Leaked IAEA Report Suspects Iran of Nuclear Breaches

Publish date: June 11, 2003

Written by: Charles Digges

Inspectors from the UN nuclear agency headed to Tehran this weekend to take stock of Iran's atomic programmes following a widely leaked UN report that claims the country imported uranium from China in 1991, has apparent plans to produce plutonium, and has failed to honour treaties to safeguard nuclear material, diplomats and government officials said.

The long-awaited report comes only days before a critical meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, on June 16th, where it is expected to be presented to the agency’s board of directors and followed by discussions of Iran’s nuclear programmes. The United States wants the IAEA to declare Iran in violation of the 1973 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, at the June 16th session. Copies of the report have already been distributed to IAEA member states.

One official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the IAEA team that left Friday for Tehran was being allowed in to defuse accusations that Tehran was working on a nuclear weapons programme. The official described the visit as a sign that the country was eager to cooperate with the agency.

Compiled late last week by the IAEA, the report—which continues a Tom Clancy-scale intrigue around Iran—indicated that Iran has in several cases breached international nuclear law by failing to report proscribed nuclear activities to the UN nuclear watchdog. The report’s assertion that Iran does not abide by international safeguards ratcheted up US rhetoric against Tehran’s nuclear programme.

US and Iranian Reaction
The IAEA report comes at a cluttered and perilous time in the world’s recent nuclear history. In December, it was revealed that Iran was constructing a uranium enrichment facility near the city of Natanz and a heavy water facility—instrumental in the production of plutonium—near the city of Arak. The same opposition group that unmasked these sites also recently announced that it had discovered in the Islamic Republic two more uranium enrichment sites, whose existence has not yet been confirmed by independent sources.

US State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher, speaking at a weekend briefing in Washington, called the IAEA report "deeply troubling," according to State Department transcripts of his remarks.

"We think the report and Iran’s programmes themselves are deeply troubling and need to be studied carefully by all members of the IAEA’s board of directors," he said. "Iran’s clandestine nuclear programme represents a serious challenge to regional stability, the entire international community and to the global non-proliferation regime," he said.

"We think this report can provide important insights into the nature of the Iranian nuclear programme and the problems that exist concerning Iran’s safeguard obligations," Boucher added.
The IAEA’s Safeguards Agreement is designed to ensure that countries that are a party to the NPT, do not divert materials or use facilities to develop covert nuclear weapons programmes.

While the US criticises Iran for non-transparency, Iran’s nuclear energy chief Gholam Reza Aghazadeh admitted Sunday in Tehran that Iran had, in fact, bought and imported the Chinese uranium. He said the purchase was not reported to the IAEA because Iran, at the time, thought safeguard agreements did not require it.

Indeed, Matthew Bunn, a Harvard University nuclear expert, said Aghazadeh had been in error and was—in 1991—obligated to report the uranium import. Bunn was backed up by the text of the IAEA report itself, which noted Iran "should have informed" the agency of the acquisition, according to the provisions of the Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA that was signed by Iran. This agreement requires that reports be filed on all materials subject to safeguards, including this uranium.

Nonetheless, Aghazadeh, speaking on state-run television over the weekend, said: "There is no mention of the word ‘violation.’ The report only mentions ‘failure,’ which is still a legal debate between us. And these are normal differences."

Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told Bellona Web: "We have done nothing which would violate our commitments regarding the NPT. We have answers for all the points mentioned in this report." He declined further comment.

What the Report Said
The report noted, according to one Western diplomat, that Iran was taking steps to rectify its notification procedures. He also confirmed Aghazadeh’s Sunday assertions that the report mentioned only "failure."

"The report does not contain language such as ‘non-compliance’ or ‘violation,’" said the Western diplomat, who spoke on the condition his name not be mentioned.

The full report on Iran’s nuclear programme, which will be delivered to the IAEA’s board of directors by the agency’s chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, is expected to shed conclusive light on whether or not Iran—part of US President George Bush’s "axis of evil"—is developing nuclear weaponry.

The breaches of international nuclear law that Iran is accused of in the IAEA report, the Western diplomat told Bellona Web, include importing two tonnes of uranium ore from China in 1991. The report also said that Iran processed—but did not enrich—some of that uranium, producing about a kilogram of uranium metal.

The report also criticised Iran for allegedly failing to report what it did with the material, the diplomat said.

According to a text of the report obtained by Bellona Web and other press organisations, "Iran has failed to meet its obligations under its Safeguards Agreement with respect to the reporting of nuclear material, the subsequent processing and use of that material and the declaration of facilities where the material was stored and processed."

The IAEA adds in its report, however, that Iran is beginning to correct this problem. "While these failures are in the process of being rectified by Iran, the process of verifying the correctness and completeness of the Iranian declarations is still ongoing," said the report.

