the more advanced P-2 model, from the nuclear smuggling network run by Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan, who stole the designs from Europe. Both the IR-2m and IR-4 are believed to be derived from the P-2 machine. Iran developed other models based on the P-2, but has since abandoned them.

Iran’s decision to continue developing two different models of second-generation centrifuges might point to continued difficulties in their development and deployment. Fitzpatrick said that running the new designs in parallel “suggests that they have not yet ironed out all the bugs in either model.”

Heinonen said in a March 21 interview that Iran also may have decided to pursue both designs because of material constraints. He said he would not be surprised if Iran were to install both sets of machines for regular operations, expanding them as access to resources allowed.

Unlike the IR-2m, the IR-4 uses a key component called a bellows, made of carbon fiber, to connect multiple centrifuge rotors. Iranian technicians initially determined that they were unable to manufacture this sensitive part, opting instead for single-rotor machines such as the IR-2m. Iran appears to have overcome its initial difficulties in manufacturing bellows, but may still face constraints building them in sufficient numbers.

Last April, Iran unveiled what it called a third-generation centrifuge capable of enriching uranium five times faster than the P-1. Although Iranian officials said at the time that they would begin testing the machines within several months and might need a year to install a cascade, Iran has not conducted any work on this new model at its declared nuclear facilities. The February IAEA report said that Iran has not provided the agency with any information about the announced third-generation machine.

Iran has claimed to have carried out work on its P-2-based centrifuge designs intermittently since 1995, when it received the initial design and components from the Khan network. In 2006, Tehran announced that it was working on newer centrifuge models at undeclared sites, and in January 2008, it began testing these models at its pilot plant under IAEA safeguards. Since that time, Iran slowly has worked to develop and test its design modifications.

 “It’s taken quite a long time for [Iran] to graduate from the P-1’s to more advanced centrifuges,” Einhorn said at the March 9 event. He added that Iran’s delays in developing the newer machines “lengthened the amount of time in which Iran could ‘break out’ in a meaningful way,” referring to the process by which Iran might eject IAEA inspectors, leave the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and build nuclear weapons.

Einhorn suggested that it would not make sense for Iran to take those actions while relying on the P-1 centrifuge, “which produces material so inefficiently.”

Heinonen agreed, stating that the P-1’s design flaws were “technically obvious” and provided a poor route for quickly producing material for nuclear weapons. He said that Iran would need both a longer time frame to enrich uranium to weapons grade and more material if it decided to use the P-1, due to the amount of waste that would occur.

In an apparent attempt to address some of its problems with the P-1, Iran has expanded 12 of the 53 installed cascades at its commercial-scale Natanz plant to hold 174 machines, rather than 164, the recent IAEA report said. Heinonen indicated that doing so would reduce the impact of centrifuge failures, which lower the enrichment levels for the cascade.

The move follows Iran’s admission last fall that the commercial-scale enrichment facility had been infected with the Stuxnet virus, widely believed to have been an industrial sabotage effort by Western countries, including the United States. (See ACT, January/February 2011.) Iran’s acknowledgment coincided with a halt to centrifuge operations for a week in mid-November.

Continued IAEA Frustration

In addition to noting Iran’s intentions regarding its improved centrifuges, the IAEA report signaled continued frustration with Iran’s lack of cooperation with the agency. The report describes itself as “focus[ing] on areas where Iran has not fully implemented its binding obligations.” Fulfillment of those obligations “is needed to establish international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program,” the report says.

An annex to the report includes a detailed list of those obligations, which are drawn from Iran’s safeguards agreement with the agency and UN Security Council resolutions.

Iran claims that the council’s demands to suspend its sensitive nuclear fuel-cycle activities are illegal and that it is cooperating fully with the IAEA investigation.

In a March 9 statement to the agency’s governing board, Iranian IAEA envoy Ali Asghar Soltanieh said that the Security Council references in the IAEA report prove Iran’s assertion that the goal of the resolutions is “the suspension of the entire nuclear fuel cycle, paving the way for the ultimate cessation of all nuclear activities in Iran.” That would deprive Iran of its rights under the NPT, he argued.

The so-called P5+1, comprising the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Germany, issued a joint statement to the board the same day reaffirming their commitment to continue diplomatic engagement with Iran while calling on the country to make its nuclear activities more transparent to the IAEA. The six countries also appeared to counter Soltanieh’s claim about the council’s aims, stating, “It remains our wish to establish a cooperative relationship with Iran in many fields including that of peaceful nuclear technology—where of course we fully recognize Iran’s rights under the NPT.”

Under the NPT, non-nuclear-weapon states have broad rights to develop peaceful nuclear energy programs, but they must accept IAEA safeguards to ensure that there is no “diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”

Bushehr Reactor Fuel Removed

The IAEA report also revealed that Iran intended to unload the fuel from the core of its first nuclear power reactor due to a last-minute technical hurdle that posed safety concerns.

A Feb. 28 statement by Russia’s state-run nuclear energy conglomerate Rosatom, which is responsible for the reactor’s construction and initial operations, said the fuel is being removed from the reactor because “internal elements belonging to one of the four cooling pumps were found damaged,” raising the risk that small particles could get into the reactor fuel assemblies during operations.

A diplomatic source said March 22 that the fuel unloading already had begun but that it was unclear how long it would take to unload and test the fuel.

The move is the latest in decades of delays that have plagued the reactor since its construction began near the city of Bushehr in 1975. Before this latest incident, Iran intended to begin generating electricity from the reactor April 9, coinciding with its National Nuclear Technology Day.

