Nuclear verification issues and priorities in Iran
|Feb 03 2012|
|VERTIC Blog >> Arms Control and Disarmament|
David Cliff, London
Late January 2012 saw a high-level International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) delegation – led by the Agency’s head of safeguards, Herman Nackaerts – travel to Iran with the goal of resolving ‘all outstanding substantive issues’ relating to the country’s controversial nuclear activities. The visit came amidst an upswing in tension between Iran and Western countries over an EU ban on Iranian oil imports, and just a few months after the IAEA issued a 12-page summary of ‘Possible Military Dimensions to Iran’s Nuclear Programme’. In his November 2011 report on Iran to the IAEA Board of Governors (to which the 12-page summary was annexed), the IAEA’s Director general, Yukiya Amano, noted the Agency’s ‘serious concerns’ that Iran's nuclear programme was not of an entirely peaceful nature. Having ‘carefully and critically’ assessed the ‘extensive information available to it’ – and having found that information ‘to be, overall, credible’ – Mr Amano’s report stated that Iran appears to have carried out ‘activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.’ Prior to the end of 2003, the report said, these activities seemed to have taken place under a ‘structured programme’. According to indications in the information available to the Agency, some activities relevant to weapons development continued after 2003, and it was judged that some activities may still be ongoing.
The weaponisation annex
IAEA concerns over the scope and purpose of Iran’s nuclear programme are now almost a decade old. For much of the last ten years, the Agency has expended extensive effort in trying to verify that all nuclear materials and activities in Iran have been properly reported and that their applications are purely peaceful. But in that time, suspicions that Iran has been seeking to develop nuclear weapons – or, if not actual weapons then the technical and material capability to manufacture them at short notice – have never been put to rest. Rather, as a result of information obtained by the Agency through its own activities or received from others, and coupled to numerous instances of less than full cooperation from Iran (or outright attempts at concealment), those suspicions have grown.
Paragraphs detailing Agency concerns over possible military dimensions to the Iranian nuclear programme have become a regular fixture of IAEA reports on Iran over recent years. The November 2011 annex, however, provides a truly remarkable level of information – much of which has not been seen publicly before.
Nuclear material verification in Iran
Regardless of how knowledgable or advanced Iran has become in the realm of nuclear weaponisation (and, as Mark Hibbs has pointed out, the Agency draws no such conclusions), its ability to build any kind of nuclear explosive device will always ultimately depend on whether it has a sufficient quantity of highly-enriched uranium or plutonium. Indeed, it is often said that acquiring enough fissile material is the most difficult part of nuclear bomb-making. Nuclear weapon designs have after all been around since the 1940s, and in the age of the internet the broad outlines of how a nuclear weapon works are more or less freely available.
Iran does not conduct reprocessing to extract plutonium from spent nuclear fuel (as far as the Agency is able to tell), but the Iranian leadership has been expanding the country’s uranium enrichment capability over the past ten years despite repeated IAEA and UN Security Council resolutions calling for it to stop. Today, Iran is known to have two principal enrichment sites: Natanz, where two plants are located, and Fordow. Both sites are regularly inspected by the IAEA. The Agency’s November 2011 report notes that at Natanz, Iran’s Fuel Enrichment Plant has produced some 4,922kg of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride (UF6; a mixture of uranium and fluorine) since operations at that facility began in February 2007. The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security has noted that this much low-enriched uranium is enough to make four nuclear weapons if it is further enriched to what is generally regarded as ‘weapons-grade’ level – that is, to an isotopic uranium-235 concentration of around 90 per cent or above. (Further processing, to produce uranium metal from the enriched UF6, would also be neccesary before the material would be suitable for use in a weapon.)
At the smaller Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant, where Iran has been enriching uranium up to 20 per cent since February 2010, the IAEA reports that 73.7kg of UF6 enriched to 20 per cent uranium-235 has been produced between then and September 2011. Based on VERTIC calculations, that much material, if further enriched to over 90 per cent, is enough to produce around 10kg of weapons-grade uranium (once the UF6 has been converted to uranium metal). It is worth noting that this much material would amount to less than half of an IAEA ‘significant quantity’ – the Agency term for the approximate amount of nuclear material at which it says the possible development of one nuclear device cannot be ruled out.
