News Highlight

Iran's Nuclear Program: IAEA Update

Originally published in The Weekly Standard
March 7, 2011
(IAEA Board of Governors meeting, photo by International Atomic Energy Agency)
 

U.S. and allied efforts to curb Iran’s developing nuclear capabilities are failing. Today, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) convenes its quarterly meeting at which Iran’s nuclear activities will once again be a key agenda item. The IAEA reported in its latest assessment that Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride stands at 3,606 kilograms—enough to fuel three bombs once converted to highly-enriched uranium.[1] The language in the IAEA’s latest report signals the growing concern over Iran’s nuclear weapons activities and the agency’s frustration with Iran’s obfuscation.[2] The agency’s findings, based on inspectors’ work and analysis of intelligence provided by IAEA-member nations, are the basis for its declaration that Iran is failing to cooperate with the watchdog.[3] 

The IAEA reported that it has received new information about Iran’s nuclear weapons activities and that “Iran is not providing access to relevant locations, equipment, persons, or documentation” to facilitate the agency’s oversight work.[4] For the first time, the report includes an annex itemizing each area in which Iran is failing to respond to IAEA inquiries. This annex contains references to experimentation with nuclear payload and high explosives development – activities directly related to a nuclear weapons program.[5]

IAEA head Yukiya Amano has also rejected the assessment that recent technical problems significantly disrupted Iran’s uranium enrichment. In response to a question about the extent of damage that a malware virus inflicted on Iran’s centrifuges, Amano said “Iran is somehow producing uranium enriched to 3.5 percent and 20 percent. They are producing it steadily, constantly.”[6] The IAEA report and Amano’s comments indicate that Iran continues to develop and refine its capabilities, including in uranium enrichment, which is the most technically complex element of a nuclear weapons program.

Iran’s leadership has recently affirmed its commitment to pursuing its current nuclear path. Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamene’i proclaimed in February that the regime would not retreat from its current stance on the nuclear issue.[7] Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in January that “in the Iranian nation’s point of view, the nuclear issue has ended.”[8] These statements are an explicit rejection of U.S. and international efforts to bring about a change in the regime’s policies.[9]  

Iran’s leadership is committed to pursuing a nuclear weapons capability and continues to support terrorist proxies in the greater Middle East. Its hard-line foreign and nuclear policies remain immune from disputes within Iran’s ruling elite.[10] The regime has violently suppressed the only potential tempering force on those policies – the Green Movement opposition – thereby entrenching the current leadership for the time being.[11] Moreover, an aggressive Iranian regime will seek to exploit the recent wave of unrest across the Middle East that has unsettled its neighbors.[12]

The war in Afghanistan and the revolutionary shifts across the broader Middle East have, rightly, consumed significant attention. Today’s IAEA meeting will bring the nuclear issues back into focus, and should serve as a reminder of the mounting Iranian threat to U.S. national security. 

 

[1] The new assessment reported that total production of low enriched UF6 stands at 3,606 kilograms, compared to 3,135 kilograms in the last report. The additional production of 471 kilograms of low enriched UF6 between October 2010 and February 2011 represents a 15 percent increase.  The calculation of HEU is based on an estimate of 1,000-1,200 kilograms of LEU hexafluoride needed to produce highly enriched uranium for one weapon. The estimate is provided by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). See, for instance, footnote 3 in: http://www.isisnucleariran.org/assets/pdf/Avoiding_the_Legitimization_of_Iranian_Enrichment_27Oct2010.pdf
[5] There are also separate indications that Iran continues to seek foreign assistance in pursuing a nuclear weapon. The head of Norway’s Police Security Service said this week that Iranian entities have queried Norwegian companies in attempts to procure equipment that can be used in building nuclear-armed missiles. Walter Gibbs, “Iran trying to buy nuclear missile parts: Norway,” Reuters, February 28, 2011, http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/02/28/us-norway-iran-idUSTRE71R6J720110228. idUSTRE71R6J720110228. The Norwegian government assessment can be accessed at http://www.pst.politiet.no/Filer/utgivelser/trusselvurderinger/NTV2011_web.pdf (Norwegian). 
[6] Lally Weymouth, “IAEA’s Amano: Iran still steadily producing uranium,” The Washington Post, February 14, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/13/AR2011021302973.html.
[7] “Supreme Leader’s Friday Prayer Address,” February 5, 2011, http://english.khamenei.ir//index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1417&Itemid=4.
[8] “Ahmadinejad: West Faces No Option but Cooperation with Nuclear Iran”, Fars News Agency, January 19, 2011, http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=8910291320.
[9] Increased international and unilateral sanctions have had an impact on Iran’s economy by making it difficult for Iran to secure access to goods, investors, and major financial markets, but they have not resulted in detectable shifts in the Iranian regime’s nuclear policies. For detailed data on the impact of, and reactions to, sanctions, see: http://www.irantracker.org/us-policy/sanctions-iran-reactions-and-impact.  
[10] See “Internal Divisions Mask External Unity,” November 23, 2010, http://www.irantracker.org/analysis/internal-divisions-mask-external-unity.
[11] The regime undertook a systematic, widespread campaign of repression against the informal coalition of opposition elements making up the Green Movement. This effort largely contained the movement and allowed the hard-line regime to consolidate its grip. The reemergence of protests in mid-February demonstrated the regime’s illegitimacy and the lingering discontent in Iranian society. The opposition may be able to revive itself and strengthen its challenge to the regime if it can build on the recent momentum.
[12] Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified on March 1 before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs that the Iranian regime is “in there every single day with as many assets as they can muster, trying to take hold of this legitimate movement for democracy.” Iran’s dispatch of two armed warships en route to Syria through Egypt’s Suez Canal for the first time since 1979 is also an early indicator of such exploitative behavior; see Mariam Fam and Benjamin Harvey, “Egypt Will Allow Iran to Send Two Naval Ships Through Suez on Way to Syria,” Bloomberg, February 18, 2011, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-02-18/iran-seeks-clearance-for-warships-to-use-suez-canal-egypt-official-says.html.