Iran bars two inspectors over false reporting claim

On 21 June 2010, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization announced that two IAEA inspectors were banned from the country for filing an ‘utterly untruthful’ report and leaking its contents to the media. ‘We asked [the IAEA] that they would not ever send these two inspectors to Iran and instead assign two others,’ he was reported as saying. The move, though allowed under Iran’s safeguards agreement, may have further soured relations between the Islamic Republic and the Agency.

This latest controversy in the long-running dispute between Iran and the West revolves around two inspections conducted at the Jabr Ibn Hayan Multipurpose Research Laboratory (or JHL) in Tehran. According to the IAEA’s latest safeguards report on Iran, ‘the Agency was informed by the operator that pyroprocessing R&D activities had been initiated at JHL to study the electrochemical production of uranium metal.’ So far, so straightforward. However, on a return visit to the facility, inspectors noted that an electrochemical cell, a critical piece of equipment, had been removed. Meanwhile, Iran had backtracked over pyroprocessing (rebuffing a request from the IAEA for more information as they did so). Pyroprocessing has potential weapons relevance.

The plot thickens still more, though. In a letter dated 7 June, Iran stated that the above quoted line was ‘absolutely incorrect and …wrongly reported.’ The JHL operator had ‘never stated that pyroprocessing R&D work had been initiated’ there. The operator, it claimed, ‘in fact…vividly explained to the inspectors that a research project aimed purely at studying the electrochemical behaviour of uranyl ion in ionic liquid’ was being undertaken. The reference to pyroprocessing is ‘a misunderstanding on the side of the Agency’s inspectors,’ it argued. It then asserted that the allegedly missing electrochemical cell ‘has never been removed since its installation.’ Two weeks later, Mr Salehi barred the inspectors. The Agency took a firm stance on the matter. It expressed its ‘full confidence in the professionalism and impartiality of the inspectors concerned.’ It also affirmed the accuracy of its reporting.

The impact of the pair’s black-listing is likely to be more symbolic than actual. As the Washington Post commentator Colum Lynch noted, it represents a ‘calibrated escalation’ in Iran’s dealings with the West. ‘Not provocative enough to trigger a fifth round of Security Council sanctions, but recalcitrant enough to send a clear signal of its mounting displeasure with the UN’s nuclear inspection regime.’

Relations between Iran and the IAEA could soon worsen further still, with Iran’s parliament currently considering a bill to enshrine minimal cooperation with the UN’s nuclear inspectorate into Iranian law. Iran’s relationship with the IAEA has been on a downward trajectory since the Agency’s new director-general, Yukia Amano, brought with him to office what many see as a firmer line against Tehran.

Despite remaining unswervingly insistent that its nuclear programme is directed toward purely peaceful ends, Iran’s intentions remain unclear. Pyroprocessing, as Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies has noted, ‘would bring Iran close to being able to separate plutonium’ from spent nuclear fuel. And this could help it on its way towards a nuclear weapon.

Elsewhere in Iran, the Agency’s report notes that on 1 May 2010, the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz—Iran’s primary enrichment facility—had produced 2,427 kg of low enriched uranium (LEU) since production there began in February 2007. This production is in contravention of several UN Security Council resolutions.

Iran announced in February that it was to begin enriching uranium up to 20 per cent to provide fuel for a medical research reactor in Tehran. So at the smaller, above-ground Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (or PFEP, also located at Natanz) some 172 kg of LEU in the form of uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6) was fed into a 164-machine centrifuge cascade for further enrichment. On 7 April 2010, 5.7kg of UF6—enriched, Iran says, to 19.7 per cent uranium-235—was withdrawn and placed in storage. On 23 June, Mr Salehi told Iran’s ISNA news agency that the country had ‘so far produced more than 17kgs of 20 per cent enriched uranium’. An amount as yet unconfirmed by the IAEA.

Its enrichment activities show no signs of slowing either, not least due to the recent installation of a second cascade at the PFEP that Iran has likewise designated for the production of LEU enriched up to 20 per cent. On learning of the intended installation, the Agency told Iran that the introduction and interconnection of a new 164-machine cascade ‘would constitute a new and significant development’ that would require ‘a full revision’ of safeguards at the PFEP. But on 7 April, when IAEA inspectors visited the plant, the second cascade had already been installed and was ready for operation.

In late May, several weeks after a new safeguards approach was eventually agreed, Iran had yet to begin feeding this second cascade with UF6 gas. Nor had it connected it to the first.

The modification of the PFEP to enable the production of uranium enriched up to 20 per cent ‘was not notified to the Agency by Iran with sufficient time for the Agency to adjust its safeguards procedures, as required under Article 45 of Iran’s Safeguards Agreement,’ before Iran started to feed UF6 into the first cascade in February. Iran has also reportedly still not provided the IAEA with design information on the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant near the Iranian city of Qom (a plant the Iranians kept secret until Western intelligence unearthed it last year), nor has any progress been made in resolving ‘outstanding issues related to possible military dimensions’ to Iran’s nuclear programme.

David Cliff and Sonia Drobysz, London