Iran’s nuclear enrichment program is under close scrutiny from the international community, but the country’s government officials insist that its nuclear program is for peaceful civilian purposes only. BASIC monitor’s Iran’s nuclear program and international responses to Iran’s nuclear activities. Read below for the country report summaries from the Getting to Zero updates in reverse chronological order.
- December 2012
- November 2012
- September 2012
- August 2012
- June 2012
- February 2012
- November 2011
- July 2011
- May 2011
- March 2011
- February 2011
Iranian officials meeting with IAEA delegation today
Representatives from the IAEA are meeting with Iranian nuclear officials in Tehran today, December 13. The IAEA’s Director General, Yukiya Amano, had previously said of the meeting that “Now is the time for all of us to work with a sense of urgency and to seize the opportunity for a diplomatic solution”.
In particular, the IAEA is attempting to come up with a process to cast further light on Iran’s suspected clean-up of evidence at its facilities in Parchin, although the latest reports have said that inspectors have not had access to the facilities during this visit. Tehran has been unwilling to allow inspectors to investigate the site in the past. Satellite images have indicated that a large amount of earth has been moved, and reports suggest that it was the site of explosives testing a decade ago. Accusations of a clean-up have been denied by Iranian Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, who has said that, anyway, “It is not possible to clean up signs of nuclear pollution.”
International concern over developments at Bushehr
Developments at the Bushehr nuclear plant, on Iran’s southwest coast, have sparked interest over the last few weeks, after the IAEA report said that engineers at the plant had discharged fuel rods from the facility to store them in a cooling pond on site. The IAEA has given no reason for the actions at the plant, but the Iranian Ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, has described the actions as part of a “normal technical procedure”, undertaken in preparation for the plant’s changeover from Russian manufacturers to full Iranian control early next year.
A Russian nuclear industry source has indicated that the presence of small, external debris in the reactor was the reason for its shutdown, and that the safety of the facility was compromised, while the Iranian news media has since reported that the fuel rods have been re-installed.
Iran displays ‘downed’ ScanEagle drone
It has been reported that the United States has increased its surveillance of Iran in light of concern over the Bushehr nuclear power plant. In mid-November Iranian fighter planes fired at an unmanned U.S. drone, but did not bring it down. Iran has since displayed what it says is a captured short-range U.S. ScanEagle drone, on state TV. Iranian Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh claimed that Iran had previously shot down this model of drone in the past as well.
U.S. authorities have denied such claims, saying that all U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles are accounted for. The Iranians claim that the drone violated their airspace, which the United States denies. The Iranians have also complained to the United Nations about the United States’ alleged incursions, in a letter seen by the Wall Street Journal. According to Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammed Khazaee, “Recent operations carried out by United States planes violating the airspace of the Islamic Republic of Iran include flights that took place over the coastal areas of Bushehr on at least seven separate days throughout October this year, endangering the safety of air navigation.” Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has warned: “We will use this drone as evidence to pursue a legal case against the U.S. invasion at relevant international bodies.”
It remains unclear how this will impact upon the anticipated mid-January nuclear discussions between the E3+3 and Iran. The UK Daily Telegraph’s Diplomatic Correspondent, Alex Spillius, speculates it could have a negative, destabilising effect on future dialogue between the two countries.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak to resign
Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defence Minister, is set to resign before next month’s elections. Reportedly, Barak has fallen-out with Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, over whether to defer to the United States’ judgment regarding a potential attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. Barak has been considered Netanyahu’s chief moderating influence, and the Defence Minister’s loss may be a blow to those hoping for diplomatic, rather than military, solutions to the current impasse. Barak has publicly stated that Israel should reserve the right to act unilaterally on the Iranian question, but it has been suggested that he has been more moderate in private cabinet discussions.
Two other reportedly moderate influences in Netanyahu’s cabinet, Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, have also been sidelined. Both men have opposed attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities unilaterally, which suggests that the Israeli position toward Iran may become more confrontational after the elections, which Netanyahu is well-placed to win.
Associated Press publishes inaccurate document that claims to show advanced nuclear program
On November 27, the AP published a graph purporting to show that Iran’s nuclear program was at an extremely advanced stage. “Iranian scientists”, it said, “have run computer simulations for a nuclear weapon that would produce more than triple the explosive force of the World War II bomb that destroyed Hiroshima”. The graph had been acquired, the report said, “from a country critical of Iran’s atomic program to bolster their arguments that Iran’s nuclear program must be halted before it produces a weapon.”
However, upon closer inspection, the graph contained basic errors and its efficacy was in doubt. Physicists Yousaf Butt and Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress stated in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: “This diagram does nothing more than indicate either slipshod analysis or an amateurish hoax…in any case, the level of scientific sophistication needed to produce such a graph corresponds to that typically found in graduate- or advanced undergraduate-level nuclear physics courses.” Furthermore, Butt said that the AP story wrongly indicated “that this amateurish and technically incorrect graph even made it into official reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency, specifically one from November 2011 citing indications that Iran was trying to calculate the explosive yield of potential nuclear weapons.” Misinformation could have negative ramifications because it could suggest to the Iranians that evidence will be found to justify military intervention, whether it exists or not.
IAEA reports that Iran has added more centrifuges at underground enrichment facility, but additional centrifuges not operating
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its latest report on November 16th, detailing Iran’s nuclear activities. Since the IAEA’s previous report, Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20% U235 has grown by 43kg. This takes the total amount of 20% enriched uranium to around 130kg (Iran has fabricated almost 100kg into fuel destined for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), and so is not available for further enrichment). It would require an estimated 250kg of 20% U235 for a bomb – IF this amount were further enriched to weapons-grade (90% enrichment level).
