Iran Update 162

  • Talks continue over nuclear program without clear progress
  • IAEA Director General’s latest report on Iran’s nuclear program shows growth in enrichment capabilities, but analysts speculate over implications
  • Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Tehran and U.N. General Assembly opening in New York draw more attention to crisis
  • Sanctions effects deepen; Canada closes embassy
  • Concerns rise over Iranian plans for Arak facility

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.

With contributions from Shivani Handa, Cormac Mc Garry, and Rachel Staley, Paul Ingram, Chris Lindborg, BASIC



Stories and Links:


  • Iranian Oil Imports: Not Quite Zero
    Min-Jeong Lee,Korea Realtime, August 23, 2012

  • Iran Ships up to 2 Million Barrels of Fuel Oil Bound for Singapore
    Luke Pachymuthu and Lee Yen Nee, Reuters, August 23, 2012
  • Sen. Menendez Knocks Iraq for Failing to Comply with Iran Sanctions
    Ramsey Cox, The Hill’s Floor Action Blog, August 22, 2012
  • Exclusive: Iran Looks to Armenia to Skirt Bank Sanctions
    Louis Charbonneau, Reuters, August 21, 2012
  • Iran Forced to Reflag Oil Tankers
    Javier Blas, FT, August 21, 2012
  • Iraq Denies Allegations of Oil Smuggling, Money Laundering for Iran
    Carlo Munoz, DEFCON Hill, August 20, 2012


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