Kraftwerk Union, the German firm that began constructing two reactors at the Bushehr site, withdrew from the project over a payment dispute in 1979 shortly after the Iranian Revolution. Russia took over construction in 1995, but due to technical, financial, and political delays, it was unable to finish construction until the fall of 2009.

Some of the technical problems have been the result of integrating the Russian technology with the original German components. The damaged cooling pump was left over from the Kraftwerk Union project.

The timing of Bushehr’s most recent technical problems, just weeks before a series of natural disasters crippled a Japanese nuclear power plant and spread radiation from the reactors, led Iranian officials to offer additional reassurance about the safety of the Bushehr project.

When asked during a March 15 Spanish public television interview if Iran’s nuclear reactor could withstand an earthquake and tsunami similar to the ones that led to Japan’s nuclear accident, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted, “We have observed all security measures at the Bushehr nuclear plant.”

 

Iran apparently is on the verge of starting full-scale testing of more powerful centrifuges, but a senior U.S. official and other experts said Tehran would not necessarily be able to produce and use those machines in large quantities.

Russia Ratifies African NWFZ

Peter Crail

The Russian Duma on March 14 approved a protocol that commits Russia not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons anywhere in Africa.

The protocol is part of the Treaty of Pelindaba, which establishes a zone free of nuclear weapons in Africa, prohibiting countries in the region from developing or acquiring nuclear weapons. Although Russia is not party to the treaty, the five nuclear-weapon states recognized by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—were requested to ratify protocols prohibiting the use of nuclear weapons in the zone as further incentive for states in the region to join the pact. Such protocols also are included in four other existing zones, located in South America, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia.

In remarks to Russian lawmakers March 11, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov noted that Russia’s signature included a reservation that Moscow does not believe the treaty applies to the island of Diego Garcia, a British-controlled island that houses a U.S. military base. Mauritius, a state-party to the treaty, claims the archipelago to which the island belongs.

The Russian ratification leaves the United States as the only nuclear-weapon state not to endorse the pact. Last year, the Obama administration reversed long-standing U.S. reluctance to ratify the zone’s protocol and pledged to seek Senate advice and consent for ratification.

The Pelindaba treaty was opened for signature in 1996 and obtained enough ratifications from countries in the region to enter into force in July 2009. (See ACT, September 2009.)

 

The Russian Duma on March 14 approved a protocol that commits Russia not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons anywhere in Africa.

South Korea Rejects Talks Offer From North

Peter Crail

South Korea has rebuffed a North Korean suggestion that multilateral denuclearization talks should resume without preconditions, including on the North’s uranium-enrichment program. South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan told reporters March 17 that Pyongyang’s offer for renewed talks “is far short of what is needed,” calling on North Korea instead to “show with action, not words, its sincerity about its commitment” to abandon its nuclear weapons programs.

In 2005, North Korea agreed to abandon all nuclear activities as part of six-party talks with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States.

A spokesman for the North Korean Foreign Ministry quoted in the official Korean Central News Agency March 15 said that North Korea expressed its willingness to return to the six-party talks to visiting Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin and was “not opposed” to discussing its uranium-enrichment activities, including accepting international inspections of an enrichment facility it revealed last year.

For several years, Pyongyang denied pursuing an enrichment capability. The issue was central to the collapse of a 1994 U.S.-North Korean denuclearization agreement in 2002.

The United States and its allies in the region have maintained that prior to restarting negotiations, North Korea must demonstrate its commitment to uphold previous denuclearization agreements and improve relations with South Korea.

North-South relations have remained tense since two incidents last year involving a suspected North Korean attack on a South Korean naval vessel and North Korean artillery strikes against its southern neighbor.

 

South Korea has rebuffed a North Korean suggestion that multilateral denuclearization talks should resume without preconditions, including on the North’s uranium-enrichment program.

Pakistan’s Nuclear Buildup Vexes FMCT Talks

Peter Crail

Pakistan declared in January that it had strengthened its opposition to negotiating a treaty banning the production of fissile material as it prepared to bolster its nuclear arsenal.

Islamabad’s position threatens to prolong a 14-year stalemate in the Conference on Disarmament (CD), the United Nations’ arms control negotiating body, which operates on a consensus basis. Pakistan has been the only country blocking the start of negotiations on a so-called fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) at the CD for more than two years, leading some of the body’s 65 member states to search for ways around the Pakistani roadblock, including holding negotiations outside the CD.

Zamir Akram, Pakistan’s ambassador to the CD, reiterated in a Jan. 25 statement that Pakistan opposes opening negotiations on an FMCT in the CD because of a 2008 agreement by the world’s key nuclear technology suppliers to lift long-standing restrictions on nuclear trade with India. (See ACT, October 2008.) This action, he said, “will further accentuate the asymmetry in fissile materials stockpiles in the region, to the detriment of Pakistan’s security interests.”

Pakistan and other critics of the move by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which now has 46 members, have argued that, because India now has access to the international nuclear market, it can purchase foreign uranium for its nuclear power reactors and therefore keep its limited domestic uranium reserves for its military program, potentially allowing it to field a larger nuclear arsenal.

Islamabad has maintained that a fissile material ban must cover existing stocks of fissile material instead of simply halting future production, a position backed by several other CD members, primarily from the developing world. Most nuclear weapons possessors, including India, insist on a production cutoff that does not address current stockpiles.

Akram added that Pakistan’s opposition was further hardened by a U.S. call for India’s eventual admission to the NSG, a move he characterized as an “irresponsible undertaking” that “shall further destabilize security in South Asia.” (See ACT, December 2010.) According to Akram, because such admission would allow India to enhance its own nuclear arsenal, “Pakistan will be forced to take measures to ensure the credibility of its deterrence.”