The report also found that while no additional centrifuges have been made operational at either the Fordow or Natanz enrichment plants, the Fordow plant has now been fitted with the maximum capacity of centrifuges it can hold while the number at Natanz has also increased. It is thought that Iran now has the capacity to enrich about 25kg of 20% uranium 235 a month as opposed to its current rate of 15kg, if these centrifuges were all operating. At this pace Iran would reach the threshold of Israel’s stated red line (250kg of 20% U235) in an estimated seven months.
Iranian authorities have so far refused access to the Parchin military site for IAEA inspectors. Suspicion remains that Iran has been sanitizing the site, and the IAEA has again concluded that it cannot say with any level of confidence that Iranian nuclear facilities are being used for purely peaceful activities. To the contrary, Iranian ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, claimed that the report had once again confirmed the peaceful aims of Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran and IAEA to resume talks on December 13th
In another attempt to break the impasse between the IAEA and Iran, officials announced that representatives will meet in Tehran starting December 13th. In particular, the meeting is expected to provide another chance for an agreement on how to address Iran’s suspected clean-up of evidence at Parchin. IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano remained optimistic that next month’s projected talks with Iran could yield results: “It is in the interests of Iran, and for the international community, and that is why I believe that there is some good reason that Iran will get cooperative for us. At the same time, the situation is very difficult and worrying. I do not want to speculate.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi sounded confident about the talks, saying that a framework of action on addressing suspected military activities related to the nuclear program could still be reached. However, Salehi denied that there has been a removal of evidence from Parchin, saying, “It is not possible to clean up signs of nuclear pollution.”
On November 21st, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will host the E3+3/P5+1 (US, UK, China, Russia, France, and Germany) to plan the next steps the group will take with Iran. Within a week after U.S. President Barack Obama’s re-election, he pledged to renew efforts to break the impasse, but denied reports that the United States would talk directly on a higher, bi-lateral level with Iran.
Iran says willing to attend conference for Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction
On November 6th, Iran announced its intention to attend the intergovernmental conference in Helsinki next month on a nuclear and WMD free zone in the Middle East. Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, made the announcement at a Track II conference sponsored by the EU Non-proliferation Consortium in Brussels, on confidence-building measures in support of establishing the zone. Soltanieh stated: “The Islamic Republic of Iran now finally has decided to participate at the conference… on a Middle East (nuclear) Free Zone” and is “determined to participate actively”.
There are many who remain doubtful that the 2012 Conference, as it has been coined, will actually take place this year. Prospects for this conference to convene were never certain, and there is speculation circulating that the conference has been cancelled. Indeed, many political factors stand in the way, but the official facilitator, Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava, has not yet made an announcement either way. Laajava recently said: “Many issues regarding the meeting remain open. One essential target is to get every country in the region to participate in the conference.” This will remain a struggle due to prolonged tension between states in the region, Syria’s ongoing civil war, the resurgence of fighting between Israel and Hamas, Israel’s assumed possession of nuclear weapons and the fact that Israel is not a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
On the same day that Iran confirmed its attendance at the Helsinki Conference, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence published an analysis assessing the possible threat of nuclear confrontation. The report is entitled “Reasons and Obstacles of a Military Attack by the Zionist Regime Against Iran” and emphasizes that diplomatic channels should be pursued, stipulating that “one of the options is to take diplomatic and political measures and use the potentials [sic] of international bodies, which is a necessary and less costly option”.[For more background on a Middle East zone free of WMD, see the recent report on a Track II meeting that BASIC held in Istanbul at the end of October.]
Close calls regarding Israeli attacks on Iran come to light
In a recent visit to London, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak described in an interview with the Daily Telegraph how Iran narrowly avoided an imminent attack in August when it removed over a third of its stockpile of enriched uranium to 20% U235 for the TRR. Barak explained that Iran delayed Israeli action for a period of “eight to ten months” but was also sure to take note of his administration’s enduring belief that sanctions and diplomacy were no solution.
A November 6th televised Israeli report suggested that in 2010, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Barak asked the Israeli military to prepare for an imminent strike against elements of Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle. However, these orders were blocked due to concerns over whether the military possessed sufficient capabilities for such a strike and whether the Prime Minister and Defence Minister alone had the authority to give such an order.
Britain may not cooperate in any military attack by the United States and Israel
While the United States has yet to make a formal request of Britain, the possibility that it could ask permission for use of British bases (in particular Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean) may have led to internal advice within the British government against giving any green light for legal reasons. London is reported to have indicated that it does not currently support a preventive strike upon Iran. Prime Minister David Cameron sent a strong message to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently when he said sanctions needed more time. However, Cameron’s spokeswomen also explained that “no option is off the table” when it comes to the Iranian situation.
EU reinforcing sanctions against Iran
The Council of the European Union broadened EU restrictive measures against Iran on October 15th, including “…the financial, trade, energy and transport sectors, as well as additional designations, notably of entities active in the oil and gas industry”. All transactions between European and Iranian banks are prohibited under the new measures, “unless authorised in advance under strict conditions with exemptions for humanitarian needs”, and included an intensification of sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran. While reiterating concerns over the Iranian nuclear program, the Council again underlined its hope that diplomatic channels may remain the priority in efforts to establish a solution to the problem.
