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That Iranian Nuclear Headache
The IAEA's key role.


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Henry Sokolski

Some problems get worse even after they’ve been tackled. Tehran’s admission late last week that it is still building uranium-enrichment centrifuges needed to make nuclear bombs is surely a case in point. Late last October, Germany, France, and Great Britain announced that Tehran had agreed to freeze this activity. Now, it appears they were bamboozled. If Europe and the U.S. are serious about capping the Iranian nuclear threat, they need to get the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to admit that it still can’t be sure Iran is out of the bomb-making business and to demand that IAEA members (including Russia) suspend nuclear cooperation with Tehran until it can.

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A review of recent developments suggests why at least this much is needed.

On September 12, 2003, the IAEA all but found Iran in violation of its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations. The agency urged Tehran to suspend all uranium-enrichment and -reprocessing activities and advised it to open up to more intrusive inspections by signing an additional inspections protocol. The IAEA’s deadline for these actions was October 31, 2003. On October 21, 2003, Tehran agreed with Germany, France, and Great Britain that it would sign the protocol and “voluntarily suspend all uranium-enrichment and -reprocessing activities as defined by the IAEA.” The quid pro quo for this announcement was a promise that Iran could expect greater access to European high technology. Finally, in December, nearly two months after the IAEA’s deadline, Tehran signed the additional inspections protocol and volunteered to adhere to it even without ratification. This produced sighs of relief in Europe and Washington.

What it didn’t do, though, was address two problems. First, the protocol still allows Iran to come within weeks of getting nuclear weapons and, second, Iran has accelerated its nuclear program and done so legally. How is this possible? Mostly, it’s a result of how the NPT is read. The treaty’s popular interpretation permits NPT members to pursue even the most dangerous nuclear activities–i.e., ones that bring nations within weeks of producing nuclear weapons–provided these activities are open to occasional inspection. So long as this is how the treaty is viewed, intrusive inspections–even of the sort Iran just agreed to–will only confirm that allowable nuclear activities are underway. This will hardly reveal, much less guard against, what Iran is pursuing: We already know it is nearing completion of two worrisome, declared nuclear projects.

The first is a large light-water reactor being built with Russian help at Busheir. This undertaking is roughly 80 percent complete. Shortly after the IAEA’s September ultimatum, Moscow announced it would delay completion of the plant–originally slated to go online late this spring–by about a year. Late last week, however, Russian and Iranian officials met and announced that they planned to accelerate Busheir’s construction.

This is worrisome. Many experts insist that light-water reactors are “proliferation resistant.” But all reactors produce plutonium usable for bombs. That’s why we have the IAEA–to safeguard against “peaceful” reactors being put to military use. With large light-water reactors, like that at Busheir, over 50 bombs’ worth of near-weapons-grade plutonium is produced during the reactor’s first 15 months of operation. All that’s required to get at this material is to remove the spent fuel from the reactor (something that is done as a matter of course approximately every 12 months) and chemically strip out the plutonium from the fuel rods.

If Iran was to undertake this stripping process, called reprocessing, on a commercial scale, it would be expensive and difficult to hide. But Iran needn’t go the commercial route. In l977–when the U.S. was training hundreds of Iranian nuclear students at American universities–Oak Ridge National Laboratory detailed how a small, inexpensive reprocessing plant could be constructed covertly. This could be done by a nation of Iran’s nuclear abilities within a matter of four to six months. With dimensions of only 130 feet by 30 feet by 40 feet, the plant could produce a bomb’s worth of plutonium daily after operating for a week. Fashioning this material into a workable bomb would only require Iran to have mastered the crude design that Iraq perfected a decade ago.

Russia says it can guard against this by taking back the spent fuel that Busheir produces. Iran, however, has not yet agreed to this. More important, spent reactor fuel is risky to move long distances until it has cooled off for several years. Once it is removed from the reactor, though, Iran could quickly shift this material at any time to a nearby covert reprocessing plant. Doing so might set off alarms but by the time any outside nation tried to block the diversion, Iran could have its first bomb.

The story is much the same with Iran’s enrichment program. Last week, Iran admitted that it was still importing the means to build more centrifuges. It insists it has a right to do so under the NPT and that building more enrichment capacity does not violate its October pledge to stop enriching uranium. It says it is not currently operating any of its centrifuges. Neither the Europeans nor the IAEA concur with this loose view of what the freeze agreement banned but they have yet to reach a formal understanding with Iran over what precisely is prohibited.

If Iran imported centrifuge equipment of the sort Libya did last fall–nearly complete machines of Pakistani design made in Malaysia–Tehran could be developing quite a nuclear-breakout capability. Just 1-2,000 of these machines would enable Iran to convert enough natural uranium into weapons-grade material to produce a bomb in one to two years. On the other hand, if Iran fed these centrifuges with the lightly enriched uranium Russia plans to send it for Busheir, Iran could produce enough material for a bomb in a matter of weeks.

Clearly, getting rid of Iran’s centrifuges and its large reactor program is the best way to keep it from becoming a nuclear weapons-ready nation. It also suggests why keeping Tehran from taking delivery of lightly enriched uranium ought to be a high priority. Given that bombing Iran’s known nuclear sites or overthrowing its regime right now are politically unlikely, though, U.S. and allied officials are at a loss as to how to slow Iran’s nuclear efforts.

One approach that’s worth trying is to enforce the rules. The IAEA will report on Iran’s NPT compliance in the next three weeks. It then will meet in March to decide what to do. It would be useful, given Iran’s revelations about importing centrifuge equipment, if the IAEA publicly told the truth: The agency cannot clearly find Iran yet to be in full compliance with its NPT obligations. It also would help if one or more of the IAEA’s key members–say Germany, France, Great Britain, or, if necessary, the U.S.–formally asked the IAEA to determine how much time and access it would need to give Iran a clean bill of health. The IAEA did this in 2001for North Korea but, so far, for some reason, no senior official from any member state has formally asked the agency to do this for Iran. This needs to be corrected immediately.

Armed with a study, either underway or completed, that would detail how much more time and access is needed, the IAEA’s key members in March could reasonably insist that all agency members (including Russia) suspend nuclear cooperation with Iran until the IAEA can clearly find Iran to be in full compliance.

Rather than a call for sanctions for a violation, this would merely be a prudential request for due diligence. It would allow the IAEA to get a clearer idea of what Iran intends to suspend or dismantle under the October freeze and to determine whether or not Tehran is truly out of the bomb making business. It also would demonstrate a renewed seriousness about enforcing the rules–something Washington, Europe, and the others members of the IAEA urgently need to impress now upon Tehran.

Henry Sokolski directs the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, D.C., and is editor with Patrick Clawson of Checking Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions (U.S. Army War College, 2004).



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