Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
WASHINGTON, D.C.—The UN nuclear watchdog issued a report Friday on Iran that had a small surprise. It said the number of centrifuges Iran has turning to enrich uranium has decreased slightly over the past few months, after three years of steady increases. This however does not modify the Islamic Republic’s atomic profile. Iran has still increased the total number of its centrifuges (some are spinning empty) and is enriching about the same amount of uranium as in an earlier report.
So what looks like a technical glitch does not signal change. And change is what the United States and other nations are looking for as they move towards a late September deadline for determining whether Iran is ready to sign on towards easing concerns it seeks nuclear weapons or should face new, severe sanctions.
The report from the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna also said that Iran is still not providing the IAEA with the information it needs to determine whether or not Iran has done military nuclear work. Iran claims its nuclear program is a peaceful effort to generate electricity. It dismisses the so-called alleged studies on possible military work, most from US intelligence, as “fabrications.” But the IAEA has “requested Iran to provide more substantive responses and to provide the Agency with the opportunity to have detailed discussions with a view to moving forward on these issues, including granting the Agency access to persons, information and locations,” the report said. The United States claims the alleged studies are Iranian documents from nuclear weapons work.
The report did not give an assessment of the documents, despite countries like France pushing very hard on the agency to do this. Diplomats said such an assessment by IAEA inspectors has been in the works since last September and that some countries felt IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei was blocking it. But diplomats also said ElBaradei and others at the IAEA did not want to draw conclusions from information that had not yet been verified. The report said that “constraints placed by some Member States on the availability of information to Iran are making it more difficult for the Agency to conduct detailed discussions with Iran on this matter,” a clear reference to US refusal to show Iran originals of documents.
IAEA Spokesperson Marc Vidricaire said: "Regrettably, time and again unidentified sources feed the media and Member States with misinformation or misinterpretation. This time around,
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there are articles claiming that the Secretariat is hiding information, and that there are sharp disagreements among staff members involved about the contents of the report. Needless to say, such allegations have no basis in fact."
Actually, the report seemed to give the alleged studies a vote of support when it said that “the information contained in that documentation appears to have been derived from multiple sources over different periods of time, appears to be generally consistent, and is sufficiently comprehensive and detailed that it needs to be addressed by Iran with a view to removing the doubts which naturally arise, in light of all of the outstanding issues, about the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.”
The IAEA report, written by ElBaradei, does say that Iran has cooperated in allowing inspections of a heavy-water reactor Iran is building at Arak. This facility could produce plutonium, like uranium an atom bomb material. But a senior UN official said the inspection in August was apparently only a one-time deal and that further inspections had not been agreed. In other safeguards monitoring, Iran agreed to allow the IAEA to expand its verification at the Natanz plant, where work is increasing. These measures at Natanz and Arak are however “safeguards” measures which Iran is obligated to do under its nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty engagements.
The drop in centrifuges enriching is the first time this number has decreased in the three years that Iran has been building up its capability at the huge underground plant at Natanz. But diplomats close to the IAEA said this was undoubtedly due to technical problems, and not because Iran was making a political gesture by cutting down its enrichment work. A senior UN official said the number of centrifuges in use could change from day to day and that the number cited was one measurement taken on one day.
The IAEA report said that on August 12, 2009, Iran had 4,592 centrifuges enriching uranium at Natanz, which is 328 less than the 4,920 centrifuges enriching in May.
While this is a significant figure, the bottom line is eventual capability. Iran also has centrifuges installed and ready to enrich, even if they are not yet doing so. For this number – a total of centrifuges enriching plus others installed but not yet enriching -- the sum was 8,308 centrifuges standing in August versus 7,221 in May.
In another report Friday, the IAEA said Syria is still not allowing UN inspectors to visit a site which was bombed by Israeli planes and is suspected of having been a nuclear reactor under construction.