In addition to the Council’s statement, French President Francois Hollande made a further call for stringent sanctions against Iran during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Paris on October 31st. Speaking about Iran’s nuclear program, Hollande said “it’s a threat that cannot be accepted by France” and that “we must make sure that through pressure, sanctions and later through negotiations, Iran renounces its intentions to have access to nuclear weapons”. Iran has already renounced its path to nuclear weapons. Hollande did, however, make sure to explicitly distance himself from Netanyahu’s apparent intentions to pursue military action.
In Iran, senior legislator Kazzem Jalali called the sanctions “illegal and inhumane”, saying that it was the Iranian people who were bearing the brunt of them and making explicit mention of the fact that medical imports are also being impacted upon.
Iran fires upon U.S. drone
In early-November, Iranian fighter planes fired upon a U.S. Predator drone. A Pentagon spokesperson said that the drone had been fired upon even though it was flying in international waters during a “routine exercise”. U.S. officials said that the drone was flying 16 nautical miles off the coast of Iran. (Iranian territory starts at 12 nautical miles).
The Iranian Defense Minister has since confirmed that warplanes did, in fact, fire upon the drones and then followed it for a while until it was further from Iranian airspace. It remains unclear, however, as to whether the Iranian intention was to shoot down the drone or simply if shots were fired as a warning to leave the vicinity. The United States issued a diplomatic protest to the Iranian authorities through the Swiss Embassy. Defense Minister Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi announced that Iran would be carrying out large scale air defense manoeuvres starting around November 17th, and are expected to last a week.
Iran’s nuclear power plant likely experiencing more problems
Amidst signs of continuing troubles for the Bushehr nuclear reactor, Tehran has announced that it will now take over operation of the facility from Russian engineers early next year, rather than in 2012. The Bushehr plant is not seen as a proliferation threat but is inspected by the IAEA, and the older design of the plant has raised safety concerns. The IAEA’s most recent report on Iran’s nuclear activities mentions that the facility’s nuclear rods were removed, suggesting that the scale of Bushehr’s technical problems has been much larger than the Iranian authorities had previously admitted. After the release of the report, Iran’s representative to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh, contended that the procedure was a normal technical manoeuvre related to the handover of the plant from Russian engineers.
Talks continue over nuclear program without clear progress
European spokesperson for the E3+3/P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, plus Germany), Baroness Catherine Ashton, and head Iranian negotiator, Saeed Jalili, met on September 18 to informally discuss the possibility of resuming higher-level talks over Iran’s nuclear program. Common points brought to their attention by technical experts were discussed in the hope of forming a framework for future negotiations and afterwards both sides reported that the meeting was ‘constructive’. Whether higher-level talks go ahead will depend upon the meeting between Ashton and the E3+3/P5+1 in New York, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly on September 27.
Despite the diplomatic difficulties caused by the revelation of centrifuge enlargement at Fordow and further evidence of an alleged cleanup at Parchin, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) pursued talks with Iran near the end of August aimed at gaining access to information and sites from which they have been denied. Like a similar meeting in June, the talks again ended with “important differences” between the two, according to IAEA chief inspector Herman Nackaerts. Iranian ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, remained positive indicating that progress had been made, but no reports pointed to any concrete success. The next meeting between the IAEA and Iran is speculated to take place in October, however, plans have yet to be confirmed and in the meantime the IAEA is continuing to press Iran to provide answers about its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons research (see more on IAEA developments below).
According to a Brazilian press report on September 25, foreign ministers from Brazil and Turkey were considering whether to resume efforts related to the 2010 Tehran Declaration and were also in discussion with Sweden on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly – looking for new ways to reinvigorate diplomacy around Iran’s nuclear program.
IAEA Director General’s latest report on Iran’s nuclear program shows growth in enrichment capabilities, but analysts speculate over implications
An IAEA Director General’s report, published on August 30, confirmed various predictions leaked from diplomatic channels just prior to its release, including significant enlargement of Iran’s enrichment capabilities with approximately 2,100 completed centrifuges now at the underground Fordow facility near Qom, which the IAEA has previously said is built to hold a total of up to about 3,000 centrifuges. However, the new centrifuges have spurred debate about their purpose because only about a third of the centrifuges currently at the site are producing. The report does not clarify whether Fordow ran into technical difficulties and also admits that the centrifuges are an older model. Some analysts say the centrifuges, by not yet functioning, are a bargaining tool while others claim Iran is seeking to shorten breakout capability (the time it takes to build a nuclear weapon after deciding to do so). The immediate concern with the new centrifuges however, is that they may cross an Israeli “red line”. Israel’s fear is that Iran will build a facility capable of weapons production but immune to military attack, what Netanyahu has referred to as a “zone of immunity”; there is already a belief that Fordow is an underground fortress. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been vehemently supporting a preemptive strike on Iran to prevent them reaching that zone.
The IAEA report states that Iran has increased its 20% enriched uranium stockpile but still does not have enough uranium at this level for further enrichment to make a bomb. A substantial amount of this stock was in the process of being fabricated for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), meaning less of this fuel would be available for further enrichment. However, Iran possesses more than enough of that grade to presumably run the TRR for the next few years, which Iranians claim is the sole purpose of enriching up to the 20% level.
The report also noted that alleged cover up work at the Parchin complex will “significantly hamper” any inspection there. Recent satellite photography of Parchin, available on the website of ISIS, revealed two buildings, one of which is suspected of holding an explosive test chamber for the development of an implosion type nuclear bomb, have been covered up by bright tarpaulins. Iran insists that Parchin is a conventional military base and demands to see IAEA intelligence alleging otherwise.