Pakistan has sought to counter India’s conventional and nuclear weapons capabilities by expanding its nuclear arsenal and moving from larger highly enriched uranium-based weapons to more compact plutonium-based warheads.

Those efforts reportedly include the construction of two additional plutonium-producing nuclear reactors at Pakistan’s Khushab nuclear complex. Pakistan already has two such reactors at the site, producing an estimated combined total of 22 kilograms of plutonium each year, enough for up to four nuclear weapons. Islamabad began constructing a third reactor in 2006 and, according to satellite imagery analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security, started work on a fourth in recent months.

After steadily increasing its nuclear weapons stockpile over a number of years, Pakistan is estimated to have up to 110 warheads, all of which are believed to be maintained in central storage, rather than deployed with their delivery systems. Responding to recent reports of Pakistan’s nuclear buildup, Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit told reporters Feb. 1, “Pakistan is mindful of the need to avoid an arms race with India,” noting Islamabad’s policy of maintaining a “credible minimum deterrent” against its South Asian rival. It is not clear, however, what such a credible minimum deterrent entails.

Seeking a Path Around Pakistan

During the opening of the CD’s 2011 session, the body’s president, Ambassador Marius Grinius of Canada, said there was no agreement on a program of work for the CD, effectively preventing it from beginning substantive negotiations. The CD last adopted a program of work in 2009 after nearly a decade of disagreement, but Pakistan broke the consensus soon after over the FMCT, preventing negotiations from commencing.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon held a high-level meeting last September to help “revitalize” the stalled CD, but diplomats said last fall that the session only retraced existing divisions. (See ACT, December 2010.) Several states expressed frustration with the CD stalemate during that meeting and raised the option of pursuing FMCT negotiations outside the CD if progress was not made in 2011. Pakistan, China, and a number of developing countries opposed such a prospect.

In their opening remarks to the 2011 session of the CD, many delegations, including those from the European Union, Japan, Mexico, and the United States, reiterated the potential for an alternative negotiating process on an FMCT. Rose Gottemoeller, U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification, and compliance, told the body Jan. 27 that “the longer the CD languishes, the louder and more persistent such calls will become.” She stressed in a press briefing later that day, however, that it is the “absolute first priority” of the United States to seek negotiations inside the CD. She declined to speculate on other options.

Although delegations would not say how much time the CD should be given to resolve the current impasse, Mexico’s ambassador to the CD, Juan José Camacho, proposed in a Jan. 25 statement that members establish a deadline for the CD to adopt a program of work.

Stressing the importance of preserving the function of the CD as the sole multilateral negotiating body for arms control, Ban warned in Jan. 26 remarks to the body, “We must not risk pushing states to resort to alternative arrangements outside the Conference on Disarmament.” He expressed support for starting an informal process on an FMCT in the CD prior to beginning negotiations in order to build trust among members.

The United States indicated that if there was no agreement to start FMCT negotiations, it would back a dual track of formal and informal FMCT talks. “We strongly support the idea of robust plenary discussion on broad FMCT issues, reinforced by expert-level technical discussions on specific FMCT topics,” Gottemoeller said.

Throughout February, CD members held plenary discussions on an FMCT, as well as other issues on the body’s agenda. In addition, Australia and Japan co-hosted a first round of expert-level talks in mid-February focused on the subject of defining key aspects of a treaty, including what would be considered fissile material and what constitutes production of that material. Diplomats from CD members said in February that a second round of experts’ talks on verification is expected this month.

Although several states supported the Australian-Japanese initiative, China and Pakistan said in remarks to the CD Feb. 17 that they did not attend the session. Chinese CD ambassador Wang Qun told the body that conclusions drawn from such informal discussions did not have standing in the CD. Akram raised concerns that such informal talks could undermine the role of the CD as the sole negotiating body for such issues.

In spite of Islamabad’s opposition, “Pakistan has not taken any action to date to seek to block either the plenary discussions or the expert-level talks,” a State Department official said in a Feb. 22 e-mail to Arms Control Today. The official added that although Pakistan could “create some problems on the plenary discussions,” it would not be able to prevent the expert-level talks, which are being hosted on a national basis although they still are linked to the CD.

Diplomats from states supporting the experts’ talks told Arms Control Today that even if the talks are being held on an informal basis, delegations initially opposing them may realize after some time that their interests are served better by participating in them, rather than being left out. They also stressed that such discussions are important for addressing complex technical issues before negotiations begin and could lay the groundwork for eventual negotiations in the meantime.

 

Pakistan has stiffened its opposition to talks on a fissile material cutoff treaty in the UN Conference on Disarmament, prompting some countries to start looking for new ways to make progress on the pact.

N. Korea Judged to Have More Enrichment Sites

Peter Crail

North Korea likely is maintaining uranium-enrichment facilities beyond the one revealed to a U.S. nuclear weapons expert last year, U.S. intelligence officials told a Senate panel Feb. 16.

In testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that the scale and level of development of the enrichment facility at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex suggest that the country probably has pursued uranium-enrichment capabilities for some time.

“If so, there is a clear prospect that [North Korea] has built other uranium-enrichment-related facilities in its territory, including likely [research and development] and centrifuge-fabrication facilities and other enrichment facilities,” he added.

Last November, Pyongyang showed former Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Siegfried Hecker a newly constructed enrichment plant containing about 2,000 centrifuges after announcing that it intended to build and fuel a small light-water nuclear power reactor. (See ACT, December 2010.)

