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Update on Iran’s Nuclear Program: September 2014

By Blaise Misztal

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

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  • Iran has complied with interim deal requirements to halt significant portions of its nuclear program, including ceasing production of 20 percent enriched uranium and turning part of its 3.5 percent enriched uranium stockpile into uranium oxide.
  • In a separate negotiating track with the IAEA, Iran has failed to provide timely information in three areas related to its alleged past research into military nuclear technology.
  • The combination of Iranian compliance with the interim deal and stymieing of IAEA investigations suggests that Iran is attempting to hide its revelations of its attempts to build a nuclear weapon lest they derail negotiations that it believes are leading to a deal favorable for itself.


The latest report on Iran’s nuclear program by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the first since the expiration and subsequent extension of the interim deal, known as the “Joint Plan of Action” (JPA), suggests that Tehran is resorting to a preferred tactic: divisive diplomacy. Exploiting the fact that they are currently engaged in two ongoing diplomatic efforts—one by the P5+1 world powers to curb Iran’s nuclear program going forward and one by the IAEA to reveal the extent and nature of Iran’s past nuclear work—Iran is cooperating with one and thwarting the other. Interestingly, Iran is abiding by the limits imposed by the JPA and choosing to stymie the IAEA’s investigation. This speaks volumes about Iran’s view of the importance of international institutions and law, its long-term nuclear strategy, and, most importantly, self-perceived vulnerabilities in negotiations. Iran appears to fear its nuclear past more than the future.

Parallel Diplomatic Tracks

Although much attention has been focused on negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC)—the United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, and France—and Germany), there has also been a parallel diplomatic track going on between Iran and the IAEA.

The P5+1 have been working toward a comprehensive agreement with Iran, meant to put in place limits on its nuclear program, in exchange for relief from economic sanctions that might prevent it from developing a nuclear weapons capability. These negotiations yielded an interim deal, the JPA, in November 2013. That agreement, which went into effect January 20, 2014, was meant to be a six-month confidence building measure, designed to give both sides time to negotiate a comprehensive deal without the pressure of additional Iranian nuclear advances or international sanctions. That window proved insufficient and, in July 2014, the P5+1 and Iran announced a four month extension of the JPA, to November 21, 2014.

While these negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran have been forward-looking, seeking to reach a diplomatic settlement that would address the future of Iran’s nuclear program, the IAEA has been engaged in, what was meant to be, a retrospective process. Three years ago, in its November 18, 2011 report on Iran’s nuclear program, the IAEA included a 12 page annex with “a detailed analysis of the information available to the Agency to date which has given rise to concerns about possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.” That document described how Iran devised a bureaucratic structure and supply pipeline for its research on nuclear weapons as well as the specifics of that research, including modeling and testing of high explosives and detonators for a nuclear bomb. At the same time, the IAEA passed a resolution expressing “its deep and increasing concern about [these] unresolved issues,” and reiterating Iran’s legal obligation to “cooperate fully with the Agency on all outstanding issues…, including by providing access without delay to all sites, equipment, persons and documents requested by the Agency.”

Ever since, the IAEA has been resolutely seeking information from Iran regarding the issues raised in that report about its work on a possible military dimension (PMD) of its nuclear program. For two years, Iran failed to provide the IAEA with any adequate answers regarding these questions. Then, in a change of tactics, the IAEA established a new diplomatic process in November 2013, at the same time the JPA was being negotiated. Called the “Framework for Cooperation” (FC), this “new approach [is] aimed at ensuring the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.” Under the FC, the IAEA and Iran agreed to a set agenda of IAEA concerns for Iran to address and a timeline for doing so. Since November 2013, the FC has gone through three rounds, with a total of 17 issues raised: five in the first round, seven in the second, and five in the third.

Though these P5+1 and IAEA tracks are procedurally separate—they are being negotiated individually and the JPA does not explicitly require Iran to comply with FC, nor vice versa—they do share a legal nexus: the UNSC. The legal basis of the international sanctions currently levied against Iran are six UNSC resolutions that demand that Iran “suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities” and “without further delay to take the steps required by the IAEA” (UNSC 1696). Those steps, as laid out in numerous IAEA reports and resolutions boil down to requiring that Iran, “extend full and prompt cooperation to the Agency…and in particular to help the Agency clarify possible activities which could have a military nuclear dimension” (IAEA GOV/2006/14).