The Israeli response to the IAEA report has been minimal, compared to the intense war rhetoric earlier in August. However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged the United States to clarify its red lines on the Iran issue while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States is ‘not setting deadlines’ for diplomacy. Germany has demanded ‘substantial offers’ if talks are to resume. Meanwhile, an Iranian official damned the report as nothing more that “politically motivated”, citing its coincidence with the NAM summit. Russia responded with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warning that military action will be “disastrous for regional stability” and supporting Iran’s claims that its nuclear program is for purely peaceful purposes.
The IAEA Board of Governors closed session on September 13 concluded with the passing of a resolution that criticized Iran for its failure to cooperate with investigations into its nuclear program and its disregard for U.N. resolutions, and repeated calls for Iran to cooperate with the Agency. Iran’s Parliamentary spokesperson, Ali Larijani, voiced Iran’s reaction to the resolution and called into question the benefits of Iran’s status as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty as well as a member of the IAEA. He has indicated that the West is treating Iran as if it were not a signatory to the NPT and that this ‘attitude’ is not conducive to successful negotiations.
Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, condemned the IAEA in a speech in front of its general assembly in Vienna on September 17, criticizing it for its handling of the situation and went so far as to suggest that ‘terrorists and saboteurs’ had infiltrated its ranks in an effort to stymie their nuclear program. The evidence upon which this accusation was based consisted of an unexpected power cut to the Fordow enrichment facility, which was shortly followed by demands from the IAEA to inspect the facility. (Abbasi-Davani also recently confessed to submitting false information on occasion to the IAEA in order to throw off intelligence agencies – alternatively overstating and understating progress). Furthermore, Iran announced its discovery of foreign sabotage equipment of American, French and German origin, however this was not linked specifically with the IAEA.
Separately, U.N. investigators and U.S. and Israeli officials have claimed Mohsen Fakhrizadeh is back at work in Iran. Fakhrizadeh is a senior officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who oversaw Iran’s research into the construction and detonation of a nuclear warhead. Furthermore, the Associated Press revealed that the IAEA had new intelligence confirming that Iran made significant progress in computer modeling of nuclear weapons yields. The function is vital to the development of a nuclear warhead. However, Arms Control Now has pointed out that the intelligence may point to older nuclear work in Iran rather than previously unknown work.
Meanwhile, four diplomats revealed the commissioning of a special “Iran team” with which the IAEA would continue investigations on Iran’s suspected weapons program. Associated Press confirmed the new team commenced activity on August 10 and will be led by veteran engineer Massimo Aparo answering directly to the Deputy Director General and include 20 experts in weapons technology, intelligence analysis, radiation and other fields so as to specifically focus on Iran – an unusual move by the IAEA which usually has its inspectors work on a range of countries and without a focus on issues beyond the control of fissile material and its related technologies.
Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Tehran and U.N. General Assembly opening in New York draw more attention to crisis
The end of August in Iran was dominated by the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in Tehran where Iran sought to boost its diplomatic relations. The NAM is the largest group in the U.N. General Assembly, comprising 118 member states with a rotating presidency that Iran currently holds for three years. Iran seized the opportunity to criticize Western polices seeking to isolate and cripple Iran, with Foreign Minister Salehi’s opening remarks claiming that “many of us are victims [of] nefarious terrorist acts,” alluding to Western powers. Salehi also reiterated calls for a Middle East nuclear weapons free zone while Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei stated: “our motto is nuclear energy for all and nuclear weapons for none”.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s presence at the NAM summit received much criticism from the United States and Israel who argued such a presence legitimized Iran’s behavior with the international community. While the Secretary General, and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s, presence was seen as a vindication of Iran, both men did not shy away from highlighting the Syria issue which Iran wanted to keep off script. The Secretary General also used the stage to put Iran’s anti-Israeli rhetoric under fire saying he “strongly rejects” such threats and Holocaust denial while also criticizing Iran’s human rights “abuses and violations”.
The U.N. Secretary General also called for “concrete steps” from Iran to reassure the international community over its nuclear program, a call to which Khamenei responded that the United Nations was “defective” and in thrall to the United States while harshly accusing the IAEA of sabotage. In relation to the IAEA talks, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s representative to the IAEA, confirmed at the summit that any inspection visit to Parchin will have preconditions, saying “one of our principles is that security issues should be completely observed, and any steps taken should be taken with our management”. Soltanieh also reiterated Iran’s request for access to IAEA documents which form the basis for its suspicions of military related atomic activity: documents which Reuters reports have been received by foreign intelligence services on the condition of confidentiality. Soltanieh said “this has been our most major request, upon which we have insisted and will insist.” According to the Iranian Student News Agency, Soltanieh also said “our enrichment activities will never stop,”reiterating Iran’s position that “The level of enrichment and how much to enrich has not been fixed” in either the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] or IAEA statutes. “There is no limitation” he said.
During his opening remarks at the U.N. General Assembly on September 25, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon condemned the “shrill war talk” in reference to, but without naming, Iran and Israel and urged nations to realize the need for calm discussion and focus on “the need for peaceful solutions and full respect of the United Nations Charter and international law”.
President Barack Obama in his statement attempted to mollify Israel by warning that the United States was prepared to do “what it must” in order to prevent Iran from securing nuclear weapons, while simultaneously maintaining a commitment to resolution through diplomacy. However, he warned that the period of time during which the countries could seek a diplomatic solution was “not unlimited”. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech delivered the next day focused on what he characterized as an unjust international order that could be ameliorated by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) playing a greater role in the United Nations. He pointed to the peril of nuclear arms, and also criticized military threats from Israel.
