The heat is on for Iran to clarify its nuclear ambitions. On June 19, the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) called on Tehran to stop plans to begin enriching uranium and to allow "all access deemed necessary" to clarify questions over Iran's nuclear program. But the Board stopped short of declaring Iran in violation of its treaty obligations, nor did it refer the matter to the UN Security Council, as some U.S. officials had urged.

The IAEA's statement was a compromise that fell short of U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Brill's assertion that findings on Iran's nuclear program "will point to only one conclusion: that Iran is aggressively pursuing a nuclear weapons program."

The IAEA stated that Iran had not lived up to its reporting obligations under the terms of its Safeguard Agreement. Iran's IAEA Safeguard Agreement requires the country to provide the agency with information "concerning nuclear material subject to safeguards under the Agreement and the features of facilities relevant to safeguarding such material." Technically, Iran is still in compliance with its Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations, but as the IAEA stated, "it is the number of failures of Iran to report the material facilities and activities in question" that is "a matter of concern." Going back over a 10-year period Iran has followed a pattern of obfuscation that raises well-founded international suspicions about Iran's nuclear program.

President Bush said June 18 that "the international community must come together to make it very clear to Iran that we will not tolerate construction of a nuclear weapon." Indeed, at this stage, there is far more international consensus on Iran than there was on Iraq prior to the war. While the United States maintains the harshest line, in an unusual and significant step, the EU, which is Iran's main trading partner, announced that a trade pact with Tehran could hinge on Iran's acceptance of stricter safeguards, explaining that aspects of Iran's nuclear program "raises serious concern." Even the Russians, who continue to do nuclear business with Iran, called on Iran to sign the Additional Protocol. The IAEA's Additional Protocol mandates far more extensive and intrusive inspections of declared and undeclared nuclear facilities, including environmental sampling and unannounced visits. Without this tool the IAEA has said its "ability to provide credible assurances regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear activities is limited." The Protocol was negotiated in response to the discovery of Iraq's clandestine nuclear program in the early 1990s. To date, 78 countries of the188 NPT adherents have signed the Protocol. Thus far, Iran has refused to sign it without assurances that it will then receive Western nuclear assistance.

Specifically Tehran's nuclear obfuscation relates primarily to:

  • Uranium enrichment facility in Natanz. This facility came to light only because the outlawed Iranian opposition group, Mujahedeen Khalq, divulged its existence in the summer of 2002. IAEA Director-General Mohammed ElBaradei visited Natanz in February 2003 and was surprised to find an operational uranium enrichment facility with 160 centrifuge machines and spare parts for an additional 1000. Technically, Iran's failure to inform the IAEA about the plant's construction is not a violation of its NPT obligations. They only require a country to report design information on such a facility 180 days prior to introducing nuclear material in the plant. In February 2003, Tehran claimed to be doing just that. The IAEA's statement "encouraged Iran ... not to introduce nuclear material" at its Natanz enrichment plant pending the resolution of concerns about what it planned to do with any enriched fuel. In February the IAEA had been informed that the pilot enrichment plant was scheduled to begin operating in June.

  • Uranium imports. In 1991, Iran failed to report that it had purchased 1.8 tons of uranium from China, some of which was in the form of uranium hexafluoride (UF-6) and
    uranium tetrafluoride (UF-4). Uranium hexafloride is a feedstock for the uranium enrichment process. The IAEA noticed that one of the cylinders containing the imported uranium hexafluoride was lighter than declared. Iran claims the missing quantities are a result of leaks in the cylinder. Most of the uranium tetraflouride imported has been converted to uranium metal. ElBaradei states that "the role of uranium metal in Iran's declared nuclear fuel cycle still needs to be fully understood, since neither its light water reactors nor its planned heavy water reactors require uranium metal for fuel." Uranium metal is primarily used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

  • Heavy-water production plant being constructed in Arak. This plant, too, was divulged by the Mujahedeen Khalq in the summer of 2002. Heavy water is used as a moderator in some reactors because it slows down neutrons effectively. Unlike light or normal water, heavy water does not absorb neutrons, thereby making it possible to fission natural uranium and sustain a chain reaction that can produce significant quantities of plutonium.

  • Kalaye power plant. Iran did not allow IAEA inspectors in June to take environmental samples at this power plant. There are suspicions that Iran has tested uranium enrichment equipment at the Kalaye plant. Environmental testing required by the Additional Protocol would clarify this question. Any enrichment of uranium would constitute a violation of Iran's Treaty obligations. Iran claims it has not enriched any uranium. Experts believe that Iran would not have proceeded with the large-scale Natanz facility without having first tested the centrifuge equipment.


Dr. ElBaradei may have been reluctant to refer the matter to the Security Council at this stage, since the IAEA has not yet completed its scientific research into the Iranian program. He would not want to completely alienate the Iranian government, preferring instead to work with Tehran to enhance its commitment to the NPT.

The report notes that Iran has taken action to "correct these failures." For example, in February 2003, Iran concluded in an agreement with the IAEA that it would provide information on design of nuclear facilities as soon as the "decision to construct" was taken to avoid a repeat Natanz surprise. Since May, the Iranians have allowed several IAEA inspections at Natanz to include design verification and environmental samples.

These are positive, but insufficient steps in the right direction. As the IAEA now urges, Iran must promptly "rectify all safeguards problems ... and resolve questions that remain open."

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