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According to the latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has failed once again to answer the Agency’s questions about suspicious experiments with high explosives and studies on neutron initiators – both of which have decided nuclear weapon applications. This refusal is likely to diminish the chance of progress in the next round of nuclear talks, scheduled for mid-September.
As part of a “Framework for Cooperation” signed with the Agency in November 2013, Iran agreed to be more transparent. Iran did allow the IAEA access to uranium mines, but it ignored an August 25 deadline to explain past work on the modeling of neutron transport in compressed materials as well as research work on high explosives; and it was slow to explain work on exploding bridgewire detonators – all of which work is uniquely useful for nuclear weapons. Iran is also insisting on a set of new conditions (ones the Agency rejects) before surrendering any more information.
Another obstacle to progress in the talks is the profound disagreement that has emerged on the scope of Iran’s uranium enrichment program. In an interview with Iranian television on July 8, the head of the Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, said his country would need an annual minimum capacity of 190,000 separative work units (or SWUs, a measure of enrichment work) in order to ensure an adequate fuel supply for nuclear power. But this would be an enormous increase over the roughly 7,000 SWUs Iran is currently producing, and could never be accepted by the United States and its negotiating partners. Such an increase would enable Iran to make a dash to nuclear weapons. For example, if Iran had the enrichment power to fuel its existing Bushehr power reactor annually, this same power could produce the fuel for a nuclear warhead every 15 days.
Iran also unveiled a new centrifuge in late August, called the IR-8. This machine, and several other new models Iran is developing, is thought to be far more powerful than the first generation IR-1 machines with which Iran now enriches uranium. However, Iran will not be able to deploy these more powerful centrifuges, or otherwise increase its enrichment capacity, as long Iran abides by the interim nuclear accord that took effect last January and has been extended until November 24. According to the IAEA, Iran has already fulfilled its obligation under the accord to either dilute or convert to oxide form its stock of 20 percent enriched uranium hexafluoride gas, which could have been quickly brought to a level suitable for use in nuclear weapons. This transformation brings Iran’s stock of this material a further step away from weapons grade.
In return, Iran is getting relief from some sanctions. This includes a suspension of restrictions on its automotive and precious metal sectors as well as waivers for foreign purchasers of Iranian oil. Iran will also receive an additional $2.8 billion in frozen assets.
Other sanctions against Iran remain in effect. This was demonstrated on August 29, when the U.S. Treasury and State Departments blacklisted still more Iranian individuals, companies, and government entities. The list included firms supporting Iran’s missile and nuclear programs, Iranian banks, and several companies involved in smuggling Iranian oil.
Sanctions in Europe, however, have been backsliding. European governments have failed to defend a series of legal challenges to sanctions mounted by Iranian companies. Citing insufficient evidence to justify the measures, the General Court of the European Union has annulled sanctions against several entities that remain on the U.S. blacklist, including Sharif University of Technology and the National Iranian Tanker Company. In many cases, these decisions stem from reluctance on the part of national governments to provide confidential intelligence underlying the sanctions.
The interim accord has not affected the roughly 9,000 first-generation centrifuges that are producing up to five percent enriched uranium gas at the Natanz plant. At their present production rate, these centrifuges will yield approximately 2.4 tons of low-enriched uranium between mid-January and November 24 – the extended period of the interim accord. Although Iran is preparing to convert this output into oxide form, the interim accord does not require Iran to dilute or dispose of the low-enriched uranium that it had stockpiled before the accord took effect – an amount sufficient to fuel about seven nuclear weapons with further enrichment and processing. Nor does it require Iran to dismantle the 19,000 centrifuges it has installed, or restrict research and development on more advanced machines. Iran has more than 1,000 advanced IR-2m centrifuges installed at Natanz and has completed preparatory installation work for another 2,000 of these machines. No IR-2m centrifuges are currently enriching uranium, but they are thought to be capable of doing so at a rate several times faster than the first-generation IR-1 centrifuges now in use. Iran is also testing several even newer centrifuge designs at the Natanz pilot plant. For details about the weapon implications of Iran’s enrichment program, see “Iran’s Nuclear Timetable.”