Legally, lifting sanctions, therefore, would require Iran to fulfill the conditions set out by the UNSC. The JPA appears to accept this as it notes that getting to a comprehensive agreement would require “additional steps…including, among other things, addressing the UN Security Council resolutions, with a view toward bringing to a satisfactory conclusion the UN Security Council’s consideration of this matter.” For Iran to reach an acceptable deal with the P5+1 it would have to fulfill its legal obligations to the UNSC; those obligations happen to include cooperating with the IAEA on the very issues that are part of the FC. Thus, although they are being conducted separately, fully and legally meeting the requirements for a comprehensive deal under the JPA will require Iran’s full commitment to the FC. As Joseph Macmanus, U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA, has made clear, “it remains critical for Iran to address substantively all of the IAEA’s and the international community’s outstanding concerns regarding its past and present activities, particularly those related to PMD.”

Status of the JPA

According to the latest IAEA report, Iran is fully compliant with the JPA. It has stopped producing 20 percent enriched uranium, disconnected the interconnections between centrifuge cascades that enabled enrichment to that level, refrained from installing any additional centrifuges, and halted work on the Arak heavy water reactor. Additionally, Iran has fully disposed of its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium hexafluoride (UF6, the gaseous form of uranium used in the enrichment process), converting half into reactor fuel and diluting the other half back to 3.5 percent enrichment levels.

Iran has also come into compliance with the one JPA requirement that was still outstanding at the time of the last IAEA report, in May 2014: turning the 3.5% enriched UF6 produced during the term of the JPA into uranium oxide for use in reactor fuel. As of the last reporting period, the facility at which this work was to be conducted, known as the Enriched UO2 Powder Plant (EUPP), was still not fully functional. It finally came on line in July, however, and the IAEA reports that Iran has now oxidized over 1,500 kilograms of 3.5% enriched UF6. This, however, still leaves Iran with a stockpile of over 7,750 kilograms of 3.5% enriched UF6, more than enough, with further enrichment, for multiple nuclear weapons. Thus, while Iran has belatedly come into compliance with this final term of the JPA, doing so has not hindered Iran’s ability to reach a nuclear weapons capability.

Status of the FC

If Iran has been fully compliant with the JPA, it has been increasingly reluctant to cooperate with the IAEA on the issues raised under the FC. Of the six issues raised in the first round of the FC, Iran responded adequately to all six. In the second round, out of seven issues raised, the IAEA asked Iran for additional clarifications in its response to one of the items, but “only certain of [those additional responses] Iran provided,” leaving the IAEA’s request unfulfilled. For the five items in the third and latest round, Iran has so far completed only three of them and, of those, two were completed after the IAEA-imposed deadline.

All three of the unresolved issues have to do with Iran’s past nuclear research: explaining Iran’s experimenting with Exploding Bridge Wire (EBW) detonators, high explosives, and neutron transport. These also happen to be the only three issues, of the seventeen taken up under the FC thus far, that were raised as area of concern in the IAEA’s 2011 annex. The fourteen issues on which Iran has been compliant, on the other hand, are unrelated with the possible military dimension of its nuclear program, focusing instead on current and ongoing activities.

Area of IAEA Concern in 2011 AnnexAddressed by Iran under the Framework for Cooperation
Issues related to Possible Military Dimension of past research
Structure overseeing Iran’s nuclear program
Procurement activities
Nuclear material acquisition
Nuclear components for an explosive device
Detonator developmentIran failed to provide full clarification.
Initiation of high explosivesIran failed to address.
Modelling and calculationsIran failed to address.
Hydrodynamic experiments
Neutron initiator
Testing a nuclear explosive device
Issues related to current and future nuclear projects
Access and information: Gchine mine
Access and information: Arak
Information on new research reactors
Designated sites for nuclear power plants
Additional enrichment facilities
Laser enrichment technology
Access and information: Saghand mine
Access and information: Ardakan concentration plan
Design Information
Questionnaire for the IR-40 reactor
Safeguards Approach for the IR-40 reactor
Information and access: Lashkar Ab’ad Laser Centre
Information on source material
Access and information: centrifuge facilities

