Iran update: number 138

Summary

  • Iran rejects uranium export offer; IAEA Chief hopeful that Iran will eventually agree to arrangement
  • World powers meet to discuss next steps
  • Iran and Israel Appear at Multilateral Talks; Israeli PM Tentatively Supports IAEA Plan
  • IAEA inspectors visit Fordo
  • Questions persist around the quality of Iran's enriched uranium
  • Iran launches military exercise that includes defending nuclear facilities

 

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki rejected on November 18th a proposal from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which would have Iran export most of its lightly-enriched uranium for further enrichment and then returned for feeding into a nuclear research reactor. The exportation deal would require that Iran send about 70 percent of its enriched uranium to Russia for further enrichment and then on to France for fabrication and only then would Iran receive the more highly enriched uranium in fuel rods about one year later. Under the arrangement, the United States would upgrade the reactor's equipment and Tehran would be required to use the fuel rods only in that reactor, which Iran employs primarily for medical purposes.

Iran has been uncomfortable with the proposed exportation deal, which has been in play officially since early October. There has been heavy criticism of President Ahmadinejad from within Iran for contemplating the deal, and indications that few within the Iranian government trust the arrangement, given previous experience of nuclear deals with both France and Russia that have fallen through or experienced severe delay. Iranian officials had offered an alternative plan to the IAEA on October 29th. Although neither Iran nor the IAEA released details of the counter-proposal, Iran is clearly looking for guarantees not currently on offer. One proposal appears to allow Iran to export its low-enriched uranium to Russia in batches, and only after the West provides it with the French-made fuel rods. Another would be to make the swap simultaneously and on Iranian soil. Former British Ambassador to Iran, Sir Richard Dalton, urged the West to think seriously about these possibilities, but western diplomats appear to believe such proposals would weaken the deal by allowing Tehran to retain greater stocks of its enriched uranium for further processing within its own borders. The IAEA's Director General, Mohamed ElBaradei, remains hopeful that agreement may still be reached before the end of the year. Iranian representative to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said they would be willing to continue negotiating, but will demand a guarantee for the timeliness of the fuel's delivery.

After Iran rejected the draft exportation deal and gave no indication it would slow down its uranium enrichment program, leaders representing the European Union, Germany, and the Permanent Members of the U.N. Security Council (P5): China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, met in Brussels on November 20 to discuss Iran's position and the possibility of additional sanctions in general. U.S. President Barack Obama warned while he was in South Korea that Iran would face "consequences" if it did not show greater cooperation "within weeks." One Obama Administration official has suggested that the Iran exportation offer might remain open as a way to encourage Chinese and Russian leaders to support the levying of additional sanctions, which the other P5 members perceive as a way to encourage Iranian cooperation.

During an international conference held in Cairo at the end of September, Iran's Ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, reportedly asked the chief of policy and arms control at the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, Meirav Zafary-Odiz, whether Israel possesses nuclear weapons. Zafary-Odiz smiled but did not respond, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which reported on the conversation. (Israel has never publicly declared its nuclear weapons arsenal.) The conference, which was organized by the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, was held from September 28th-30th and included private discussions about a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cautiously endorsed the proposed IAEA exportation agreement while meeting with George J. Mitchell, White House envoy to the Middle East, on October 30th in Jerusalem. The Prime Minister said that he believed the proposal "is a positive first step." Israeli defense officials, however, expressed discontent with the plan because it would tacitly accept that Iran enriches uranium on its own soil.

A team from the IAEA conducted an inspection of Iran's recently revealed uranium enrichment facility on October 25th-28th. The inspectors visited the heavily protected facility, which is located in a mountainside 20 miles north of the holy city of Qom. The four-member inspection team included Herman Nackaerts, director of the IAEA's division of operations department of safeguards. The team was to compare the facility, named "Fordo," to its engineering plans, interview employees, and conduct environmental samples to check for nuclear materials.

Iranian officials have maintained that they hid the facility in order to protect it from foreign attack, rather than being an effort to hide nuclear weapons aspirations, and reiterated that allowing inspections should serve as evidence that Iran is forthcoming about its nuclear activities. Analysts believe the facility can house approximately 3,000 centrifuges, insufficient to sustain a nuclear energy program but useful for military purposes. The facility remains controversial as the IAEA believes the secrecy of its construction explicitly broke Iran's safeguards agreement with them. Iranian officials say that the facility will come online in about 18 months. The IAEA sent another inspection team to the facility on November 19th.

There remains a question over the quality of Iran's enriched uranium that could yet prove problematic for further enrichment. The newsletter Nucleonics Week reported on October 8th that impurities in Iran's uranium-specifically "metallic fluoride compounds"- could harm centrifuges if Iran attempts to further enrich the fuel to higher levels and would at least make the re-enrichment process more labor- and possibly time-intensive. A western safeguards official said last year that Iran had resolved the problem enough to use its fuel for loading into Pressurized Water Reactors (PWRs) but "commercial sources," suggest that Iran has not been able to remove enough of the impurities for the Tehran research reactor. David Ignatius of The Washington Post wrote that Iran's contaminated fuel would be "all but useless for nuclear weapons." Iran would have to produce new fuel without impurities or decontaminate the existing stock, possibly lessening time pressures for negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. According to the Nucleonics Week article, the French firm Areva has equipment that could remove impurities from Iran's existing enriched fuel stock, but it was unclear at the time whether this capability was factoring into the negotiations over the exportation deal.

Pointing to fears that the United States or Israel would eventually lead a military strike against Iran, Iran started five days of military exercises on November 22. The exercises were to include protecting its nuclear sites from aerial attack. Mojhtaba Zolnoor of the Revolutionary Guards said that Iran would launch a missile strike against Tel Aviv if one or more countries attacked Iran.

 

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