Iran Approaches Israel’s “Zone of Immunity”


by Richard Weitz

The February 24 report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran’s nuclear program described many instances of Iranian obfuscation regarding its suspicious nuclear activities as well as noticeable increases in the quantity of enriched uranium that Iran is producing and stockpiling.

As a result, the report stated that the IAEA still could not affirm that Iran’s nuclear program was exclusively peaceful in nature.

These problems as well as evidence that Iran was preparing to install thousands of additional centrifuges led the White House to issue a statement that Iran had yet again “failed to convince the international community that its nuclear program is peaceful.” Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has warned that Iran would soon enter a “zone of immunity” in which Israel could no longer disrupt the program with air strikes or other means.

The report’s appearance followed the January 29-31 and February 20-21 visits of IAEA delegations to Iran. These in-country dialogue sessions failed to resolve the differences between Iran and the IAEA over Tehran’s nuclear activities. In particular, on each occasion, the Iranian authorities denied the IAEA’s request to visit the Parchin military complex, which is located 30km southwest of Tehran. The site is suspected of having an underground nuclear weapons research site.

Furthermore, Iran and the IAEA were unable to agree on a structured approach to clarifying all their unresolved questions regarding Iran’s nuclear program. The report notes that, “Since 2002, the Agency has become increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile, about which the Agency has regularly received new information.”

According to the IAEA, “The information indicates that: prior to the end of 2003 the activities took place under a structured programme; that some continued after 2003; and that some may still be ongoing.” Iranian representatives again rejected all evidence and allegations that Iran has engaged in activities that could contribute to the production or use of a nuclear weapon, and therefore refused to give the IAEA access to the information and individuals the Agency requested to resolve the issues in dispute.

The report points to additional ways in which Iran is refusing to cooperate with the IAEA. For instance, Tehran has denied the IAEA access to other nuclear sites besides Parchin, such as where Iran researches, develops, and manufactures enrichment technologies and centrifuges.

Key players in the Middle East are already acting on the assumption that Iran will have nuclear weapons sooner rather than later. Credit Image: Bigstock

For example, Iran has yet to respond to the IAEA’s request to again access Iran’s Heavy Water Production Plant (HWPP), also known as the Qatran Complex, located at Khondab, near Arak. It began operating in November 2004 and makes up to 16 metric tons of heavy water annually for eventual use by the IR-40 reactor currently under construction in Arak. According to the IAEA, satellite imagery shows that the HWPP is again in operation.

Furthermore, Iran has not yet provided the IAEA with access to the heavy water stored at the Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) at Esfahan in order to take samples. Furthermore, Iran has been denying agency requests for more information about its previous announcement to construct ten additional uranium enrichment facilities as well as use laser enrichment technologies and third-generation centrifuge.

Iran has also taken actions to shield its nuclear activities from a potential adversary air strike as well as making it harder for satellites and other air, space, and ground sensors to monitor its activities. For example, Iran built the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant 80 meters (265 feet) underground near the city of Qom. The depth and proximity to a Shi’ite Muslim holy sites severely complicate any air strike against it since a massive bomb designed to crush the underground site risks severe collateral damage to Qom, which could outrage the world’s Muslims. It is further noteworthy Iran has now changed the designs of this facility that it provides the IAEA a total of four times. In addition to the site’s initially clandestine construction and its location, these repeated design changes suggest that Fordow’s initial purpose was to manufacture nuclear weapons in secret should the Iranian leadership decide to do so.

A newly highlighted concern is a discrepancy uncovered by an August 2011 site visit to the Jabr Ibn Hayan Multipurpose Research Laboratory (JHL). The IAEA inspectors found that some 19.8 kilograms (kg) of nuclear material declared by the laboratory was missing. Between 1995 and 2002, Iran used this material, in the form of natural uranium metal and process waste, in conversion experiments. Iranian representatives told the IAEA that it could not provide access to the records and personnel that had been involved in the conversion experiments. U.S. sources fear that the missing kilograms of natural uranium metal had been diverted for weapons research.

Another problem is the IAEA cannot be certain that Iran is not now, or will in the future, enrich uranium at other clandestine locations.

Iran initially concealed from the IAEA the gas uranium enrichment facilities at Naztanz and Fordow and only informed the IAEA of these facilities’ existence after they had been exposed by other sources. Analysts estimate that Iran started building the FFEP several years before September 2009.  The latest IAEA report reaffirms Iran’s obligation to submit  to the agency design information for new facilities as soon as the decision to construct, or to authorize construction of, a new facility has been taken, whichever is the earlier.”

The latest quarterly report reaffirms the demands of the IAEA Board of Governors and the Security Council that, Iran implement its Additional Protocol (AP). The report notes that the “Agency will not be in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran unless and until Iran provides the necessary cooperation with the Agency, including by implementing its Additional Protocol.” The AP, a voluntary supplement to the IAEA’s traditional comprehensive safeguards agreement, requires parties to submit to the IAEA additional information on nuclear-related activities, including regarding R&D activities, the production of uranium and thorium, and nuclear-related imports and exports. The Protocol also provides IAEA inspectors with greater rights of access to suspect sites, such as short-notice visits, environmental sampling, and use of remote monitoring techniques to detect illicit activities.

Iran signed and enforced the Additional Protocol for a few years starting in December 2003, but the Iranian parliament refused to ratify the AP and Iran eventually ceased its voluntary provisional compliance in February 2006. Iranian representatives have claimed that the inspectors were trying to acquire information about Iran’s non-nuclear military programs on behalf of Western intelligence services. Iranian representatives state that they would consider ratifying and implementing the AP only if the Iranian case is removed from the Security Council and if the IAEA and others would accept Iran’s legitimate right to enrich uranium and undertake all other nuclear fuel cycle activities.

