IAEA report on Iran: 'serious concerns' about nuclear program

The UN nuclear watchdog says Iran has stepped up uranium enrichment and refused to resolve questions about possible nuclear weapons-related work. But the IAEA also found Iran had overstated its claims of progress. 

Ronald Zak/AP/File
Iran's Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh waits for the start of the IAEA board of governors meeting at the International Center, in Vienna, Austria in November 2011. The IAEA's confidential report released Friday said that Iran had failed to give a convincing explanation about a quantity of missing uranium that could potentially be used in a nuclear weapon.

In its latest report on Iran's nuclear program, the UN's nuclear watchdog says that it "continues to have serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program." 

 Iran has stepped up uranium enrichment, denied inspectors access to the Parchin military testing site near Tehran, and not resolved outstanding questions about past charges of weapons-related work, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

 But the IAEA also confirmed that there was no diversion of nuclear material from Iran's 15 declared nuclear facilities – all of them under IAEA monitoring – and that they were "operated as declared by Iran."

Claims by Iranian leaders that they were making soaring technical progress, however, and that they had moved their most advanced enrichment centrifuges to the small Fordow facility buried deep within a mountain, are also not borne out by the latest IAEA findings.

 The quarterly report issued by IAEA director general Yukiya Amano reads like ones from the past, disconnected in its technical appraisal from the fearful warnings about war and nuclear devastation that have been voiced with increasing intensity by some Israeli and American politicians.

Changing story on Fordow nuclear site

 The report does note that Iran has provided four separate versions of the designated purpose and enrichment levels at its controversial Fordow nuclear enrichment site. When Fordow was discovered in 2009, it was declared by Iran to be designed only for low-enriched uranium to 3.5 percent levels – enough, for example, for the fuel needs of its only power reactor at Bushehr.

 Iran then stated last year that Fordow would instead house some of Iran's most sensitive uranium enrichment to 20 percent purity – high enough for the bespoke reactor fuel it needs for a small research reactor it has in Tehran, but not the 90 percent required for a weapon. Iran's claims in the media that it had completed setup and used its most sophisticated centrifuge cascades at Fordow proved untrue, according to the IAEA.

In its latest design change a month ago, Iran inexplicably added back the 5 percent enrichment, alongside the 20 percent, and scrapped an R&D element. 

Iran doubled the number of installed centrifuges in the past three months to almost 700. But they are all the most basic IR-1 variety, Iran's first-generation machine with a decades-old design. The IAEA reported that a further 2,088 empty centrifuge casings had been placed at the site – but all of them are also for the IR-1.

UN Security Council: questions must be resolved

Several UN Security Council resolutions – four of them imposing sanctions – require that Iran halt all enrichment activities until the questions about any weapons-related work are resolved.

 Iran says it only wants to make nuclear power peacefully, and this week, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said having nuclear weapons was a "sin."

 "The Iranian nation has never been after nuclear weapons and it will never go after such weapons," Ayatollah Khamenei told nuclear scientists, at least four of whom have died in the last two years in targeted assassinations that Iran blames on Israel. "The Iranian nation will prove to the world that nuclear weapons do not bring about power."

US military officials' testimony

 Top US military and intelligence officials have testified in recent weeks that they have no evidence that Iran is seeking to make nuclear weapons, nor that Iran has any intention of initiating or provoking a conflict.

 But most analysts agree that Iran is already on the verge of achieving a nuclear-weapons capability, and if it chose to, could build a deliverable weapon within two to three years.

 US strategic planners worry that the under-mountain Fordow site may be impervious to the 50,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator – the largest non-nuclear weapon in the US arsenal. The US is now reportedly spending money to upgrade the weapon.

 Iran has yet to agree on a framework for resolving questions about "possible military dimensions" of its past work that the IAEA said in its report are "assessed by the Agency to be, overall, credible."

What the last IAEA report said

 The IAEA detailed the intelligence it had on several alleged weapons-related programs in the annex of its latest report last November, sparking a firestorm of alarm. The report also said, however, that Iran's "structured" weapons-related efforts were halted in 2003, though "some continued after 2003; and ... some may still be ongoing."

 The IAEA report today shed some more light on two visits by top-level IAEA teams to Iran in the past month, which ended in failure and a terse statement this week from Mr. Amano expressing disappointment.

 Iran has dismissed the IAEA data as fabrications. Despite a promise from the Iranian foreign minister that "questions will be answered," none were.

 The result was an "intensive discussion" between the IAEA and Iran this week, the report states, but "no agreement was reached ... as major differences existed with respect to the approach."

 Iran has accused the IAEA of leaking information about its scientists to hostile intelligence agencies, leading to their murders. The IAEA report noted that a key part of the discussions about access to the Parchin military base and nuclear scientists were in regard to "Iran's security concerns, ensuring confidentiality and ensuring that Iran's cooperation included provision of access [to all] documentation, sites, material and personnel in Iran."

 Access to Parchin – requested because of new information the IAEA says it has about an explosives testing site there – was twice denied in the past month, though inspectors made two restricted but uneventful visits years ago.

 Perhaps the least expected fact in the IAEA report? Progress by Iran on making the 20 percent enriched fuel plates necessary for the small Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), given by the US to Iran in the 1960s to make medical isotopes, which is running out of fuel.

 Iran declared it had begun to use such fuel plates in mid-February, just days after the 33rd anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution. For two years experts have suggested that only two countries – France and Argentina – were these days able to commercially make the specialty fuel.

 The IAEA verified that Iran had made one such fuel plate, and a fuel assembly of 14 more fuel plates, but only to test for the TRR – and in the process outstripped the IAEA's safeguard mechanism.

 "Notwithstanding the absence of the safeguards approach," the IAEA wrote, "it proved possible on this occasion ... for the Agency to account for all the nuclear material ... in the fuel manufacturing line."

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