Iran Update 163

  • IAEA reports that Iran has added more centrifuges at underground enrichment facility, but additional centrifuges not operating
  • Iran and IAEA to resume talks on December 13th
  • Iran says willing to attend conference for Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction
  • Close calls regarding Israeli attacks on Iran come to light
  • Britain may not cooperate in any military attack by the United States and Israel
  • EU reinforcing sanctions against Iran
  • Iran fires upon U.S. drone
  • Iran’s nuclear power plant likely experiencing more problems

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.

 

Contributions by Helen Martin and Rachel Staley, BASIC

 

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