Moreover, Iran has proven uncooperative with the IAEA in other ways during the FC process. The latest IAEA report notes that a particular member of the IAEA’s technical team has now thrice been denied a visa from Iran, preventing them from being able to attend meetings and conduct investigations. Further, Iran has signaled an unwillingness to continue further with the FC, missing a deadline to propose issues to be considered in the fourth round of the process. Finally, Iran remains obstinately resolute to block IAEA investigation into the issue that it considers the most pressing: possible Iranian experimentation with high explosives at the Parchin military facility. Not only has Iran prevented IAEA inspectors from accessing the site, but, according to the latest report, “the Agency has observed through satellite imagery ongoing construction activity that appears to show the removal/replacement or refurbishment of the site’s two main buildings’ external wall structures.… These activities are likely to have further undermined the Agency’s ability to conduct effective verification.”

Conclusion: Fearing the Past

This divergence between Iran’s compliance with the JPA and increasing reluctance to take part in the FC appears counterintuitive. Surely, the requirements of the JPA—particularly ceasing its production and giving up its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium—must be more onerous and more costly for Iran than answering questions about its past research.

If Iran’s objective is indeed a nuclear weapons capability, then the JPA would seem to move it further from that goal than does complying with the FC. On the other hand, the JPA, unlike the FC, imparts actual benefits to Iran, namely sanctions relief. In this way, meeting the JPA’s obligations is incentivized in a way the FC process is not. But if Iran is negotiating with the P5+1 in goodwill, willing to comply with the JPA and limit its nuclear program, why would it not also be willing to provide the IAEA with the information it is seeking?

The answer must lie with the fact that Iran is more concerned with the costs of complying with the FC—or at least that part of it that deals with the possible military dimension of its nuclear program—than of those it incurs under the JPA. Whatever Iran’s ultimate objectives, its leadership seems to believe that, at the moment, the FC poses the greater obstacle to achieving them. Iran fears its nuclear past, more than its future.

The only plausible explanation for why that might be the case would appear to be that Iran: 1) is willing to continue down the diplomatic track with the P5+1, for the time being; 2) believes that the information about its past nuclear work that would be revealed through full compliance with IAEA requests would derail that process; and 3) does not view international law or institutions as a major obstacle in its negotiating strategy. If Iran was not interested in continuing negotiations with the P5+1, it would not much care about the impact information released as part of the FC might cause. If Iran did not believe such information might be damaging, then it would not be reluctant to release it. And, given the ultimate UNSC nexus of the JPA and FC diplomatic tracks, Iran must believe it can disregard the IAEA without incurring significant risk to its ultimate objectives.

In other words, Iran appears to believe that the P5+1 negotiations are headed in a favorable direction for it and fears that IAEA investigations might uncover evidence, perhaps of testing of nuclear weapon designs, that might derail those talks. Assuming that Tehran is primarily interested in the sanctions relief it can gain through following through on the JPA and perhaps reaching a comprehensive deal, its lack of compliance with the FC would suggest that Iran believes it can convince the P5+1 to do away with UNSC sanctions without having to fulfill all of its legal obligations and come clean with damaging information.

As laid out, however, by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) Iran Task Force, an acceptable comprehensive agreement with Iran should include the requirement of transparency about its past nuclear work. Not only is full disclosure, after many years of intransigence and obfuscation, critical to signaling Iran’s willingness to cooperate with the international community and commitment to the international non-proliferation regime, but it is also an important element of designing an inspection and verification regime going forward. Only if the IAEA is given access to the entirety of Iran’s nuclear program and infrastructure can it have the needed confidence that Iran is fully complying with a potential comprehensive deal. And only if Iran is open about the scope of its nuclear work—past and present—can the IAEA be confident that it knows about entirety of Iran’s nuclear program.

To give negotiators the best chance of reaching such a comprehensive agreement that includes full transparency, BPC has argued that the United States should adopt a triple-track strategy that combines diplomacy with increased sanctions and credible and visible preparations of the military option. Indeed, if diplomacy is to succeed, the growing disagreement between the White House and Capitol Hill about how to negotiate and what to demand from Iran needs to be addressed. BPC has released a proposed framework for such improved executive-legislative cooperation.