Sanctions effects deepen; Canada closes embassy
Iran is seeking to reform its economic policies to shore up its ailing economy. The combination of U.S. and EU sanctions appear to have had a big impact on the Iranian currency, which dropped to a local exchange rate of 25,650 rials to a dollar on September 10, and has in turn led to a sharp increase in inflation – currently at 23.9%. However, Mohsen Rezaei, secretary of the Expediency Council and former chief of the Revolutionary Guards, predicts that the worst effects have yet to come. Following criticism of the regime’s current economic policies and the perceived inaction on the part of the Central Bank, Mr. Rezaei announced a campaign to reform Iran’s economic policies to create “an economy of resistance”, using the sanctions as an opportunity to wean the country off of its dependence on oil revenues. The proposed reforms have yet to be approved by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, however, if passed, they will include domestic-focused responses such as tax reductions to stimulate domestic industry coupled with an increased investment overseas to bring in hard currency.
As news comes out of Iran on the impact of sanctions, concerns are increasing it is predominantly medical patients with chronic and more complex diseases who appear to be suffering the most. Although medicine is not included in the economic sanctions against the nation, the import of such medicine is greatly hindered by the increasing reluctance of international banks to accept Iranian rial. There are significant delays in the delivery of vital supplies of medicine or kidney transplant and dialysis equipment, as reported in a recent FT article. Ahmad Ghavidel, head of the Iranian Hemophilia Society, has accused the West of hypocrisy in its championing of human rights with this “blatant hostage-taking of the most vulnerable people”.
Nevertheless, Iran maintains that it will not stop its nuclear program, which they assert is for purely peaceful purposes. Germany, the United Kingdom and France, frustrated that despite recent increased pressure the sanctions have not yielded the desired effect so far, have called for further economic measures targeting Iranian energy and financial sectors to be put into place in October. What is more, the U.S. Treasury’s deputy secretary, Neal Wolin, visited the Middle East earlier in September to increase the pressure on Iran within the region. Tanzania and Tuvalu have already announced plans to deregister Iranian oil tankers carrying their flags, which will make it significantly more difficult for Iran to make deliveries. However, Iraq has been accused of helping Iran to smuggle oil through an underground financial network, which it has emphatically denied. The Elaf Islamic Bank in Iraq has already been blacklisted.
Meanwhile, Canada has officially terminated diplomatic ties with Iran by closing its embassy in Tehran. The Canadian decision was officially for reasons including Iran’s nuclear program, hostility toward Israel, Tehran’s military assistance to Syria, Iran’s support for terrorist groups, and for the safety of personnel. However, analysts have speculated that Canada withdrew its mission in preparation for possible Western military action in Iran, which Canada denies any foreknowledge of; or to prevent hostility toward its diplomats following its announcement of Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism, and to ensure that pressure is kept up on Iran.
Concerns rise over Iranian plans for Arak facility
Along with concerns over the progress of uranium enrichment at Iranian facilities at Natanz and Fordow, a perhaps more important longer-term concern has arisen regarding the construction of a heavy-water reactor near Arak (IR-40). The date of completion for the IR-40 has been brought forward from its original end date in 2014 to late 2013. This facility presents further complications as spent fuel could be reprocessed in order to produce weapons-grade plutonium. However, Iran has vowed not to reprocess fuel and asserts that the reactor is being built with the sole purpose of civilian use (for medical and agricultural purposes). According to ISIS, the reactor has the potential to produce an annual yield of 9 kilograms per year, roughly the right amount needed for two nuclear bombs. Plutonium has been the preferred route towards a nuclear weapon capability for most other nuclear weapon possessors because it can be more easily miniaturized and placed in a deliverable warhead.
After a series of meetings between the P5+1 and Iran, hardly any progresshas been made. Following an unsuccessful Moscow session there was a lower level “technical” meeting in Istanbul meant to clarify the parties’ respective technical views of Iranian nuclear issues. This led to schedulinganother technical discussion in Turkey on July 24. Iran explained a desire to keep the discussions active, preferring to have a high-level meeting at least once every three months. This might be a sign that Iran is holding out for a change in negotiations following the November U.S. presidential election. Another meeting has been planned for the end of August.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and Iran have been brandishing their capabilities in the Persian Gulf. The United States continues to add forces such as minesweepers to the region while Iran tests short and medium range missiles. Iranian leaders were claiming that some of these missiles can hit land command centers and naval vessels, but David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists has noted how their ballistic missiles are not that accurate. Moreover, the Iranian parliament has been looking into the proposition of blocking any oil shipments through the Straits of Hormuz if Iranian oil is blocked.
The United States continues to work on furthering sanctions against Iran, making it harder for Iran to receive payment from any oil it can sell. Concurrently, the Obama administration imposed penalties on two more banks that allegedly act as surrogates for sanctioned Iranian entities and expanded restrictions on the purchase of Iranian petrochemical products such as methanol and xylene. The EU sanctions exemption for contractsexpired on July 1, meaning that all bans were now to be in force against Iranian oil imports, and also against insurance applicable to the transport of Iranian oil. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other leaders have said publicly that the sanctions have been hurting the economy, but they have vowed to press ahead with the nuclear enrichment program. The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) analyzed sanctions against Iran and concluded that whereas sanctions have not greatly affected uranium enrichment, they have curtailed the development of long-range missiles.