Such a plant can be used to enrich uranium to the low levels commonly used to fuel nuclear power plants or the high levels used in nuclear weapons. Many enrichment plants, including those in development by North Korea and Iran, use gas centrifuges to separate uranium isotopes, increasing the concentration of the fissile isotope uranium-235.

The U.S. intelligence assessment appears consistent with a recent UN panel report that reportedly concluded that North Korea must have additional enrichment facilities. Last December, the UN Security Council tasked a panel of experts responsible for assessing the implementation of UN sanctions against North Korea with examining Hecker’s claims regarding North Korea’s enrichment efforts. International inspectors have not had access to North Korean nuclear facilities since May 2009. North Korea ejected International Atomic Energy Agency monitors when it withdrew from multilateral denuclearization talks that same month. Diplomatic sources said that China blocked the council’s formal adoption and release of the report, which included recommendations for additional sanctions on North Korea. One diplomat said that China prefers to address North Korea’s enrichment program in multilateral negotiations.

The United States long has suspected North Korea of developing an enrichment program to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons, but intelligence assessments appear to have varied over the scale of the North Korean effort. A 1994 U.S.-North Korean denuclearization agreement collapsed in 2002 after U.S. officials accused Pyongyang of violating that accord by developing a uranium-enrichment capability, a claim North Korea rejected.

For years, Pyongyang denied pursuing uranium-enrichment capabilities despite widespread suspicions and public claims by Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf that North Korea received gas centrifuge technology from a nuclear smuggling network run by Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan. North Korea first publicly admitted to an enrichment program in June 2009, after leaving multilateral disarmament negotiations. (See ACT, July/August 2009.)

Japan and South Korea last month declared that North Korea’s enrichment program violates Security Council resolutions as well as North Korea’s previous denuclearization commitments. “We agreed that the international community’s concerns over uranium enrichment should be taken up at an appropriate forum like the UN Security Council,” Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said during a Feb. 16 joint press conference in Tokyo with his South Korean counterpart, Kim Sung-hwan.

After speaking with Chinese officials in Beijing, however, Wi Sung-lac, South Korean special representative for Korean peninsula peace and security affairs, told reporters in Seoul Feb. 11, “China does not agree with taking the issue to the UN Security Council.”

Beijing has called for a resumption of the six-party talks to address the North Korean nuclear issue. The talks involve the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States.

The United States, South Korea, and Japan maintain that before those denuclearization talks can resume, Pyongyang must work to improve relations with Seoul following two military incidents last year and that it must demonstrate a willingness to abide by its prior denuclearization obligations.

North-South relations deteriorated sharply last year following the torpedoing of a South Korean naval vessel in March and a North Korean artillery attack on a South Korean island in November. Although a multilateral investigation concluded that North Korea carried out the torpedo attack, Pyongyang has denied it. With regard to the November incident, Pyongyang says it fired artillery in response to South Korean military exercises. Seoul has insisted that North Korea take responsibility for both actions.

For the first time since those two incidents, North and South Korea held military talks at the truce village of Panmunjom Feb. 8-9, but those discussions ended without agreement on an agenda for future, higher-level talks.

 

North Korea probably has multiple uranium enrichment-related facilities, U.S. intelligence officials said, following North Korea’s decision to reveal one such facility last year.

U.S. Updates Iran Assessment

Peter Crail

Iran is keeping open the option of developing nuclear weapons eventually, but it is not clear that Tehran will decide to do so, U.S. intelligence officials told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Feb. 16. The briefing, which was part of an annual intelligence community overview of threats to the United States, coincided with a long-delayed formal update of a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear program. Intelligence officials held briefings on the revised judgments with administration officials and members of Congress in February.

Unlike the 2007 NIE, in which the intelligence community prepared a public summary of “key judgments,” an unclassified summary of the updated assessment is not expected. Many of the key conclusions from the 2007 assessment were reiterated in a Feb. 16 written statement by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to the Senate panel.

Clapper said that Iran is keeping open the option of developing nuclear weapons through the pursuit of various nuclear capabilities but that the intelligence community did not know if Iran eventually would decide to build nuclear weapons.

He also said that the advancement of Iran’s nuclear capabilities strengthened the intelligence community’s assessment that Tehran has the capacity to produce nuclear weapons eventually, “making the central issue the political will to do so.”

Moreover, Iran’s decision-making on the nuclear issue “is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran,” Clapper said.

Among Iran’s nuclear capabilities, Clapper specifically cited Iran’s advances in uranium enrichment. Uranium can be enriched to low levels commonly used in nuclear power reactors or to high levels for potential use in nuclear weapons. Clapper said that the intelligence community judges that Iran “is technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium [HEU] for a weapon in the next few years, if it chooses to do so.”

The 2007 NIE said that Iran would be technically capable of producing HEU between 2010 and 2015, although it noted that the Department of State’s intelligence bureau judged that Iran was unlikely to do so before 2013 due to technical and programmatic hurdles.

One central judgment from the 2007 NIE that Clapper’s statement did not address was the intelligence community’s assessment of Iran’s nuclear warhead development and covert uranium-conversion and -enrichment activities. In 2007 the intelligence community judged “with high confidence” that Iran suspended such efforts in the fall of 2003 and concluded “with moderate confidence” that Iran maintained that halt through mid-2007. (See ACT, January/February 2008.)