For its part, the enrichment plant at Fordow – the existence of which Iran kept secret until realising the plant had been uncovered by Western intelligence agencies in 2009 – became operational in December 2011. The circumstances of the construction of the Fordow facility remains a matter that the IAEA is seeking clarification from Iran on.
Overall, the Agency’s report of November 2011 noted – as previous reports have done on many occasions – that the IAEA is able to verify the non-diversion (from peaceful uses) of declared nuclear material in Iran. But as it has similarly admitted on many previous occasions, it is unable to provide ‘credible assurance’ of the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore unable to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful uses. In other words, the Agency is able to verify the correctness of Iran’s declaration under its IAEA safeguards agreement – but not whether that declaration is complete.
Additional Protocols and facility design information
What would greatly facilitate the Agency's ability to verify the completeness of Iran’s nuclear declarations would be for Iran to implement the IAEA’s Additional Protocol. Developed in the early to mid-1990s (after the extent of Saddam Hussein's nuclear deception was uncovered in the wake of the Gulf War) and rolled out in 1997, the Additional Protocol requires states to provide the IAEA with more information about their nuclear programmes and permit greater freedom of access around nuclear sites for inspectors. However, while non-nuclear-weapon state parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) must conclude a safeguards agreement with the Agency, the signing and ratifying of an Additional Protocol is voluntary.
Understandably, the IAEA is keen for all states with safeguards agreements to also have an Additional Protocol in place. Many do (some 114 to be precise), but among the hold-outs are the states of greatest concern – Iran included. Iran signed up to the Additional Protocol in December 2003, implemented the measures contained therein for a number of years (pending ratification of the protocol by the Iranian parliament), but ceased implementation in February 2006 in protest at the IAEA Board of Governors’ decision to refer Iran to the UN Security Council. Iran’s Additional Protocol has never been ratified, and provisional implementation of it has not resumed.
Aside from Additional Protocol implementation, the IAEA’s nuclear verification efforts in Iran would also be helped if Iran was to comply with the ‘modified Code 3.1’ clause to its safeguards agreement’s ‘subsidiary arrangements’. In the past, Code 3.1 said that states had to report design information for new facilities no later than 180 days before a facility was scheduled to receive nuclear material for the first time. However, as James Acton has explained: ‘It became clear that this requirement did not provide the IAEA with sufficient time to plan and prepare for safeguards. So, in the early 1990s the IAEA modified Code 3.1. The new version requires states to report on a new facility as soon as the decision to construct is taken.’
Iran agreed to abide by this rule in February 2003, but in March 2007 it decided to revert to providing design information according to the original form of the clause. The IAEA director general’s November 2011 report on Iran notes that the country is ‘the only state with significant nuclear activities in which the Agency is implementing a comprehensive safeguards agreement but which is not implementing the provisions of the modified Code 3.1.’
The legality of Iran’s decision to back-track from the modified Code 3.1 clause remains under dispute. Back in 2007, the IAEA noted that Iran’s safeguards agreement precludes it from making unilateral modifications to its subsidiary arrangements. Iran’s position has been that the Iranian parliament never ratified its 2003 decision to abide by the modification to Code 3.1 (thus Iran claims it was never bound to it). But, as Dr Acton has argued, this position is somewhat undermined by the fact that Iran did not ask for parliamentary ratification of its original subsidiary arrangements back in the 1970s.
The IAEA’s visit – and its role in verifying weaponisation
And so, with all these disputes and uncertainties hanging in the air (as well as a few other concerns, including ongoing Iranian work to build a research reactor at Arak, which both the Agency and the UN have requested Iran to halt), senior IAEA officials visited Iran from 29-31 January 2012. Returning from Iran, Mr Nackaerts said that it had been a good trip, but that there was still ‘a lot of work to be done’ and that, accordingly, another visit was planned ‘in the very near future.’ With concerns over Iran's nuclear programme running so high, the Agency is keenly aware of its own critical role. Earlier in January, Mr Amano had announced that his ‘key priority’ for 2012 was ‘to try to make progress towards restoring international confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear programme.’ That, he said, was ‘the most important of the major safeguards issues’ on the IAEA's agenda.