Satellite photos taken by the Institute for Science and International Security this past spring and summer show an apparent final clean-up of the Parchin military test site. Iran raised suspicions by its recent refusal to allow IAEA access to Parchin, and denies accusations that it has been attempting to hide evidence that would point to past work related to the development of a nuclear weapons program. Former experts, including a former IAEA official, have also questioned the relevancy of the IAEA’s recent focus on particular aspects of the site.
A second round of talks between Iran and the E3+3 (P5+1) took place in Baghdad, May 23 without apparent substantive progress, but the parties concluded with an agreement to meet again, on June 18-19 in Moscow. The first round took place on April 14 in Istanbul, the first since early 2011.
Washington and allies had hoped to end Iran’s uranium enrichment entirely, but the E3+3 have for now narrowed their focus to halting production of uranium enriched to 20 percent fearing that it could enable Iran to produce weapons-grade material at a faster rate. Iran’s leaders have refused to halt uranium enrichment, citing what they see as their right under the NPT. More recently, the Supreme Leader said that going into the Moscow talks, the E3+3 should formally acknowledge Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear program, although Iran has also seemed to signal that it would be willing to negotiate a compromise on the 20% enrichment. Despite the renewed momentum in negotiations, Washington has so far said that it has no intention of reducing current sanctions (the Administration would in any case have a hard time on the Hill reversing any of them); and the EU oil embargo is still scheduled to take full effect on July 1.
IAEA and Iranian officials met on June 8 in Vienna to continue discussing a “Structured Approach” document that they hoped would facilitate the IAEA’s investigation into the “possible military dimension” issues related to Iran’s nuclear program. Iran is requiring the finalization of this document before it will grant access to the Parchin military facility near Tehran. However the June 8 meeting ended inconclusively, and no new date for resuming the talks has been set. It seems likely that the Iranians are waiting for the Moscow talks to conclude before any agreement with the IAEA, in order to retain bargaining power.
The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) has published photos that show Iran may be in the process of cleansing the Parchin military facility of evidence of past work relevant to a nuclear weapons program at this site. The satellite imagery shows that two buildings have been razed and “there are visible tracks made by heavy machinery used in the demolition process.” The two buildings appeared to be intact in early April. IAEA Director General Amano regretted actions which could undermine the purpose of any possible future verification visit by the Agency, noting that in addition to removing physical structures, Iran appeared to be removing soil from the site. Iran’s IAEA envoy, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, has dismissed the allegations as “baseless.” Even if inspectors were to have visited the site, determining conclusively evidence of nuclear-weapons-related work would be difficult given the possible multiple uses for explosives testing.
In recent IAEA Board of Governor’s reports, the Agency found that Iran expanded capabilities at both Fordow and Natanz for enrichment up to 5% U-235 and up to 20% U-235, including the installation of more advanced centrifuges. IAEA personnel found traces of uranium enriched to 27 percent at Fordow, likely as a result of the particular configuration. The report notes that the Agency will look into the matter. The higher-level could have been a processing error – given that centrifuges may over-enrich at the start of production before technicians can adjust the equipment.
Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts led a special IAEA team to Iran in late January for meetings with officials to address questions around the possible military dimensions of the country’s nuclear program. The Agency’s Board of Governor’s report on Iran in November released more details on alleged activities related to the possible development of nuclear weapons. Iran has continued to deny the allegations. Both sides noted that more discussions would be needed but sounded generally positive in their remarks. They agreed to hold another round of meetings on February 21-22 in Iran. Earlier in January, the IAEA confirmed that Iran had begun enriching uranium at the Fordow nuclear facility as anticipated. The facility is under Agency surveillance.
Iranian leaders were also signaling a renewed openness to the resumption of talks with the EU3+3/P5 +1 group that includes China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany. On January 19, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi suggested talks take place in Turkey. Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief and EU3+3 representative, indicated that her office was still waiting for a formal response to her letter sent previously to Tehran.
The EU has agreed on a phased oil embargo to be completed on July 1, and an embargo of Iran’s central bank. The measure follows the passage of new U.S. policies to block any foreign financial institution that conducts transactions with the Central Bank of Iran. The U.S. penalties target foreign central banks involved with Iran in the sale or purchase of petroleum or petroleum products, and were expected to strain some allies that rely heavily on Iranian oil supplies.
Deputy Director of the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and head of its procurement department, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, died in Tehran on January 11. Two men riding a motorcycle attached a magnetic bomb to Roshan’s car, which killed him and his driver. The method mirrored past killings of Iranian scientists involved in the country’s nuclear program in recent years. Iran accused the United States and Israel of the attack. U.S. officials condemned the killing, but Israeli officials refused to confirm or deny sponsorship.
U.S. Director of National intelligence James Clapper testified on January 31, conveying the unclassified elements of the Intelligence Community’s (IC) latest Worldwide Threat Assessment. Acknowledging Iran’s expanding enrichment capabilities, the assessment concludes that:
“Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons, in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.” The assessment also warned about Iran’s ballistic missile capability, saying that Iran “is expanding the scale, reach and sophistication of its ballistic missile forces, many of which are inherently capable of carrying a nuclear payload.” (p. 6)
The IC also judges that:
“Iran’s nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran. Iranian leaders undoubtedly consider Iran’s security, prestige, and influence, as well as the international political and security environment, when making decisions about its nuclear program.” (p.6)
On November 8, IAEA head Yukiya Amano released another safeguards report on Iran, which included more details on suspected Iranian nuclear weapons-related research and development efforts. The report points to information obtained by the IAEA and other members and confirmed by IAEA inspectors suggesting that Iran has worked in the past on designs and tests for an implosion nuclear device, computer modeling of a nuclear warhead, and designs for a miniaturized nuclear payload that would be fitted on a ballistic missile. It said that some weapons activities “may still be ongoing”.