Additional details and highlights from the IAEA report include:

Production of 20 Percent Enriched Uranium Ceases, Stockpile Gone…

  • Per JPA, enrichment to 20 percent halted at Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant and Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant.
    • Centrifuge cascades used to enrich to 20 percent at each site disconnected;
    • IAEA installed additional safeguards to monitor that they remain disconnected.
  • Total 20 percent enriched uranium produced since production began (Feb. 2010): 302.7kg.
  • Actual stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium as of May. 2014: 0kg.
    • JPA specifies that Iran must eliminate its entire stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium.
      • Half to be turned into reactor fuel;
      • Half to be downblended to 3.5 percent enrichment level.
    • Total of 228kg removed for oxidization (production of reactor fuel):
    • 74.4kg downblended to 3.5% since Nov. 2013.

..But Production of 3.5 Percent Enriched Uranium Jumps

  • On Jan. 20, facilities enriched to 20 percent switched over to making 3.5 percent enriched uranium.
    • There are now three facilities enriching to 3.5 percent:
      • Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant;
      • Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (previously producing 20 percent enriched uranium);
      • Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (previously producing 20 percent enriched uranium).
  • Total production rate jumps up nearly 15 percent above pre-JPA levels: 176.5kg/month.
    • Slightly lower than in Feb. 2014 when it was at record high of 177.8kg/month.
    • Natanz production rate of 3.5 percent at near all-time high of 158kg/month.
      • Previous reporting period: 149kg/month.
      • Highest recorded rate: 161kg/month (Nov 2012).
    • Natanz PFEP production rate of 3.5 percent down to 4.7kg/month.
      • Previous reporting period: 5.2kg/month.
    • Fordow 3.5 percent production rate of 3.5 percent down slightly to 14.2kg/month.
      • Previous reporting period: 13.4kg/month.

  • Total 3.5 percent enriched uranium produced since production began (Feb 2007): 8,010kg.
    • 585kg produced since last reporting period:
      • 457kg at Natanz;
      • 15kg at Natanz PFEP;
      • 61kg at Fordow.
  • Actual stockpile of 3.5 percent enriched uranium as of May 2014: 5,730kg.
    • 2,360kg used for enrichment to 20 percent.

Iran Squeezes More out of IR-1 Centrifuges, Continues Researching New Models

  • Per JPA, number and type of centrifuges largely unchanged at all enrichment facilities.
  • Natanz FEP:
    • 16,428 total centrifuges installed (unchanged):
      • 15,420 IR-1 centrifuges;
      • 1,008 IR-2m.
    • 9,180 IR-1 centrifuges operating:
      • Same as previous reporting period.
      • Equal to number operating in early 2013/late 2012.
      • All operating centrifuges are IR-1 model.
    • “Preparatory installation work” completed for more centrifuges:
      • 2,016 IR-2m centrifuges;
      • 6,050 IR-1 centrifuges;
      • But no further work undertaken since JPA implementation.
    • Output of operating centrifuges at near-record .75 SWU/machine/year.
      • Previous reporting period: .71 SWU/machine/year.
  • Natanz PFEP:
    • 328 IR-1 centrifuges installed and operating (unchanged).
    • Output of centrifuges producing 3.5%: .62 SWU/machine/year.
      • Previous reporting period: .7 SWU/machine/year.
  • Fordow FEP:
    • 2,710 IR-1 centrifuges installed (unchanged).
      • Facility accommodates 2,976 centrifuges.
    • 696 IR-1 centrifuges operating (unchanged).
    • Output of centrifuges producing 3.5 percent: .89 SWU/machine/year.
      • Previous reporting period: .84 SWU/machine/year.
      • 24 percent faster than currently achieved at Natanz;
      • Suggests Iran capable of continuing to accelerate breakout timing, even while adhering to JPA.

  • Research and development of advanced centrifuges continues.
    • Iran experimenting with:
      • 163 IR-2m centrifuges;
      • 188 IR-4 centrifuges;
      • 1 IR-5 centrifuge;
      • 7 IR-6 centrifuges.

Fuel Conversion and Fabrication

  • Facility for conversion of 3.5 percent uranium hexafluoride into uranium oxide finally completed.
    • Iran has oxidized 1,506kg of 3.5 percent enriched UF6.
  • Conversion of 20 percent enriched uranium hexafluoride into uranium oxide and fuel plates for Tehran Research Reactor continues.
    • Total 20 percent enriched uranium fed into conversion process: 228kg.
    • Total 20 percent enriched U3O8 produced: 162.3kg.
      • 44kg 20 percent enriched U3O8 produced in waste.
      • Means that about another 20kg 20 percent enriched U3O8 are still being processed.
    • Total of 28 fuel assemblies for TRR have been produced.
      • Of these, 27 transferred to TRR.
      • Represents over a decade worth of fuel for TRR.
  • IAEA verifies no reconversion of U3O8 into UF6, a possible sign of breakout, currently ongoing.