It will not be easy to restore such confidence without a substantially increased level of Iranian cooperation with the Agency. And it is likely to lead the IAEA further down the road of investigating indicators of weaponisation – which leaves some with an uncomfortable feeling of the organisation straying from its authority to apply safeguards to nuclear material (since many weaponisation activities do not necessarily involve nuclear material). But that seems wrong-headed. As John Carlson puts it, ‘weaponisation is not only a breach of NPT commitments, but indicates diversion or intended diversion of nuclear material, so is clearly encompassed by the IAEA’s responsibility [as set out in the standard text of safeguards agreements, paragraph 28] to provide timely warning of diversion.’ (Emphasis added.)
Writing along with Russell Leslie and Annette Berriman, Mr Carlson argues that: ‘For an activity of a kind that could involve nuclear material, the IAEA should be able to investigate, as otherwise it will not be able to confirm (or otherwise) the state’s assertion that no nuclear material is involved. If inspectors find no nuclear material, however, they may still consider that the activity has not been satisfactorily resolved. If the activity by its nature would not involve nuclear material, it still may be of a kind that should be investigated.’ (Emphasis in original.) They note that, in fact, a general recognition that the Agency’s verification authority needs to extend beyond nuclear material can be found in the Additional Protocol – which covers a host of activities, such as the manufacture of centrifuge components, where nuclear material would not normally be present. ‘The rationale for this is clear – information on these activities strengthens the IAEA’s ability to verify and draw conclusions on nuclear material in a state concerned,’ they note. ‘A similar rationale applies to weaponisation activities.’
Away from the somewhat contentious ground of weaponisation, nuclear material verification efforts in Iran require – as matters of priority – for Iran to be persuaded to restart implementation of its Additional Protocol and fall back into line with the modified Code 3.1 rule. How best to achieve these aims, what balance of inducements and punishments would be appropriate, goes beyond the scope of this article. But if Iran is serious when it says that it has no interest in developing nuclear weapons, then it needs somehow to be persuaded that full transparency of its nuclear programme is in its own best interest. Even then that might not be enough for Western powers, who may well argue that an Iranian enrichment capability – even under safeguards – presents an unacceptable proliferation risk.
Iran, though, shows no signs of stopping its enrichment drive. It has stated plans to build ten new enrichment facilities, and has said that the sites for five of these have already been decided. It has not, however, responded to Agency requests for more information about these sites. Nor has it yet provided the IAEA with information in connection with a February 2010 announcement that it is in possession of laser enrichment technology.
The military option, of course, remains on the table, as Steve Coll has discussed recently. But for most commentators (Mr Coll included), the cost/benefit weighing-up of military strikes against Iranian nuclear sites tends to result in considerably heavier costs than benefits. That being the case – and with Iran seemingly intent to hold firmly onto its enrichment capability – the need for the extra verification provisions enabled by the Additional Protocol, and the early design information required by the modified Code 3.1 clause, are crucial.
Although the Iranian case is admittedly complicated by the IAEA and UN Security Council resolutions calling for Iran’s enrichment work to stop, the NPT – which Iran remains a member of – places no restrictions on the kinds of nuclear technology that states can develop. Thus, neither enrichment nor reprocessing is proscribed by the NPT (whether they ought to be is another debate entirely), but the wording of the treaty states that countries’ development of nuclear energy must be for peaceful uses and in conformity with the non-proliferation undertakings to which NPT non-nuclear-weapon states have agreed. It is not, therefore, an unconditional right. If concerns over Iran’s enrichment activities are ever to subside, the IAEA needs to be afforded the cooperation and access that it requires to be able to verify that Iran’s nuclear programme and associated activities do not present a threat to regional stability or wider international security – or both.
Last changed: Mar 20 2012 at 3:35 PMBack