The IAEA report also points to information on critical assistance from foreign sources, including Vyacheslav Danilenko, a former Russian nuclear scientist. IAEA information indicates Danilenko provided research papers and lectures for Iran’s Physics Research Center, a now defunct facility connected to the country’s nuclear program, as a contractor for a period of five years. Danilenko denies the allegations.
Iran has responded by calling the accusations baseless and maintains its claim that the IAEA’s information is based on forgeries. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also stated that Iran “will not budge an iota” from its path in the face of mounting international pressure. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said that Iran would address the allegations, and would be submitting to Amano a detailed written response on the report.
The United States and allies have been considering the imposition of more sanctions, pointing to both the alleged Iranian-linked assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador to the United States and as a response to the latest IAEA report’s conclusions. Debate within the United States has ensued over whether Iran’s Central Bank would be an appropriate target for further international penalties because of the potential for world oil prices to jump as a result. China and Russia were still against any new round of sanctions. However, both countries have joined the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany in producing a resolution for the IAEA on November 17 to show their unanimous agreement over their “deep and increasing concern” over Iran’s nuclear program. However this compromise resolution did not produce a renewed referral to the U.N. Security Council or issue a deadline.
Meanwhile, Amano has sent a letter to Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization requesting that Iran grant a special visit from the IAEA to permit inspectors to further investigate aspects of the nuclear program related to allegations raised in the IAEA’s latest report.
Russia has proposed a phased, “step-by-step” approach to engaging Iran about its nuclear program, under which Tehran could address IAEA questions and concerns and be rewarded with a simultaneous and gradual easing of sanctions. Iran’s official news agency reported Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seemed open to the idea. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi will visit Moscow to discuss his country’s nuclear program with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
On June 8, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Fereydoun Abbasi Davani, said Iran plans to triple its production of 20% enriched uranium. Iran also announced it was installing two more advanced models of centrifuges used to refine uranium, possibly at the Fordow underground bunker in the Qom province. This could significantly shorten the time needed to produce fissile material.
At an unpublicized meeting in June, influential Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal (former head of intelligence and Ambassador to London and Washington) suggested that if Iran comes close to developing nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia would likewise develop its own program. Turki warned senior NATO officials that Saudi Arabia would be compelled “to pursue policies which could lead to untold and possibly dramatic consequences.” These statements echo similar comments made by Turki in a 2009 leaked (Wikileaks) diplomatic cable, and lend weight to another 2008 cable in which the Saudi King Abdullah expressed fears over Iran’s nuclear program. Concerns about burgeoning Saudi nuclear intentions are amplified by the country’s refusal to publicly give up the right to uranium enrichment even though it is exempt from IAEA monitoring.
Iran began a 10-day military drill, code-named Great Prophet 6, on June 27. Also, the Iranian media displayed, for the first time, an underground missile silo in a secret location said to be loaded with medium-range Shahab-3 missiles. The Great Prophet 6 drills follow Iran’s second successful domestic satellite launch on June 15. The launch of the satellite, onboard a Safir rocket, is a move that seems to be in violation of U.N. sanctions that restrict activities relating to ballistic missiles. The satellite is intended to be used for topography missions and high-resolution mapping, according to Tehran. The United States has indicated it will bring Iran’s alleged violation before the U.N. Iran sanctions panel.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors produced on May 24 its regular update on the “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of SecurityCouncil resolutions.” This latest report [PDF made available by the Institute for Science and International Security] noted that no substantial progress had been made in determining that all of Iran’s nuclear activities have been in peaceful purposes. In particular, the report reiterated concerns about alleged “activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile,” and that since the last report, the “Agency has received further information related to such possible undisclosed nuclear related activities, which is currently being assessed by theAgency.” The report also stated that there are still “indications that certain of these activities may have continued beyond 2004.”
Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, had sent a formal letter to EU foreign policy head Catherine Ashton in early May saying that Tehran is willing to join in more talks over its nuclear program with the P5+1/E3+3 (China, France, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States). President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad voiced frustration with the subsequent and apparent rejection coming from the EU, whose representative said that Iran’s request for a resumption of talks indicated no new proposals or concessions that would lead to addressing concerns about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. During a press conference with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on May 17, Lady Ashton indicated that she was still working on a formal reply to Tehran, and would be continuing consultations with the United States and other partners first.
Within recent days, the EU blacklisted more individuals and companies for their connections to Iran’s nuclear program and the United States also imposed sanctions against more foreign entities for having conducted business with Iran’s energy sector. Earlier in May, U.N. investigators reported that sanctions were slowing Iran’s nuclear program overall. Also, U.N. investigators have alleged that Iran and North Korea have been sharing ballistic missile technology in violation of international sanctions.
In conjunction with National Nuclear Technology Day observances in early April, Iranian officials lauded their country’s nuclear accomplishments in the midst of an intensifying sanctions regime and the Stuxnet computer virus that plagued the nuclear program last year. They also announced the successful testing of advanced centrifuges, which would replace their older model centrifuges currently in operation. However, experts are dubious about Iran’s current ability to mass produce advanced centrifuges in the near future.