Heavy Water Reactor

  • Per JPA, no work has taken place at Arak Heavy Water Reactor since last report.
    • Production of fuel assemblies for Arak has also ceased.

Framework for Cooperation

  • Iran did not adequately answer IAEA requests for explanation of why it was testing Exploding Bridge Wire detonators.
    • Iran claims that it experimented with these devices, that can be used in nuclear weapons, for use “in the oil and gas industry.”
    • The IAEA found these claims to be “not inconsistent with specialized industry practices,” but requested additional clarifications.
    • In regards to those additional clarifications, the IAEA says “only certain of [them] Iran provided.”
    • o In response, the IAEA Director General has said that the full extent of Iran’s nuclear research and intentions cannot be determined with just the information Tehran has provided to date. Instead what is needed is, “acquiring an understanding of each issue in turn, and then integrating all of the issues into a “system” and assessing that system as a whole.”
  • Iran has also failed to provide complete and adequate answers to two other PMD issues raised in the third round of the Framework for Cooperation:
    • Information with the Agency with respect to the allegations related to the initiation of high explosives, including the conduct of large scale high explosives experimentation in Iran;
    • Information related to studies made and/or papers published in Iran in relation to research into neutron transport of compressed materials.
  • Iran has not proposed issues to be addressed in a fourth round of the Framework.
    • Instead, Iran “proposed that a road map be developed before any new measures are identified.”

Military Dimensions

  • IAEA reiterates that few of its concerns about possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program have been addressed.
  • IAEA most concerned about experiments conducted at Parchin and involvement of foreign scientists.
    • Report notes that, since last report, “the Agency has observed through satellite imagery, building materials, debris and earth deposits, as well as ongoing construction activities that appear to show the removal/replacement or refurbishment of the external wall structures of the site’s two main buildings” at Parchin.

Effect on Timing

Two main variables will determine how much time Iran would need to produce 20 kilograms of 90 percent enriched uranium—the minimum needed for a nuclear weapon—in the near future: its available stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium; and the rate at which its centrifuges are able to enrich uranium. The first has declined to zero as a result of the JPA, increasing breakout timing. But the latest IAEA report shows that the second has increased since the JPA’s implementation, somewhat mitigating the effect of Iran’s loss of its 20 percent enriched uranium stockpile.

  • Depending on whether Iran uses just its all of its installed centrifuges or just the currently operating ones, Iran could produce 20 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, enough for a weapon, in between 45 and 87 days.1
  • This result is in line with Obama Administration estimates that the JPA would add a month to Iran’s breakout timing.
    • In November 2013, prior to the implementation of JPA, that range was 31 to 59 days.
  • But continued improvements to Iran’s centrifuges could negate that delay, despite the elimination of Iran’s 20% enriched uranium stockpile.
    • Time to produce 20kg 90 percent enriched uranium if centrifuge output increases to one SWU/machine/year:
      • Using just operating centrifuges: 67 days.
      • Using all centrifuges: 36 days.

PRODUCT ENRICHMENT (prior to JPA)3.5%19.7%19.7%
PRODUCT ENRICHMENT (since JPA)3.5%3.5%3.5%
TOTAL 3.5% ENRICHED PRODUCED8,426 kg33.6 kg96.5 kg
TOTAL 19.7% ENRICHED PRODUCEDN/A136.5kg166.2kg
3.5% ENRICHMENT RATE158 kg/month4.7 kg/month14.1 kg/month
TOTAL 3.5% STOCKPILE5, 429.1 kg
TOTAL 20% DOWNBLENDED TO 3.5%115.6kg

This calculation assumes Iran uses a three-step batch recycling process to produce highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon and is based upon the work of Greg Jones at the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. Both scenarios assume the use of the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant at its current production rate and drawing upon Iran’s current stockpiles of 3.5% and 20% enriched uranium. For a more detailed explanation, see here.