More Surprises From the Report
Harvard’s Bunn said one of the report’s most surprising findings concerned the import of the uranium from China in 1991. "Iran, up to this point, seems to have been buying a bomb option while staying within the confines of the IAEA’s Safeguards Agreement," he said in a telephone interview from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

With the 1991 uranium import, Bunn said, Iran "seems to have consciously stepped out of the Safeguards Agreement." Bunn said this opened up to question whether an apparent violation of the Safeguards Agreement constituted a breach of the NPT, a discussion of which will be part of the agenda at the IAEA’s board meeting on June 16th.

Another surprise that emerged from the report, said Bunn, was Iran’s apparent plans to build a 40-megawatt thermal research reactor. According to Bunn, this reactor, once completed, would have the capability of producing 14 to 15 kilograms of plutonium a year.

Iran’s Current Nuclear Scene
According to physicists’ calculations, the two tonnes of uranium ore Iran imported would have contained 14 kilograms of uranium 235, which, when enriched, would be weapons-usable. In 1991, Iran apparently did not have the capability—or elected not to—to perform such enrichment procedures. But a February visit to Iran by ElBaradei confirmed that the large uranium hexafluoride gas centrifuge facility being built outside the city of Natanz contains several hundred working centrifuges and equipment to build some 5000 more—enough to produce at least two nuclear bombs a year.

According to several of those who were present during the inspection, ElBaradei was "surprised by the sophistication" of the Natanz facility, whose existence had been initially disclosed to the IAEA in December by an Iranian opposition group called the National Council for the Resistance of Iran. Two weeks ago, that same organisation—which is known to include among its members groups listed as terrorists in some countries—claimed to have revealed in Iran two more secret uranium enrichment facilities.

The Western diplomat noted that the IAEA is "following up" on the opposition group’s reports of these sites and that the agency would know more about the alleged sites by September.

Russia Still Has No SNF Deal
Russia’s Ministry of Atomic Energy, or Minatom, is currently building a 1000-megawatt, $800m reactor in the Iranian port of Bushehr, which the US has repeatedly said is a covert conduit for more sensitive nuclear weapons technology. Tehran and Moscow deny this, though Russia has recently begun to voice uncertainty about the direction Iran’s nuclear programme is taking.

Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia would continue to export nuclear materials—including uranium fuel—to the Bushehr site, in spite of international concerns that Iran may be developing weapons. But Putin did urge the Tehran administration to sign the IAEA’s so-called Additional Protocol, which would allow for more frequent and intrusive inspections. Iran has so far bitterly refused.

Russia has also attempted to mollify international fears by trying to get Iran to sign an agreement to send back all spent nuclear fuel, or SNF, from the Bushehr plant so that it cannot be separated for plutonium. At one point last month, Moscow—which has been trying unsuccessfully for two years to charge other countries to store their SNF in Russia—even agreed to pay Iran for the Bushehr SNF. But Iran’s ability to mine and enrich its own uranium guts that agreement before the fact.

In an interview with the Minatom-sponsored web site Nuclear.Ru, Iran’s Ambassador to Russia, Gholam Reza Shafei, said his country was ready to sign the SNF return deal "at any moment." But Shafei said that legal and bureaucratic sluggishness on the Russian side is causing delays in negotiations, which have now dragged on for more than a year.

The Origins of the Natanz Centrifuges
The technology driving the Natanz centrifuge project is of mysterious origin. While the Iranian foreign ministry sources insist that this technology is native, there are US intelligence reports to suggest that it is of a mixed Pakistani and Western provenance, allegedly traceable through a German-educated Pakistani nuclear engineer named Abdul Qadeer Khan.

According to media reports, Khan worked for the British-German-Dutch nuclear consortium URENCO, which he left in 1974—purportedly carrying with him centrifuge blueprints and a list of URENCO’s key suppliers. For a short time, he worked at Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Commission, or PAEC, where he was allegedly given the task of developing an indigenous uranium centrifuge. According to a dossier on Khan by the Federation of American Scientists, Khan then also helped Chinese delegations sent by Beijing to Pakistan to develop their own uranium hexafluoride gas centrifuges.

After that, Khan reportedly approached North Korea with offers of assistance in centrifuge technology, and may have done the same in Iraq and Iran. A senior US administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the technology at Natanz was invented by URENCO—Khan’s former employer. The official suggested it was not provided through the firm, but was instead stolen and sold to Iran.

In Juelich, near Cologne, Germany, Gustav Meyer-Kretschmer, URENCO Deutschland’s general manager, said: "We have no business relations with Iran, and we never did," the Associated Press reported. Nonetheless, intelligence sources have told Bellona Web that the Natanz centrifuges bear the marks of both Pakistani and Western handiwork—something they say would possibly be consistent with Khan’s training and subsequent tenures with URENCO and PAEC.

Political Similarities to Indian Nuclear Weapons Programme
One nuclear programme that was developed with international help for ostensibly peaceful purposes was the nuclear programme in India.

India used a research reactor provided by Canada, with "peaceful use" assurances, and heavy water provided by the United States with similar promises, to produce plutonium for its first nuclear test in 1974.

"In this case, India chose the plutonium route, and Iran appears to be more advanced in its uranium technology," Harvard’s Bunn said. "But the political approach that Iran is using is very similar to the one India used."