Statements from senior intelligence officials over the past year have suggested that Iran has engaged in research on nuclear weapons designs at least since the 2007 NIE. “I think they continue to work on designs in that area,” CIA Director Leon Panetta told ABC’s This Week June 27.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has sought explanations from Iran regarding the agency’s “concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile,” according to a February 2010 IAEA report. (See ACT, March 2010.) Those concerns stem from intelligence information provided to the agency over the past several years, including digital documentation reportedly smuggled out of Iran. Tehran has rejected much of that information as forgeries and has not cooperated with the IAEA probe.

The public disclosure of a previously secret uranium-enrichment plant under construction near the city of Qom in September 2009 also raised questions about Iran’s renewed pursuit of covert enrichment facilities. U.S. intelligence officials said at that time that although the facility had been under construction since 2006, it was not until early 2009 that the intelligence community was able to determine that the site was a uranium-enrichment facility. (See ACT, October 2009.)

Although the new assessment is a more formal update of the previous intelligence judgment, policymakers have likely received revised intelligence assessments of Iran’s capabilities in various forms for some time. “I expect that numerous judgments have been flowing all along over the last couple of years from the intelligence agencies to the policymakers with regard to this topic,” Paul Pillar, former CIA national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, said at a Nov. 22 briefing hosted by the Arms Control Association.

Negotiations Hit Roadblock

The updated intelligence assessment followed an inconclusive Jan. 21-22 meeting between the “P5+1”—the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Germany—and Iran on Iran’s nuclear program. The parties did not arrive at any substantive agreement during the two-day meet in Istanbul, nor did they agree to further talks.

In a Jan. 22 statement, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, who represents the P5+1, expressed disappointment with the outcome. “We had hoped to embark on a discussion of practical ways forward,” she said, noting that the six countries went to Istanbul “with specific practical proposals which would build trust.”

Those proposals included an updated version of a nuclear fuel swap arrangement first put forward by the United States in 2009 and additional transparency measures to improve IAEA monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program. (See ACT, November 2009.)

P5+1 diplomats said that the updated fuel swap offer entailed removing a larger amount of low-enriched uranium (LEU) from Iran than the 1,200 kilograms initially proposed. Iran has produced about an additional 1,400 kilograms of 4 percent LEU since the original offer. The new proposal also would remove Iran’s smaller reserves of 20 percent-enriched uranium and halt any further enrichment at that level, which Iran initiated in February 2010.

Diplomats also indicated that the transparency measures proposed were consistent with those sought by the IAEA.

Ashton said that rather than discussing these proposals, Tehran established two preconditions for any progress: recognition of Iran’s claimed right to enrich uranium and the lifting of international sanctions.

With regard to enrichment, she reiterated the P5+1’s recognition of Iran’s right to civil nuclear energy, stressing that it was Iran’s responsibility to demonstrate that such a program is exclusively peaceful.

The nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, of which Iran is a member, recognizes a state’s “inalienable right” to a peaceful nuclear energy program as long as non-nuclear-weapon state members abide by their commitment not to pursue nuclear weapons. The treaty does not reference specific nuclear activities such as enrichment.

Ashton noted that the conditions for lifting international sanctions are specified in the UN resolutions and that “those do not exist today.” She indicated in particular that the removal of sanctions would accompany the re-establishment of international confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear activities.

Although the P5+1 have rejected Iran’s preconditions, they stated their willingness to continue to engage in negotiations over the proposals they forwarded.

Iran also indicated that it was open to further talks. Iranian chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili told reporters Jan. 22, “We are still prepared for further negotiations with the P5+1, based on common issues.”

Jalili’s willingness to engage in further discussions appeared to contradict claims by other key Iranian officials that the Istanbul talks might present the final opportunity for negotiations. Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, told reporters in France Jan. 12 that “the Istanbul meeting might be the last chance for the West to return to talks,” because Iran would install its own fuel rods in the Tehran Research Reactor rather than import them as part of the proposed fuel swap.

However, Iran is not believed to be capable of safely producing fuel plates for the reactor in the near future. Former IAEA Deputy Director-General for Safeguards Olli Heinonen said during the Nov. 22 briefing that Iran still needed one to two years to manufacture the reactor fuel safely.

 

Iran is keeping open the option of pursuing nuclear weapons but apparently has not yet decided to take that route, U.S. intelligence officials told Congress in an update of a 2007 assessment.

After the Istanbul Meeting with Iran: Maintaining Persistent Diplomacy

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Volume 2, Issue 1, February 3, 2011

Last month's multilateral talks in Istanbul on Iran's nuclear program ended inconclusively and without an agreement on further discussions. The lack of progress is unfortunate, but not surprising. As many observers noted before the meeting, while a diplomatic process provides the greatest chance for a peaceful resolution to the problem, there is no silver bullet; diplomacy will take time and will likely be fraught with stumbles and disagreements.

Fortunately, there is time to keep talking. Washington and its P5+1 partners (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom) can and should continue to pursue diplomacy with patient persistence to ensure that Tehran does not proceed to build the bomb.

Recent Israeli and U.S. assessments of Iran's nuclear program suggest there is still time before Iran could have a viable nuclear weapons capability.  A new report from the independent International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) released today provides a detailed technical analysis to support these assessments. The IISS researchers conclude that "it would take Iran at least two years to produce a single nuclear device," noting that "the timescale is significant because the likelihood of detection allows time for a negotiated solution."

Unfortunately, the Istanbul meeting has shown once again Tehran's unwillingness to take reasonable steps to dispel doubts about the purpose of its nuclear program. The proposals from the United States and its diplomatic partners put forward at the Istanbul meeting to build confidence were pragmatic and sharply contrasted with Iran's intransigent demand that certain preconditions be met before it agreed to negotiate.

