The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) assessment comes as Iran has been stepping up uranium enrichment levels and expanding its nuclear fuel cycle plans in recent weeks, moves that have prompted President Barack Obama to warn of tougher sanctions against Iran.
“The agency continues…to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran, but we cannot confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities because Iran has not provided the agency with the necessary cooperation,” Yukiya Amano, the new IAEA chief, told the agency's governing board at the start of its meeting in Vienna this week.
Mr. Amano asked for “clarification of issues related to possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program,” and that Iran make “full implementation of its safeguards agreement and its other obligations [a] matter of high priority.”
The tougher IAEA line comes as momentum builds in Washington to impose more sanctions upon Iran – a “pressure track” to add to three sets of UN Security Council sanctions and an array of US and European measures that already target Iran.
“The pressure track does not mean that the engagement track is closed,” Glyn Davies, the US Ambassador to the IAEA, said in a recent Monitor interview in Istanbul. “But we are looking for Iranian bona fides. There is such an overhang of issues, it would require a significant change by [the] Iranians.”
The recent back-and-forth with Iran over its nuclear program "has been maximally frustrating" because of the mixed messages from Tehran, said Amb. Davies.
On Monday, Iran took issue with Amano’s remarks. “We have fully cooperated with the agency. This cooperation will continue,” said Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.
Analysts expect this week's meeting of the IAEA’s governing board to pave the way for a tougher, fourth set of UN sanctions against Iran as it tussles with the IAEA over unresolved issues that point to a weaponization effort, but are based on US and Western intelligence that Iran says is fabricated.
Efforts by the Obama Administration to engage Tehran in 2009 were set back in part by the violence and political paralysis that have consumed Iran in the aftermath of disputed presidential elections last June.
Among the casualties appears to have been a US-backed IAEA proposal in which Iran would export the bulk of its low-enriched uranium (LEU)— enough, if enriched to much higher levels, to make one nuclear weapon — for fabrication in Russia and France into fuel needed for a research reactor in Tehran.
Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, initially agreed to the deal in Geneva last October – and it was even hailed as a triumph in Iran’s hard-line Kayhan newspaper. But it was quickly scorned by opposition figures who charged that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was giving away the “fruit” of Iran’s nuclear scientists.
While Amano said on Monday that the deal “remains on the table” and the Iranians have come back with several compromise options that would avoid a single mass exodus of LEU and a swap on its territory, Tehran has continued to enrich uranium to a point where the overall percentage that would leave Iran in the original deal makes what Amano called the “confidence building” aspect less significant.
Early last month, Mr. Ahmadinejad, just days before the 31st anniversary of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, declared that Iran would enrich its own stockpile of 3.5 percent LEU to nearly 20 percent — a feat achieved in miniscule quantities on the day of the anniversary, according to the IAEA.
Iran insists that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, though the United States and European capitals suspect that it masks a nuclear weapons program. All Iran’s current enrichment is in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions that require it stop the work until Iran clarifies outstanding issues about possible weaponization.
The most recent restricted quarterly IAEA report into Iran’s activities, which became public 10 days ago, noted that Agency data was “extensive and has been collected from a variety of sources over time.”
The report stated: “Altogether, this raises concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” Iran says the intelligence is fabricated, and so refuses to address the issue.
Iran’s supreme religious leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei said on Sunday that the “measures and reports of the [IAEA] show it lacks independence.” Iran’s top decision-maker – who has the final say on all nuclear and other issues of state – called on the IAEA not to be “influenced by the United States.”
Accusing the US and Britain of spreading “lies” about Iran’s nuclear program, Khamenei said the IAEA’s “unilateral acts erode trust in this institution and the United Nations.” In his televised speech, he said Iran had reached a number of nuclear milestones “despite all these pressures and it will advance them as far as is needed to reach self sufficiency in this…field.”
The day after the IAEA report came out, Ayatollah Khamenei reiterated Iran’s long-standing position that nuclear weapons were forbidden by Islam.
“Iran will not get emotional in responding to these nonsensical comments, since our religious beliefs are against the use of such weapons,” Khamenei said on Feb. 19. “We in no way believe in an atomic weapon and do not seek one.”
Last autumn Iran revealed an undeclared, smaller enrichment facility near Qom that IAEA inspectors were surprised to find in an “advanced” state of construction, though without centrifuges installed. Tehran says it is planning to build ten more enrichment facilities at its larger Natanz facility, which is designed to house 54,000 spinning centrifuges, yet after a decade has only 8,600 centrifuges installed -- and less than 4,000 of those are now in operation.
Speaking about his report on Monday, Amano –who took over as IAEA chief from Mohammad ElBaradei on Dec. 1 – said its 10 pages were longer than usual because “I wanted my first report to be a stand-alone document.”
(To download a pdf of the IAEA report, click here)
“In my view, this report is factual and absolutely impartial,” Amano told journalists. “We have an integrated team of experts, we have experience. And the information is extensive. We cross-check it. After this process, we are saying that altogether it raises concern.”
Analysts say that even if Iran can enrich enough material to just below 20 percent for the Tehran reactor, which produces medical isotopes, the actual manufacture of the fuel is a complex process that only a few countries can perform and would take years for Iran to perfect.