Iranian Uranium Remains Unaccounted For, U.N. Nuclear Agency Says

The flag of the International Atomic Energy Agency flies outside the U.N. organization’s headquarters in Vienna, Austria. Iran has yet to explain conflicting inventories of uranium metal held at the Jabr Ibn Hayan Multipurpose Research Laboratory in Tehran, the agency said in a report on Friday (AP Photo/Hans Punz).
The flag of the International Atomic Energy Agency flies outside the U.N. organization’s headquarters in Vienna, Austria. Iran has yet to explain conflicting inventories of uranium metal held at the Jabr Ibn Hayan Multipurpose Research Laboratory in Tehran, the agency said in a report on Friday (AP Photo/Hans Punz).

The International Atomic Energy Agency on Friday said Iran had yet to account for differing tallies of uranium at a research facility in Tehran, Reuters reported (see GSN, Feb. 24).

The U.N. organization's August 2011 accounting of uranium fell roughly 44 pounds short of figures provided by the site.

The amount of natural uranium metal from Iran's Jabr Ibn Hayan Multipurpose Research Laboratory could not fuel a weapon, but it might aid in related development activities, according to analysts. Washington has suggested Tehran might have transferred the metal to an undisclosed nuclear-weapon development initiative; Tehran maintains its atomic activities have no military component (see GSN, Nov. 18, 2011).

"The discrepancy remains to be clarified," IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said in his agency's latest safeguards report on the Middle Eastern state's atomic activities.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog sought to scrutinize documents and personnel linked to uranium metal conversion efforts between 1995 and 2002, but "Iran indicated that it no longer possessed the relevant documentation and that the personnel involved were no longer available," the report states.

Tehran said U.N. monitors might have undercounted the uranium quantity in related discarded material also in the August review, producing the mismatch in the figures, according to the report.

"In light of this, Iran has offered to process all of the waste material and to extract the uranium contained therein," the document states, noting the agency had started collecting for scrutiny small quantities of the substance in question (Fredrik Dahl, Reuters I, Feb. 25).

Iran appears unprepared to field in significant quantities a new line of higher-speed uranium enrichment centrifuges, and is instead moving to put in place thousands of additional refinement machines built in accordance with an older schematic prone to technical problems, according to the IAEA report. The U.N. Security Council has adopted four sanctions resolutions aimed at pressuring Iran to stop enriching uranium, a process that can produce nuclear weapon material in addition to fuel for civilian use.

The situation involves both Iran's primary enrichment site at Natanz and its newer subterranean facility at Qum, Reuters reported.

Iran in 2011 began moving additional next-generation IR-4 and IR-2M centrifuges into an experimentation area at its Natanz complex (see GSN, Aug. 4, 2011). Still, the country appears to have hit setbacks in vetting the machines after assembling them in cascades, said David Albright, who heads the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington (Fredrik Dahl, Reuters II, Feb. 25).

"The testing of advanced centrifuge production-scale cascades at the Natanz plant is going far more slowly than expected," Albright's organization said in an assessment. "[The] advanced centrifuge program appears troubled."

Iran has possessed a single cascade of 164 IR-2M centrifuges, all of which "were under vacuum and only being intermittently fed with uranium hexafluoride, an unexpected development," the ISIS analysis states, referring to an intermediate material in the enrichment process.

"Iran continued work on its installation of IR-4 centrifuges ... but, as of Feb. 21, 2012 it had only installed 58 of 164 centrifuges in its planned IR-4 cascade, a decrease of eight centrifuges" in the time covered by the latest quarterly IAEA report, according to the analysis.

The IR-4 centrifuges received no uranium hexafluoride, and the U.N. agency documented the country moving the machines "in and out of the [Natanz experimentation area] in a noticeable manner," the ISIS document says. "This may imply significant problems with the IR-4 centrifuge design" (Institute for Science and International Security release, Feb. 24).

Former IAEA safeguards chief Olli Heinonen said "it appears that [the Iranians] are still struggling with the advanced centrifuges," Reuters reported. "We do not know whether the reasons for delays are lack of raw materials or design problems."

The U.N. nuclear watchdog said Tehran had earlier this month reported the Natanz experimentation section would receive three individual enrichment machines of new designs, dubbed IR-5, IR-6, and IR-6S.

The plan "indicates that Iran has not yet reached a point where it can decide which would be the next generation centrifuge to be deployed," Heinonen said.

Former U.S. State Department expert Mark Fitzpatrick said Iran "unveiled a third-generation model [centrifuge] two years ago and then never said more about it."

"Now it says it has a fourth-generation model, which is probably a variation of the problematic second-generation machines," said Fitzpatrick, now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "Sooner or later Iran will probably crack the code on advanced centrifuges and introduce them in larger numbers, but so far that hasn't been possible."

Arms Control Association expert Peter Crail said Iran "has been testing its second-generation models for several years but they do not appear to be ready for full-scale use yet."

"Iran's ability to mass produce them is also uncertain," Crail said.