U.S. diplomacy with Iran should continue in the same constructive spirit displayed in Istanbul, offering a realistic way forward, while maintaining international resolve if Iran refuses to take positive steps.

The P5+1's Constructive Approach

The P5+1 group put forward several confidence-building measures and maintained unity in response to Iran's terms for negotiations. A statement by EU High Representative Catherine Ashton on behalf of the six countries following the discussions in Istanbul said that the P5+1 group "put forward detailed ideas including an updated version of the [Tehran Research Reactor] TRR fuel exchange agreement and ways to improve transparency...."

The original TRR proposal, floated by the United States in 2009, entailed Iran exporting 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium (LEU) abroad and receiving fuel for the TRR, which produces medical isotopes. Domestic political challenges in Tehran reversed an initial Iranian agreement to that proposal. Since that time, Iran has accumulated a stockpile of over 3,000 kilograms of LEU and has begun producing uranium enriched to 20%, the enrichment level required for the TRR fuel but also a significant step closer to the level required for nuclear weapons.

The updated TRR fuel swap proposal reportedly sought to capture more of Iran's stockpile of LEU, aimed at ensuring that Iran is left with an amount of LEU that is insufficient for a bomb. In doing so, the renewed proposal is also intended to maintain a key confidence-building element for the international community: because Iran has no near-term peaceful use for this material, agreeing to export it would be a way of demonstrating that Tehran also has no near-term military use for the enriched uranium.

The updated proposal would also reportedly require that Iran halt the production of 20% uranium and export the nearly 30 kilograms that it has produced. Because Iran would receive fuel for the TRR, it would have no reason to continue producing 20%-enriched uranium. Moreover, Iran is likely one-to-two years from being able to fabricate TRR fuel which is safe for use, and by agreeing to such a deal, Iran could receive both fuel for the reactor and potentially arrange to import medical isotopes in the interim.

Along those lines, the new proposal addresses the deficiencies the United States, Russia and France (the so-called Vienna Group) found in the Tehran Declaration agreed between Iran, Turkey, and Brazil in May of last year. Although the Vienna Group dismissed  the Tehran Declaration at the time--issuing a letter of response the very morning that Ankara and Brasilia were considering sanctions on Iran at the UN Security Council, suggesting  a disinterest in bridging the diplomatic divide-- the substance of its  concerns was entirely appropriate. The Tehran Declaration did not address Iran's production of 20%-enriched uranium, nor did it incorporate Iran's production of LEU since October 2009.

In order to provide Iran with an incentive to export additional material, the renewed proposal would reportedly entail an agreement to convert LEU not used for the TRR into fuel for Iran's first nuclear reactor at Bushehr, which is set to begin operations early this year. Iran already has a commitment from Russia, which built the Bushehr plant, to fuel the reactor for the next 10 years. Tehran claims that its enrichment effort is geared towards fueling the plant after that timeframe, even though Russia has not, and is not likely to provide Iran with the proprietary information to enable such a plan. By exporting Iran's LEU for fuel production in Russia, that material can be used for the very purpose claimed by Tehran. Such an arrangement can also provide a possible precedent for circumstances under which Iran's enrichment work can truly be dedicated for peaceful uses.

Iran as the Roadblock

Given the domestic political difficulty the Iranian negotiators encountered when they first agreed to the fuel swap in October 2009, winning Iran's agreement to an updated proposal during a single meeting may not have been possible. But by all appearances, the Iranian negotiating team arrived in Istanbul on a tight leash from Tehran. Although Iran did meet separately with the Vienna Group, presumably for focused discussions on the TRR proposal, Tehran was not willing to hold bilateral meetings with the Western members of the P5+1. This suggests not only that Iran was engaging in its once-successful strategy of finding and exploiting fissures among the P5+1, but also that the negotiators were not given the leeway to engage in a meaningful exchange with the West.

Iran's unwillingness to seriously negotiate in Istanbul was clearly evident by the substance of its position as well. Tehran put forward two preconditions for negotiations that effectively put the brakes on any possible forward movement: the lifting of UN sanctions, and an acknowledgement of Iran's claimed "right" to enrichment.

The condition that UN sanctions be lifted in order for negotiations to proceed not only contradicts Iran's claims that the sanctions are meaningless, but it was also entirely unrealistic.

As Ashton noted in her January 22 statement, the UN resolutions specify the circumstances under which sanctions would be relieved. Moreover, there is an ongoing and active effort to implement and strengthen the international sanctions, and the Security Council just appointed a panel of experts to assess their implementation in November.

Iran perhaps sought to take advantage of China and Russia's traditional reluctance to impose sanctions in order to open up fissures within the P5+1; an approach that was apparently unsuccessful. Tehran may also have hoped that by presenting maximal demands in the form of two preconditions, it may have had a better chance of protecting its option to enrich uranium.

Enrichment "Rights" and Responsibilities

One of Iran's consistent refrains is that it has a right, as a member of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), to enrich uranium. Recognition of this claimed right has been a key diplomatic goal for Iran over the last several years. Indeed, the challenge posed by Iran's nuclear program is just as much a matter of addressing the risks of enrichment as it is about the threat of nuclear weapons.

What Iran should understand is that an explicit right to enrichment does not exist in the NPT. Article IV of the treaty recognizes a state's "inalienable right" to "use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes," on the condition that a state abides by its obligation not to pursue nuclear weapons.

Such peaceful uses under the NPT have generally been understood to include enrichment, and the treaty does not prohibit the development of such a capability, but the NPT does not expressly state that members have a right to enrich uranium.

