IAEA chairman Mohamed ElBaradei disclosed that he had discovered, during his visit to Iran in late February, that Iran was constructing a facility to enrich uranium — a key technology for building advanced nuclear weapons. His visit to Natanz — where the facility is located — was much anticipated, but beset with delays. ElBaradei had initially wanted to go to Iran in December, but Teheran delayed the trip for nearly two months.
Following the Natanz visit, ElBaradei praised the "transparency" of Iran’s nuclear programme, and glossed over, at least publicly, the proliferation dangers of the site he visited actually pose. Several officials who were familiar with the IAEA’s February visit to Iran said ElBaradei has been working though back-channel diplomacy to decide how the energy watchdog should proceed.
The United States is opposed to Russia’s assistance to Iran in building a 1000-megawatt light-water reactor in the city of Bushehr. They allege that assistance from Russia — which will make $800m as soon as the reactor goes online late 2003 or 2004 — will give Iran critical insights into nuclear know-how and weapons building technology. These worries were recently compounded when Iran, last week, said it may consider contracting as many as five more reactors to Atomstroiproekt, the construction wing of Russia’s Atomic Energy, or Minatom.
SNF now bigger worry than ever
In an effort to assuage Western fears that Iran may try to reprocess burnt uranium fuel to obtain plutonium, Minatom, signed in January a legally binding agreements obligating Iran to send spent fuel back, or SNF, to Russia, thus preventing Iran from reprocessing. But even that deal was a long time in the making, with foot-dragging on both sides.
That deal now seems to be in tatters. Iranian President Mohammad Khatami announced last month that Iran has begun mining uranium for use in nuclear power plants and will reprocess spent fuel itself rather than sending it all to Russia. Possessing this sort of complete fuel cycle would go far toward making it possible for Iran to produce weapons-grade plutonium and uranium. This announcement by Khatami has all but rendered moot Russia’s assurances about the disposition of Iran’s SNF.
Speaking to reporters during his February visit to Natanz, ElBaradei took no questions and said there was no evidence that the Iranians could produce nuclear weapons. But ElBaradei left Iran a day early for inexplicable reasons. Prior to leaving, he told reporters in Teheran that the fact that Iran had even showed the IAEA the Natanz plant — which is built partially underground with walls a meter thick— was a great step towards Iran’s transparency. Others have suggested that the entrenched facility was built that way to thwart military attacks.
ElBaradei using back channels
ElBaradei’s abrupt departure — which an IAEA spokesman said was normal — however has given rise to reports in the media that he is conducting background meetings with both Teheran and the IAEA in hopes of defusing the anything that would lead to high-level uranium and plutonium in Iran. Press reports have also indicated that ElBaradei was shown enough of Iran’s programme to qualify it as a proliferation risk, a spokesman at the IAEA told Bellona web.
Also in February, Iran announced that it has plan to activate another uranium conversion facility near Isfahan — under IAEA safeguards — a step that produces the uranium hexafluoride gas used in the enrichment process.
A breach of NPT
According to the source at the IAEA, the agency has concluded that Iran actually has already introduced uranium hexafluoride gas into some centrifuges at an undisclosed location to test their ability to work. That would be a blatant violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — to which Iran is a signatory — and which stipulates that the signatory nations cannot prepare for a nuclear war. One Iranian exile group has said that secret testing could be taking place at a site claimed by Teheran to be a watch factory.
Other sources speaking on the condition on of anonymity say work on at the Natanz plant is "extremely advanced" and involves "hundreds" of gas centrifuges ready to produce enriched uranium and "the parts for a thousand other centrifuges ready to be assembled." As a rule of thumb, it takes some 1,000 centrifuges a year to produce enough uranium for a bomb.
Russian weapons scientists in Iran
According to a highly-placed Bush Administration official, Yury Koptev, the head of Russia’s space agency, told the White House that Russian scientists or engineers may be helping Iran. At the moment there are 2,000 Russian nuclear engineers working at the Bushehr site. Koptev himself could not be reached for further comment.
"Russia is now more persuaded than they were before that Iran does have a clandestine nuclear weapons programme," the administration official said, speaking on condition that he not be further identified.
"I think for some time the Russians felt that Iranians can’t develop a nuclear weapons programme. I think now they’re beginning to see that in fact they are."
While US Secretary of State Colin Powell did not comment on reports about the centrifuges, he said that the IAEA has been surprised by the extent of Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.
Israel especially worried
The new discoveries of the uranium enrichment sites could destabilize a region already dangerously on edge in anticipation of war in Iraq. Israel — which destroyed an Iraqi nuclear plant in Osirak in a 1981 raid — is deeply alarmed by the developments.
"It’s a huge concern," says one Israeli official speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Iran is a regime that denies Israel’s right to exist in any borders and is a principal sponsor of Hezbollah. If that regime were able to achieve a nuclear potential it would be extremely dangerous." Israel will not take the "Osirak option" off the table, the official says, but "would prefer that this issue be solved in other ways."
Earlier this week, speaking on American television, Powell said that, "right now, the IAEA is discovering, as a result of information that intelligence made available, that Iran has a far more robust programme for the development of nuclear weapons than the IAEA thought."
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice, also in a television appearance earlier this week, said that the United States had talked to Russia, China and the IAEA "about the need to get into Iran and to understand what is going on there."
A senior State department official, in a confidential interview, said he believed ElBaradei was trying to resolve the issue behind the scenes before going public making further announcements about Iran’s nuclear ambition.
Experts urge more candour from IAEA
But experts say that Natanz and Arak are very serious matters and should be handled in public.
"If Iran were found to have an operating centrifuge, it would be a direct violation of the non-proliferation treaty and is something that would need immediately to be referred to the United Nations Security Council for action," said Jon Wolfstahl of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Iran insists that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes and they told ElBaradei that Tehran intends to bring all of its programmes under IAEA safeguards. Khatami has argued that nuclear power is demanded for energy for the countries 65 million inhabitants. But the Bush Administration official ridiculed that idea, saying, "What do they need a nuclear fuel cycle for? Not their abstract interest in nuclear physics… They are now well along in a very sophisticated programme for the development of nuclear weapons capability."
The revelations from Natanz come at a particularly bad time for Washington, which is locked in a battle to gain UN approval for an attack on Iraq and to build consensus among its allies for a multilateral approach to the nuclear crisis in North Korea.
Critics of the administration say Bush’s hard public line against the so-called "axis of evil," combined with the threatened war with Iraq, have acted as a spur to both Iran and North Korea to accelerate their nuclear programmes.