Russian engineers completed a successful pre-launch test of the Bushehr nuclear reactor, which is to be used for electrical supply. The plant has incurred numerous setbacks, with a significant technical problem delaying its launch back in February, which necessitated the unloading of fuel rods. Bushehr began low-level operations in mid-May and Iranian officials have said that the plant should now begin full operations by July.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke before the U.S. Congress on May 24, warning that the United States will need to sustain international pressure on Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons: “The more Iran believes that all options are on the table, the less the chance of confrontation.” Earlier in May, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Haaretz that even if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, that it would probably not use them against Israel.
The IAEA’s latest report on Iran’s compliance with its safeguards agreement and U.N. Security Council resolutions held little in the way of new and substantial developments. The Agency confirmed that Iran was enriching uranium apace, despite having experienced a setback in which it had to remove 1,000 centrifuges, possibly as a result of the Stuxnet computer virus. The IAEA was unable to report any progress on receiving requested information about Iran’s nascent Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant near Qom, and affirmed that it “remains concerned about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” Iran was in the midst of pushing to upgrade its uranium enrichment facilities, moving from the current IR-1 centrifuges to carbon fiber IR-2 or IR-4 centrifuges. This improvement would increase the efficiency of uranium enrichment and significantly reduce the time necessary for ‘break-out’. However, it has been estimated that the entire centrifuge upgrade process may take as long as two years.
The latest U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) suggests that the Iranian leadership has been divided over whether or not to pursue nuclear weapons and that Tehran is several years away from having a nuclear weapons capability. Robert Einhorn, special advisor for non-proliferation and arms control at the State Department, went on the record to say that he believes that at the very least, Iran is “moving to the threshold of a nuclear weapons capability.”
Iran informed inspectors that it had run into significant trouble at the Bushehr nuclear reactor in February, which required them to unload 163 fuel rods. The problem was apparently the result of a damaged cooling pump and not Stuxnet.
Iran is reported to have been trying to obtain Norwegian missile technology, possibly for use in a potential nuclear warhead delivery system. Both South Korea and Singapore have seized possible nuclear or missile components bound for Iran in the past six months, indicating that it may be stepping up its smuggling operations in response to the latest round of international sanctions. Malaysia has recently seized equipment from two cargo containers believed to contain materials that could be used in nuclear weapons programs. They have begun the process of verification, but note that this process could take weeks or even months and that Malaysia is also seeking information from China, from which the containers had been shipped.
Iranian officials have been suggesting engagement in cooperative nuclear deals with other states in the region, covering trade in both nuclear goods and services, although there were few details. There have been a number of cautionary interceptions of exports from Iran recently, but no clear indication of illicit activity.
Negotiations between Iran and the E3+3 (France, Germany, Britain, the United States, Russia and China) in mid-January in Istanbul failed to make progress. Iran set out preconditions before it would agree to discuss its nuclear program, including the end of U.N. sanctions and a formal acknowledgment of its right to enrich uranium. The E3+3 are requiring Iran to first cooperate more with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and suspend uranium enrichment, before they would agree to lift sanctions. Also discussed was the possible revival of the proposal for Iran to export a portion of its low enriched uranium stocks in exchange for fuel prepared for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), but no progress could be reported on that front either. Both sides have said that they are open to further discussions, but no dates have been set.
Iran hosted a tour by diplomats of its nuclear facilities. Invitations were extended to Hungary, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, and also Russia and China, but not the United States, United Kingdom, Germany or France. The United States dismissed the Iranian initiative as “antics” meant to obscure Iran’s lack of cooperation with the IAEA. The EU, Russia and China rejected the invitation. Countries that sent representatives included Algeria, Cuba, Egypt, Oman, Syria and Venezuela.
Iran appears to be coping with the subsidies cuts meant to curb government spending. Russia, for its part, pushed to keep the removal of sanctions as a viable incentive for Iran prior to the Istanbul conference. During a meeting between U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on February 15, they acknowledged their disagreement over whether world powers should push for more sanctions. Lavrov said that more sanctions could further worsen prospects for diplomatic progress over Iran’s nuclear program and called for an action plan that would include “creative approaches” with step-by-step concessions from both sides. China has been accused of failure to properly implement sanctions, allowing Iran to buy materials for its nuclear program that it cannot produce domestically.
Russia has called upon NATO to join forces to investigate the Stuxnet virus cyber attack, comparing the potential but unrealized damage to Bushehr to the Chernobyl disaster, something denied by Iran. The United States has been accused of jointly working on developing and testing the virus with Israel. The IAEA’s cameras captured Iranian scientists hauling broken centrifuges out of the Natanz enrichment facility around the time that the Stuxnet virus was thought to have hit. But the film also shows them rapidly replacing the equipment and leaving in doubt the overall impact the virus will have had on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.
Israeli intelligence has provided conflicting reports on Iranian nuclear developments. Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi, Israel’s chief of military intelligence, has stated that Iran has not yet begun the process of developing a nuclear bomb, but that once such a decision was made it would only take a year or two to achieve. Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad’s overseas intelligence services, has spoken out on the issue as well, stating that Iran would not have a bomb until 2015 at the earliest. According to a Wikileak diplomatic cable, Israel encouraged the United States to consider military action against Iran in 2009. The U.S. Intelligence Community’s latest assessment concludes that Iran’s leadership has internal disagreements over whether to pursue a full-fledged nuclear weapons program.
The head of the physics department at Tehran’s Imam Hossein University, Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, has been appointed the new director of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, replacing Ali Akbar Salehi, who was recently confirmed in his new position of foreign minister. Abbasi-Davani survived a bomb attack on November 29, 2010. A separate attack on the same day killed another physicist, Majid Shahriari. Iran has blamed Israel and the United States for the attacks.