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.

Credibility of information
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.
A full section of the annex is dedicated to explaining the sources and credibility of this information. Amongst that which has been received by the Agency, it notes, was ‘a large volume of documentation (including correspondence, reports, view graphs from presentations, videos and engineering drawings), amounting to over a thousand pages.’ According to the IAEA, this package of documents – known as the ‘alleged studies documentation’ and received by the IAEA from a member state in 2005 – is technically complex and shows research, development and testing activities over time, as well as ‘working level correspondence consistent with the day to day implementation of a formal programme.’
In addition to the alleged studies documentation, and information acquired through its own efforts, the annex notes that the Agency has received information from more than ten member states. This information has included procurement data, information on the international travel of Iranian individuals of interest, financial records, health and safety documents, ‘and other documents demonstrating manufacturing techniques for certain high explosive components.’ This information, the IAEA notes, ‘tends to corroborate the information reflected in the alleged studies documentation, and relates to activities substantially beyond those identified in that documentation’ as well.
Indicators of weaponisation?
As set out by the Agency in November 2011, among the concerns to have arisen to date are indications of the following: that Iran has come into possession of information on nuclear weapon design, as well as documentation on the process for converting uranium compounds into 'hemispherical enriched uranium metallic components'; that it has pursued a project to 'secure a source of uranium suitable for use in an undisclosed enrichment programme'; and that Iranian individuals and entities have in the past sought (successfully or otherwise) to procure 'equipment, materials and services' with relevance to both civilian applications and nuclear weapons development. 
The inherently dual-use nature of many possible indicators of weaponisation (i.e. their applicability to other uses besides nuclear weapon development) is a recurrent feature of much of the IAEA's information, and a cause of great uncertainty regarding Iran's intentions. Iranian work on detonators is a prime example. The annex states that contained within the alleged studies documentation were a number of documents ‘relating to the development...of fast functioning detonators, known as “exploding bridgewire detonators” or “EBWs”’ by Iran between 2002 and 2003. Whilst these types of detonators have a few non-nuclear applications (and Iran reportedly said in 2008 that its work on EBWs was for civil and conventional military uses), they are also highly relevant for the design of nuclear explosive devices.
It is noted, furthermore, that the Agency has in the past been provided with information to indicate that Iran ‘has had access to information on the design concept of a multipoint initiation system’. Such a system, the IAEA explains, ‘can be used to initiate effectively and simultaneously a high explosive charge over its surface’ – a key design feature of an implosion-based nuclear explosive device. Indeed, according to the IAEA, Iran has not only had access to the design concept, but has also worked on the development of an initiation system of this kind, with the assistance of a ‘foreign expert’ (named elsewhere as Vycheslav Danilenko, a Russian scientist) who was present in Iran between 1996 and 2002. Information provided to the Agency, the annex notes, reveals that Iran also carried out 'at least one large scale experiment in 2003 to initiate a high explosive charge in the form of a hemispherical shell.' After 2003, 'experimental research' potentially relevant to the improvement of a nuclear initiation system reportedly continued. Together with the development of EBW-type detonators, alleged Iranian work on an initiation system represents an understandable worry for the IAEA.
The annex also includes references to possible Iranian forays into so-called hydrodynamic experiments – which involve high explosives in conjunction with nuclear material or surrogate materials, and which, the Agency noted, are ‘strong indicators of possible weapon development’ – and alleged modelling studies. These studies, which apparently took place in 2008 and 2009 and reportedly involved the modelling of a spherical highly-enriched uranium core subjected to shock compression (as would be the case in the detonation of a nuclear device), were noted to be of ‘particular concern’ to the Agency. Their application to anything other than a nuclear explosive device was ‘unclear’, and an explanation by Iran was ‘essential’, the IAEA said.
It is further alleged that Iran has worked on components containing nuclear material to assess their suitability for generating neutrons (which are used to initiate fission chain reactions in modern nuclear explosives), and that it ‘may have planned and undertaken preparatory experimentation’ for a nuclear test explosion. Suspected Iranian work from 2002 to 2003 on ‘how to integrate a new spherical payload into the existing payload chamber’ of Iran's Shahab-3 missiles is also documented in the annex, as is alleged associated work on developing a ‘prototype firing system’ that would allow the payload to detonate either above a target or on impact with the ground.

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.’

Material priorities
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 PM