The new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran’s nuclear program is a report half full. The IAEA received enough new information from Iran for Tehran to claim that the nation is cooperating with the agency to resolve the unanswered questions about Iran’s past nuclear activities. But it also is a report half empty, lacking so much information that the United States and other nations can correctly claim that Iran is falling short of the full disclosure necessary to resolve the issues that have already brought two sanctions resolutions from the United Nations Security Council.
The Best Defense
The Iranians seem to believe that the best defense is an offense. They are spinning the IAEA report as a vindication. It is not. The case is not closed; the issue is not over. Iran did disclose some new information, but nowhere near enough to answer the questions.
The IAEA and Iran developed a “Work Plan” that set up a schedule and procedure for resolving the unanswered questions. The first was on plutonium experiments, which has been satisfactorily resolved (as the report states). The second was on Iran’s acquisition and experiments with centrifuges. Iran gave some new information, as we will detail below, but the entire issue has not been resolved and thus the entire schedule for resolution of the remaining issues is pushed back. Rather than completing the process by the end of December as originally envisioned, the end of January or February seem more likely, at best.
What the Report Says
The IAEA report discloses or confirms several interesting tidbits about Iran’s program. It verified that Iran had installed 18 164-machine centrifuge cascades at its fuel enrichment plant at Natantz, and had fed uranium hexafluoride gas, or UF6, into each of the cascades. That means Iran is operating close to 3,000 centrifuges, albeit at a fraction of their performance potential—as low as 10 to 15 percent, according to a recent article in Arms Control Today by David Albright and Jacqueline Shire.
Iran could be experiencing technical difficulties with the centrifuges. Or it could have made a political decision to exercise some restraint in centrifuge operation in order to avoid new sanctions. There’s no way to know from the report, though we suspect international diplomatic pressure may well be effective (See our report “Contain and Engage: A New Strategy for Resolving the Nuclear Crisis with Iran.”)
The IAEA report also says that Iran has finally handed over a controversial 15-page document on how to convert UF6 to uranium metal and casting it into hemispheres—a process used to form the cores of nuclear weapons, but one that has no civilian use. The report explicitly tags Pakistan as the source of the document, provided to Iran by nuclear black marketeer A.Q. Khan.
Iran continues to insist that it was unaware that Khan had included the document in the pile of technical materials on centrifuge development he sold to Iran. The IAEA does not consider this issue closed, however, indicating that it is "seeking more information" from Pakistan—and noting that Iran plans to eventually build a small UF6 to uranium metal conversion line at the Uranium Conversion Facility in Isfahan.
Finally, the report clarifies to some extent the timeline of Iran’s centrifuge development activities, including its work on advanced P-2 centrifuges that are far more efficient than the P-1 centrifuges Iran is installing at its fuel enrichment plant. The report confirms that Iran is in fact researching and developing P-2 technology; that effort, according to the IAEA, has proceeded to the point of mechanical testing of a P-2.
Much More Needed
The IAEA report does not give Iran a clean bill of health. Iran has not allowed the IAEA to interview key officials connected to the P-2 program, and the report notes that there remain major unanswered questions about Iran’s past and current centrifuge program.
Once these issues are resolved, the IAEA Work Plan calls for moving on to questions about Iran’s past experiments with Polonium-210 (a material used as a neutron generator to initiate the chain reaction in nuclear weapons), suspicious activities at the Gchine uranium mine and mill, unexplained experiments with high-explosive testing and the design of a missile re-entry vehicle suitable for a nuclear weapon, and other issues.
The IAEA is trying to thread the Iranian nuclear needle. It wants to encourage Iran enough so that the regime feels it can answer the questions without fear of punishment while pressing Iran enough to convince the mullahs that stalling will in fact risk isolation and sanctions. The report describes Iran’s attitude towards the IAEA’s effort to clarify the scope and nature of its nuclear program as "reactive rather than proactive."
When the U.N. Security Council passed the first sanctions resolution last year, Iran suspended the expanded inspections procedures it had permitted the IAEA to conduct. Without the ability to have its inspectors go anywhere and inspect anything, the IAEA said, “The Agency is not in a position to provide credible assurances about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran.”
This half-hearted level of cooperation is insufficient. "Iran’s active cooperation and full transparency," the IAEA concludes, "are indispensable for full and prompt implementation of the work plan." We agree.