More importantly, by demanding that the international community recognize a right to enrichment, Tehran is seeking to remove the conditionality of the right to peaceful nuclear energy. The work that Iran is believed to have carried out on weaponization constitutes a violation of Iran's NPT commitment not to pursue nuclear weapons, and it is not fully complying with its IAEA safeguards agreement, the mechanism by which a non-nuclear weapon state's adherence to the NPT is evaluated.

Iran's continued refusal to answer questions about its past nuclear activities and to provide more transparency about its current program effectively forfeits the very right it adamantly seeks to claim. The P5+1 was correct to refuse to recognize an unconditional right to a technology that is not essential to a country's peaceful nuclear program.

However, insistence that Iran has permanently forfeited any claim to enrichment is  untenable. Iran has made the preservation of an enrichment capability a critical national issue, and it is highly unlikely that Iran can be negotiated, sanctioned, or bombed out of maintaining such a capacity. And while many countries in the developing world appear to be wary of Iran's intentions, they are also cautious about efforts to restrict the development of dual-use nuclear fuel cycle technologies, making the effort to apply international pressure on Iran far more difficult if the aim is the permanent cessation of enrichment. We have already seen key middle powers, Brazil and Turkey (both Nuclear Suppliers Group members), agree in the Tehran Declaration that the NPT's right to peaceful nuclear energy encompasses the "nuclear fuel cycle including enrichment activities."

Therefore, while it is preferable on nonproliferation grounds that Iran forego an unnecessary, uneconomical, and proliferation sensitive enrichment program, it is not a nonproliferation requirement that it do so. Instead, Iran must be encouraged to constrain its enrichment program and to accept robust transparency measures that would both reveal and deter any misuse.

Secretary of State Clinton's comment to the BBC that Iran "can enrich uranium at some future date once they have demonstrated that they can do so in a responsible manner in accordance with international obligations," provides the most appropriate formula to address the enrichment question, one which accurately characterizes Iran's real NPT rights and obligations. Tehran should consider that understanding carefully and then work to fulfill those international obligations.

Achieving Greater Transparency and Better Monitoring

Perhaps the most critical element of Iran's international obligations is to cooperate fully with IAEA inspectors and to provide complete information about the extent of its nuclear activities. One objective of the P5+1 group at Istanbul was to persuade Iran to agree to a series of basic transparency measures beyond the limited access Iran currently provides. This renewed focus on transparency by the six countries is a positive shift away from the narrow focus on the suspension of enrichment.

Although enrichment suspension remains an important confidence-building goal, and a UN Security Council requirement, it is not as important as increasing IAEA access to all of Iran's nuclear activities. As Iran's attempt to build a secret enrichment plant near Qom has shown, Tehran would rather produce weapons-grade material at an undeclared facility that is not subject to inspections, rather than its well-known and easily targeted Natanz plant. Therefore, focusing on steps in the near term for Iran to provide early design information for new nuclear facilities (as is already required under its safeguards agreement), and subjecting its centrifuge manufacturing process to IAEA inspections, would help to address the risk of clandestine facilities.

Persistent Diplomacy

Moving forward, Western countries will need to maintain their willingness to negotiate with Iran, including on the basis of practical confidence-building measures, while sustaining the international unity that has helped to place pressure on Tehran.

The United States and its allies have indicated that they will be examining ways to further strengthen implementation of the existing sanctions on Iran. Such a step may be necessary in the face of Iran's obstinacy at Istanbul, but care will need to be taken to ensure that additional punitive measures do not create openings between the six countries that Iran can once again exploit. For example, the behavior-focused penalties targeting Iranian entities involved in proliferation is a more constructive option than searching for new, unilateral economic sanctions that could split the international coalition now working together to sanction Iran for its nonproliferation noncompliance. Enhanced export controls and other means of slowing Iran's program should also be pursued.

Istanbul will not be the last opportunity to achieve progress. The P5+1 group has indicated that it is still willing to discuss its refined set of proposals with Iran. So long as Iran is unable or unwilling to agree to even the most common-sense assurances that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful, Tehran will become increasingly isolated. Washington must pursue a patient but persistent diplomatic  approach to test Iran's willingness to change course. - Peter Crail

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Volume 2, Issue 1

Last month’s multilateral talks in Istanbul on Iran’s nuclear program ended inconclusively and without an agreement on further discussions. The lack of progress is unfortunate, but not surprising. As many observers noted before the meeting, while a diplomatic process provides the greatest chance for a peaceful resolution to the problem, there is no silver bullet; diplomacy will take time and will likely be fraught with stumbles and disagreements.

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Major Powers to Hold More Talks With Iran

Peter Crail

At a Dec. 6-7 meeting in Geneva on Iran’s nuclear program, six world powers and Iran agreed to hold further talks in Istanbul in late January.

The Geneva talks were the first such discussions over Iran’s nuclear program in more than a year between the so-called P5+1 group (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—plus Germany) and Iran. Diplomatic sources familiar with the talks said in December that the Geneva discussions were intended as a starting point for future negotiations, which will seek agreement on substantive issues.

In a statement released following the meeting Dec. 7, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, who represents the P5+1, said that the seven countries “plan to discuss practical ideas and ways of cooperating towards a resolution of our core concerns about the nuclear issue” at the Istanbul meeting. The six countries have insisted that Iran comply with Security Council demands to suspend its uranium-enrichment program and cooperate with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigations into its past and present nuclear activities.

Similarly, Department of State spokesman P.J. Crowley said during a Dec. 7 press briefing that the United States hoped the Geneva meeting “will be the start of a serious process” to discuss the Iranian nuclear issue and that Washington signaled before the meeting its openness to “multiple meetings in multiple locations.”

