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The Belated Message from the IAEA on Iran

Written by Ephraim Asculai and Emily B.Landau

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June 8, 2008
INSS Insight No. 59
Ephraim Asculai and Emily B.Landau

On May 26, 2008 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) circulated a technical and factual report on Iran, devoid almost entirely of political overtones. The IAEA report gives prominence to the major issue of the day – Iran's unrelenting progress in its uranium enrichment program – but also highlights an additional serious issue of concern:
Iran's secret weapons development activities. The unprecedented level of concern included in the report reflects and furthers tendencies that first emerged last February, when new material was handed over to the IAEA regarding Iran's involvement in weaponization studies.

iran_map_nuke.jpg
(map from American Federation of Scientists-more maps)
On the basis of briefings at the IAEA in this regard, suspicions have increased within the organization that Iran is proceeding with its nuclear development program, and the program could eventually yield nuclear weapons. True, the signs were there long ago; unfortunately, their recognition by the IAEA has come quite late in the day.

According to the IAEA report, Iran fed into its 3000 gas centrifuge uranium enrichment unit some 2.3 tons of natural uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas during the December 2007-May 2008 period. According to the New York Times the amount produced was about 150 kilograms of UF6, at about 4 percent enrichment. This is much less than the amount that could be expected had the unit been operated at full efficiency, but is still an impressive result. Iran would need about ten times this amount in order to be able to further enrich it so as to produce some 25 kilograms of enriched uranium at about 90 percent grade. This amount at this grade is defined by the IAEA as a "significant quantity," i.e., the quantity sufficient for one nuclear explosive device. This is, therefore, an important milestone for Iran.       

However, the present rate of production, probably caused by the inefficiency of the P-1 centrifuge machines, may not be up to speed as far as Iranian aspirations go. The IAEA reported that they are rapidly building additional units to expand their enrichment capabilities. In addition, the IAEA reports that Iran has developed two advanced types of centrifuges – IR2 and IR3 – and is testing them. Once these machines are mass produced, installed, and running, the rate of production would increase dramatically.

A major portion of the IAEA report comes under the section "Possible Military Dimensions." Significantly, the IAEA draws attention to aspects that "remain a matter of serious concern," including the development and testing of firing equipment and exploding bridgewire (EBW) detonators, an underground testing system, and other testing of at least one full scale hemispherical system that may be pertinent to an implosion-type nuclear device. Another development relates to alleged changes of the Shehab-3 missile re-entry vehicle, to accommodate a nuclear warhead.

The cumulative effect of the different pieces of evidence included in the IAEA report creates a picture of a country seriously engaged in developing nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. The essence of a closed briefing conducted by Olli Heinonen (IAEA Deputy Director General in charge of safeguards) on May 29 appeared in the press; he reportedly reviewed the "alarming" document, which describes the process of machining uranium metal into two hemispheres of the kind used in nuclear weapons. He added that "there was no reason why a country would need to possess such a document unless they wanted to produce uranium hemispheres for a nuclear weapon."

Where does this leave international efforts to confront Iran's nuclear activities? A positive aspect is that this new report contains a severe message of concern, unprecedented in its content and tone. Moreover, it seems to have been accepted by many states, with the exception of Russia, where Prime Minister Putin stated: "I don’t think the Iranians are looking to make a nuclear bomb. We have no reason to believe this."

The bad news is that the new and important level of concern expressed by the report is unlikely to be translated into determined and effective action anytime soon, not only because of Russia's stance in particular, but rather because the dynamic will inevitably be a slow one. There is little chance that it will engender the necessary momentum for action soon enough to deal effectively with Iran's nuclear ambitions. Recent dynamics with regard to Syria underscore the less than desirable pace of IAEA-led processes. The US turned to the IAEA with a request that it check new information regarding additional nuclear facilities in Syria. The IAEA contacted Syria about this, but Syria took its time in scheduling a date for IAEA inspections. They are now set for late June, although it is not yet clear which sites Syria will permit inspectors to visit. CIA director Michael Hayden predicted that Syria would most likely "attempt to delay and deceive" the IAEA.

Iran's initial reaction to the report itself – as expressed by its ambassador to the IAEA, Soltaniya – was to claim that it is yet another document that shows that Iran's nuclear activities are peaceful. Iran continues to try to sell this message internally and on the public opinion front. However, within days of that statement, a different message emerged, underscoring Iran's recognition of the more severe assessments that the report actually contains. Both the new speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani, as well as the spokesman for the foreign ministry, Hosseini, have criticized the IAEA for this report, going so far as to say that Iran may have to reconsider the nature of its cooperation with the agency, perhaps setting new limits.

Iran's pattern of behavior over the past six years has been to engage the international element that it viewed as most amenable to its case and least likely to seriously impede its nuclear activities. Thus Iran sought to work with the IAEA until late 2003, when it appeared that the IAEA might refer the case to the UN Security Council. At that stage, Iran was quick to pick up the offer of the EU-3 to negotiate, which it did for two years, and signed two agreements for the suspension of uranium enrichment that were subsequently abrogated. When Iran tired of that process and the demand that it suspend uranium enrichment activities, and when the issue was transferred to the Security Council, Iran again maintained that it would deal only with the IAEA. Now that the IAEA has disappointed it a second time, Iran is very likely to run back into the arms of Solana, with his new offer of incentives for Iran to halt nuclear enrichment. The new incentive package is a revised version of one presented to the Iranians in 2006. In parallel, on May 13, 2008, Iran's foreign minister submitted to the UN secretary general a document detailing Iran's proposal for dealing with the nuclear issue, which seems to be no more than an attempt to stall for time. One can only hope that if Iran does show new interest in considering Solana's offer of negotiations, it will not blind the international community to Iran's game of playing for time.
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The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs.

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