It is possible that the nation might have placed additional higher-speed enrichment machines at a secret undeclared facility, one informed official source suggested. "That is, of course, the million dollar question," the insider said (Dahl, Reuters II).

Separately, the IAEA report indicates Iran has tripled the manufacturing of 20 percent-enriched uranium at its Natanz and Qum sites, according to the ISIS analysis. The higher-enriched material enables Iran to potentially more quickly produce nuclear-weapon fuel, which must be refined to roughly 90 percent; Tehran, though, has insisted the material would fuel a medical isotope production reactor in Tehran.

In addition, Iran has deployed outer components for roughly 8,000 older-generation IR-1 machines at the Natanz and Qum installations, but not internal mechanical systems, according to the examination of IAEA findings. The number of operational centrifuges at the Natanz site increased by almost half, but the older-model machines continued to fall short of expectations (Institute for Science and International Security, Feb. 24).

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Saturday said the U.N. nuclear watchdog's assessment "is concerning, and raises a lot of worrisome questions," Reuters reported.

"We continue to urge Iran to abide by its international obligations, and that is something that countries everywhere do, and we want to see them do it, and we hope that they will be listening," Clinton said (Dahl, Reuters I).

Meanwhile, a 2010 National Intelligence Estimate and other official analyses have generally backed a 2007 U.S. intelligence conclusion that Iran had ended its formal nuclear-weapon effort years before, the New York Times on Friday quoted serving and retired U.S. government personnel as saying.

Senior U.S. intelligence officials have recently offered public statements indicating they believe Iran has not set itself firmly on the road to a nuclear weapon.

"They are certainly moving on that path, but we don't believe they have actually made the decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapon," National Intelligence Director James Clapper told lawmakers last month (see GSN, Feb. 17, 2011; Risen/Mazzetti, New York Times, Feb. 24).

Sweden's top diplomat on Monday suggested a proposal by Tehran this month could pave the way for new atomic discussions between Iran and the five permanent U.N. Security Council member nations and Germany, Reuters reported (see GSN, Feb. 17). The Middle Eastern country most recently met with the six nations on two separate occasions in December 2010 and January 2011, but neither gathering yielded clear progress toward resolving the dispute (see GSN, Jan. 24, 2011).

"We had a letter from the Iranians which was basically satisfactory," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said. "Now it's a question of the timing of those particular talks. ... I don't know, but I don't think it's going to take too long."

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, an intermediary acting on behalf of the six powers, has still not replied to the Iranian communication. The six nations are still considering the situation, an Ashton representative said (Justyna Pawlak, Reuters III, Feb. 27).

Separately, lawmakers in Washington have received notice from the U.S. armed services of steps to deploy additional mine sensors and disarmament equipment in and near the Strait of Hormuz and to bolster monitoring capacities in the area, the Wall Street Journal quoted informed Defense Department insiders as saying. Alterations sought by the armed forces to sea-based combat equipment would enable engagement of Iranian cruise missiles and rapid-strike vessels, according to the sources.

Officials and lawmakers in Tehran previously threatened to close the waterway, a key channel for the shipment of Middle Eastern petroleum, in retaliation to an embargo on oil exports (Entous/Barnes, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 25).

The U.S. Senate could soon vote on a nonbinding measure calling on President Obama to "prevent the Iranian government from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability," the Connecticut Post reported on Saturday.

"To me, nuclear weapons capability means that they are capable of breaking out and producing nuclear weapons -- in other words, that they have all the components necessary to do that," said Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), a leading proponent of the measure.  "It's a standard that is higher than saying `The red line is when they actually have weapons.'''

Lieberman said his proposal would communicate that Iran has "only two choices -- peacefully negotiate to end your nuclear weapons program or expect a military strike to end that program" (Charles Lewis, Connecticut Post, Feb. 25).

Former Vice Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff James Cartwright, though, on Thursday said the United States could not prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear armaments, the Washington Times reported.

“If they (Iranians) have the intent, all the weapons in the world are not going to change that,” Cartwright said (Kristina Wong, Washington Times, Feb. 24).

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Friday said his country is “not interested in Iran becoming a nuclear power,” Bloomberg reported. “It would lead to greater risks to international stability,” he said (Stepan Kravchenko, Bloomberg, Feb. 24).

"Under the guise of trying to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction ... [Western powers] are attempting something else entirely and setting different goals -- regime change," Putin said in remarks reported by Agence France-Presse.

"We have such suspicions," he said. "And we are trying to take a stand that differs from the one they are trying to force on us... concerning the ways that the Iranian nuclear problem might develop" (Dmitry Zaks, Agence France-Presse I/Google News, Feb. 25).

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office on Saturday said the latest IAEA assessment provides "added proof that Israeli beliefs are true" over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"Iran is pursuing its nuclear program with no end in sight. It is enriching uranium to 20 percent, totally ignoring demands by the international community," his office said in a release (Agence France-Presse II/Google News, Feb. 26).

February 27, 2012

The International Atomic Energy Agency on Friday said Iran had yet to account for differing tallies of uranium at a research facility in Tehran, Reuters reported.