Iran has allowed the IAEA to monitor its uranium enrichment activities at its 15 nuclear facilities and nine locations outside facilities where nuclear material is customarily used (LOFs). The IAEA Board of Governors and the UN Security Council have however demanded that Iran cease these activities until Tehran has satisfied the IAEA and the international community that all its nuclear activities are peaceful. Iran is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which prohibits Iran from engaging in such research, and authorizes the IAEA to ensure the compliance of all parties with their treaty commitments.

This latest IAEA report finds that Iran continues to enrich larger quantities of low-enriched uranium (LEU) at the Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) and the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP), both located at Natanz. These two facilities are subject to IAEA surveillance and containment, as required by Iran’s IAEA Safeguards Agreement1 (INFCIRC/214), which entered into force on May 15, 1974.

The Natanz FEP concentrates on manufacturing low-enriched uranium hexafluoride (UF6), whose proportion of the fissile isotope Uranium-235 (U-235) has been artificially raised to 3.5%, which is suitable for use in most commercial nuclear power reactors. As of February 2012, the FEF was using 54 cascades, each consisting of some 170 IR-1 centrifuges. In November only 37 cascades were operating at the FEP. The FEP is now producing 170 kg of LEU UF6 each month, a 20% increase over its average during the previous reporting period due to the larger number of centrifuges in operation, including about 1,000 IR-1 centrifuges that were installed earlier and have recently been reconnected.

The PFEP has two functions—researching and developing more advanced centrifuge models, and making uranium fuel enriched to 19.75% U-235 by feeding 3.5% UF6 into two interconnected cascades, each having 164 IR-1 centrifuges. The PFEP is currently manufacturing an average of 4.5 kg each month of 19.75% LEU UF6. Since  the time this above-ground cascade began operating on February 9, 2010, the PFEP has produced 95.4 kg of 19.75% of UF6 enriched up to 20% U-235 at PFEP. (It takes around 250kg of 19.75% LEU to manufacture a nuclear weapon.)

The Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) began producing 19.75% LEU on December 14, 2011.Its four cascades of 174 IR-1 centrifuges have manufactured some 13.8 kg of 19.75% LEU hexafluoride. Combined with the output at the PFEP at Natanz, Iran’s stockpile of 19.75% of LEU consists of more than 100 kg, which is growing by 11kg each month.

Iran had originally indicated it planned to install its next-generation centrifuges at the FFEP, but Iran has had problems researching and developing these more advanced models, so looks prepared to install thousands of its first-generation IR-1 centrifuges at Fordow, in addition to the 700 already functioning there. (Tehran has yet to notify the IAEA of the total number of centrifuges it plans to install at FFEP.) Iran claims it needs the 19.75% LEU to make LEU fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which has almost exhausted its original fuel supply, but this level of production considerably surpasses the volume of fuel required by the TRR.

From 2009 to 2011, Iran and its foreign partners tried to negotiate a uranium swap agreement whereby Iran would surrender large quantities of its 3.5% LEU in exchange for foreign fuel rods containing the 20% LEU. After these negotiations failed, Iran decided to try to produce the 20% LEU itself as well as the fuel assemblies needed to power the reactor. Iranian representatives claimed that they had achieved such a capacity earlier this month. Even so, the proliferation problem is that, having demonstrated the capacity to manufacture 20% U-235, Iran can more easily manufacture weapons-grade uranium, which is normally enriched to 90%.

According to IAEA calculations, Iran has already produced sufficient 3.5% LEU, some 5,451 kg (of which almost 1,000 kg have been used to manufacture 19.75% LEU), to make several nuclear weapons if this LEU were enriched further to weapons-grade high-enriched uranium (HEU).

Not only has the volume of both types of enriched LEU continued to accumulate, but Iran has been raising its output by adding new centrifuges to the operation.

At the same time, the average volume of enriched uranium Iran has produced per centrifuge is low by historical standards. Iran has not yet been able to begin operating the more advanced centrifuges it has been seeking to develop in recent years. These are designed to overcome the reliability problems found with the IR-1 centrifuges that Iran has been using so far.

These first-generation centrifuges, based on Pakistan’s P-1 centrifuges acquired through A.Q. Khan’s illicit procurement network, operate less efficiently and require more physical space than the new centrifuges Iran is designing.

Due to their smaller size and other requirements, these new models can also more easily be used at clandestine sites. They might also more easily be able to produce weapons-grade uranium than the problematic IR-1. Once the second-generation centrifuges enter into operation on a large scale, Iran’s enrichment uranium production—and potential bomb-making material–could soar.

Like previous IAEA reports on Iran’s nuclear program, the latest one indicates that the agency has no evidence of significant diversions of nuclear materials or technologies from Iran’s safeguarded nuclear facilities.

Nonetheless, the IAEA cannot exclude that Iran is pursuing a covert nuclear weapons program using undeclared materials and facilities since the Iranian government is not allowing agency monitors access to non-safeguarded sites, as required by the Additional Protocol.

If Iranians seek to build a nuclear weapon, they will do so not at Natanz, Bushehr, or at other declared facilities under IAEA supervision. Instead, they will design and build an atomic bomb at some clandestine facility such as the one exposed in September 2010 at Qom.

That Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant is remote and deeply buried, shielding it from foreign surveillance satellites and possible Israel or U.S. air strikes.

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