Iran Update: Number 149

  • Latest IAEA assessment of Iran’s nuclear program echoes recent Agency reports
  • The impact of Stuxnet
  • International divide over sanctions grows
  • Speculation on Iran’s intentions and capabilities
  • Iranian rocketry, missile developments
  • Middle East protests: context and meaning for Iranian leadership and U.S. influence

Latest IAEA assessment of Iran’s nuclear program echoes recent Agency reports

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors is meeting this week, and Iran’s nuclear program has been high on the agenda. Director General of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, made clear during a press conference on the meeting’s first day: “We are not saying that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. We have concerns and we want to clarify the matter.” These concerns were relayed in the Agency’s latest report of February 25, which covers Iran’s implementation of its Safeguards Agreement and related U.N. Security Council resolutions. Despite the international pressure on Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment activities, and a malicious malware virus, it has forged ahead. The IAEA reports that Iran had produced 3,135 kg of uranium enriched up to 3.5% at its Fuel Enrichment Plant (Natanz) between February 2007 and October 2010. Iran has reported that it produced an additional 471 kg between October 18, 2010 and February 5, 2011, which would result in a total of 3,606 kg of low enriched uranium (LEU) at 3.5%.

In addition, Iran has continued to further enrich uranium to higher levels of U235 (19.7%) at its Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP): 25.1 kg between February 9 and September 18, 2010 (according to the IAEA), and Iran reported the production of an additional 18.5 kg since then. Iran contends that this is for fueling its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), a facility primarily for medical purposes. However, the enriched fuel would need to be fabricated in order to work in the TRR, and Iran is not known to have this technology yet. The Agency is reviewing information submitted by Iran on its plans for installing fuel fabrication equipment at the Fuel Manufacturing Plant at Esfahan.

After a number of Agency requests, Iran has not provided “supporting information regarding the chronology of the design and construction” of the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant near Qom, a previously undisclosed facility made public in September 2009. Iran told the IAEA that it plans to start feeding nuclear material into the plant in the summer of 2011. Iran has also not reported details of the sites chosen for the construction of additional nuclear enrichment facilities, and has not responded to Agency requests from early 2008 for access to other locations related to uranium enrichment activities. The Agency also warns that Iran has proceeded with its heavy water-related projects, despite requests for it to cease.

As for the possible “military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program, the IAEA continues to assert that Iran has not come forward with sufficient answers to inquiries and “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.”

The report concludes that while the Agency has been able to safeguard the materials it has knowledge of, it has been unable to declare that all “nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities,” and emphasizes that the Agency’s knowledge about Iran’s overall nuclear activities are diminishing over time. The IAEA called again on Iran to implement the Additional Protocol.

Iranian Ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said during his address to the Board of Governors meeting on March 7 that the Agency should do more to help developing countries with their nuclear programs and emphasized that it was a matter of safety. His remarks seemed to reflect frustrations experienced with the recent breakdown of the long-troubled Bushehr nuclear power plant, in which a shattered cooling pump released metal shards that could have damaged the reactor and led to radiation leakage. Russian engineers were cleaning out the plant, a process which requires the unloading of nuclear fuel.

The impact of Stuxnet

The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) reports that Stuxnet may have destroyed up to 1,000 centrifuges at Natanz, out of a total of approximately 9,000, in a single attack. Iran seemed to have recovered from the Stuxnet attacks by working quickly to contain the damage – a process that involved dismantling and then replacing over one tenth of all the centrifuges at the facility. Iran may be short on the raw materials required to build additional centrifuges. ISIS estimates that Iran had only the materials to build 12,000 to 15,000 centrifuges, of which 9,000 have already been deployed at Natanz. Between the 1,000 destroyed by Stuxnet and another 1,000 from routine failures, Iran may be reaching the limits of its ability to compensate for any damage inflicted.

ISIS notes that Stuxnet is unlikely to damage Natanz any further due to Iranian countermeasures, which include cleaning the infected machines of the malware, and additional safeguards to prevent the malware from spreading so easily again. Russia has called for a joint Russia-NATO investigation into the Stuxnet attack, asserting that one plausible consequence of such an attack might have been a nuclear disaster on the scale of Chernobyl.