Prior to the Geneva meeting, the P5+1 had difficulties agreeing with Iran on a venue for the December talks, as Tehran sought a location in Turkey. (See ACT, December 2010.) Iran also had suggested previously that the roster of participants be expanded to include other countries, including Turkey.

When asked during the press briefing if an Istanbul meeting would entail Turkish involvement in the negotiations, Crowley said that Washington does not rule out any role for any country, “but obviously the P5+1 is the core group, and we expect next month’s [meeting] to revolve around that same group.”

Processing Domestic Uranium

In the days prior to the Geneva meeting, Iran announced that it had sent its first consignment of milled uranium, generally called yellowcake, from its Bandar Abbas Uranium Production Plant to its Isfahan conversion facility. The Isfahan facility processes yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride (UF6), the feedstock for uranium enrichment. The Bandar Abbas plant is Iran’s only yellowcake production facility, which mills uranium ore from the adjacent Gchine mine.

Iran has produced about 370 metric tons of UF6 since 2004 using the 500 metric tons of yellowcake it acquired from South Africa during the early 1980s. UN sanctions currently prohibit the export of uranium to Iran and bar Tehran from acquiring stakes in uranium mines abroad.

Apparently responding to international efforts to restrict Iran’s supply of uranium, Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) head Ali Akbar Salehi told reporters Dec. 5, “The West had counted on the possibility of us being in trouble over raw material, but today we had the first batch of yellowcake from [the] Gchine mine sent to [the] Isfahan facility.” Since then, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has appointed Salehi interim foreign minister to replace Manouchehr Mottaki, whom Ahmadinejad dismissed Dec. 11.

Iran announced in October 2010 that it would intensify its search for domestic sources of uranium, including expanding work at the Gchine mine. (See ACT, November 2010.) Bloomberg news reported Nov. 3 that efforts to expand the mine’s production capacity could be observed in satellite imagery taken in April and October 2010.

Iran began mining operations at Gchine in 2004 and started producing yellowcake at the Bandar Abbas plant in 2006. Iran says the mine and mill are capable of producing about 21 metric tons of yellowcake each year, although it is not believed to have been operating the facilities to that capacity. A second mill at Ardakan intended to process lower-grade ore from Iran’s Saghand mine is not operational yet.

It is unclear if Iran has enough domestic uranium resources to fuel a nuclear power reactor.

Iran’s uranium mines and milling facilities have not been subject to IAEA monitoring since 2006, when Iran halted the voluntary implementation of more-stringent inspections under its IAEA additional protocol. The IAEA and UN Security Council have called on Iran to reimplement its additional protocol, which Iran signed in 2003 but has not ratified.

Operations at the Gchine mine have been a subject of concern for the IAEA because, after 1993, the AEOI turned over operations at the mine to a firm called Kimia Madan while it focused instead on the less promising Saghand mine. Kimia Madan is believed to have ties to Iran’s military and to have been engaged in an undeclared project to produce uranium tetrafluoride, a precursor to UF6.

Despite agency requests for several years that Tehran explain “the complex arrangements governing the past and current administration of the Gchine uranium mine and mill,” as the IAEA put it in a September 2005 report, Iran did not do so until 2008. Iran’s prior failure to declare Kimia Madan’s activities at Gchine increased suspicions that the mine may have been part of a covert uranium-production effort.

The IAEA said in a February 2008 report that Iran’s explanation of the history of the Gchine mine was consistent with its own information and that it no longer considers the issue outstanding.

Iran Admits Virus Impact

In November, Ahmadinejad admitted for the first time that a computer virus that reportedly targeted Iran’s nuclear facilities had caused setbacks in Iran’s uranium-enrichment operations. The virus, called Stuxnet, “managed to create problems for a limited number of our centrifuges,” he told a press conference Nov. 29.

Iranian officials first admitted the presence of the Stuxnet worm in September, but said at that time that technicians prevented the virus from causing any damage.

A Dec. 9 Congressional Research Service report said that the Stuxnet worm appears to be the first such virus aimed specifically at the computer-aided control systems for nuclear plants, including uranium-enrichment facilities. According to the report, although Iranian officials claim that the disruptions from the virus were limited, “the potential impact of this type of malicious software could be far-reaching.”

Stuxnet specifically disrupts a Microsoft Windows-based application produced by the German company Siemens and is believed to have been introduced via compact discs or flash memory drives.

During the 1970s, Iran contracted Siemens for work on its nuclear program, including the construction of its first nuclear power plant at Bushehr. Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the German firm backed out of the arrangement, and the Bushehr plant ultimately was completed by Russia last year. Iranian and Russian officials confirmed that Stuxnet infected systems at the Bushehr plant as well, but Olga Tsyleva, spokeswoman for the Russian contractor Atomstroyexport, said the facility’s computers had not suffered any damage.

It is unclear whether Stuxnet was responsible for a halt in enrichment operations at the commercial-scale Natanz plant in mid-November. From Nov. 16 to Nov. 21, Iran’s centrifuges were not being fed with UF6, according to a Nov. 23 report by the IAEA. The report added that Iran informed the agency Nov. 22 that it had resumed enrichment with 28 of Natanz’s 164 machine-centrifuge cascades, one cascade fewer than had been operating earlier that month.

 

At a meeting in Geneva on Iran’s nuclear program, six world powers and Iran agreed to hold further talks in Istanbul in late January. Before the meeting, Iran announced that it would process its first batch of uranium "yellowcake."

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