International divide over sanctions grows

The United States continued to intensify its sanctions regime, despite the resignation of its acclaimed principal architect, Stuart Levey in January. It sanctioned the Iranian bank Refah, which has provided financial services to organizations such as the Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company and Iranian Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Ministry. U.S. lawmakers are proposing that international companies which deal on U.S. exchanges reveal whether or not they invest in Iran, and if they do what sort of investments they make. The law would essentially force companies to choose between doing business in Iran or in the United States. U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague has told Parliament that the United Kingdom is currently in talks with other countries “to increase the legitimate peaceful pressure on Iran to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions and the requirements of the IAEA.”

In conjunction with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s meeting with Secretary Hague in mid-February, the former affirmed that Russia will not support further economic penalties, arguing that sanctions have been exhausted and any more will only punish the Iranian economy and damage its social fabric. Russia was apparently concluding a deal to export medical isotopes to Iran. It is unclear how similar this deal is to the 2009 fuel swap proposal.

Turkey is set to triple bilateral trade with Iran over the next five years. Turkish leaders have noted that they implement all U.N.-mandated sanctions, but are not required to follow U.S.-legislated efforts, which particularly target the Iranian energy sector. Iran is Turkey’s tenth largest export partner and second largest gas supplier. Turkish President Abdullah Gul has also warned against the harder-line approach to Iran and stated that only diplomacy will be able to solve the Iranian nuclear issue.

It is thought that Iran may be facing a shortage of uranium, and quality problems with its own indigenous supply, with a search for more uranium possibly focused on Zimbabwe, but Iran itself has denied this.

Speculation on Iran’s intentions and capabilities

British Defence Secretary Liam Fox suggested at the end of January that recent estimates from the former Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, that Iran would not be able to produce a bomb before 2015, were over-optimistic and suggested instead that Iran could have a bomb as early as next year. The International Institute for Strategic Studies published a report soon after arguing that Iran had the capability to make a bomb in one to two years, though a delivery system would take longer. It identified two potential methods by which HEU could be produced and noted that between the two, the minimum timeline was approximately six months to the first bomb’s worth of HEU.

The U.S. Intelligence Community is reporting its belief that Iran has not yet made a definitive decision on whether it will actually pursue the development of nuclear weapons and is instead keeping its options open. The new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran has noted that there might be a split in the Iranian government over the decision of whether to develop nuclear weapons. Some Iranian lawmakers seem concerned that a definitive decision to do so will result in further sanctions and thus increased economic hardship for Iran, which could spur further opposition to the regime.

Iranian rocketry, missile developments

During annual celebrations commemorating the 1979 revolution, Iran exhibited technological advances in rocketry and missile programs, including its Safir 1-B and Kavoshgar 4 rockets. The former is said to be capable of placing a 110-pound satellite into a 185- to 280- mile elliptical orbit. The latter is an evolution of the Kavoshgar series, whose third iteration sent several small animals into orbit in February 2010. It is anticipated that Iran will be firing another satellite into orbit within a few months, having had their first success in such a task in 2009 with a Safir 2 rocket. Iranian officials also revealed a ballistic missile with a range of 300 km, which they say could hit sea-based targets. At the end of February, the Norwegian Police Security Service reported that Iran had approached small Norwegian firms that sell “special components” that could be used for constructing missiles.


Middle East protests: context and meaning for Iranian leadership and U.S. influence

Opinions vary over whether the recent protests for regime change in Middle Eastern countries will help or hurt U.S.-led moves against Iran. For example, Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett argue on Foreign Policy’s website that Obama’s reactions to the Arab revolts are helping Iran. America’s Arab allies are exiting the stage or at least finding their regimes much weakened and that the balance of power in the region is tipping toward Iran. Some commentators point to the entrance by Iranian warships into the Mediterranean (the first since 1979) as an example of Iran’s burgeoning influence with Egypt. However, Egypt only requires paperwork and payment of tariffs for the passage of ships and does not normally restrict them. U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, feels that Iran will try to take as much advantage of the chaos as possible.

On the other hand, there are those who feel that Iran cannot escape the recent wave of protests. The threat that some Iranian lawmakers perceive, of mass protests against the regime on account of economic hardship, whether caused by sanctions, the global economic downturn, or both, is influenced in significant part by the Arab revolutions of recent weeks. Estimates are uncertain, but it is believed that thousands defied the Iranian government and protested in a number of different cities since mid-February. Protests escalated amid direct clashes between government supporters and those in opposition. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has claimed that the protests are merely foreign attempts at destabilizing Iran and that the protests will eventually reach Europe and the United States.

With additions from Lukas Milevski, Chris Lindborg and Paul Ingram, BASIC

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