Despite a near-miss last weekend on an agreement between Iran and the P5+1 group of nations, a report released yesterday by the IAEA shows that Iran has already carried out several of the steps that such an agreement would have called for. The news is good enough that Joby Warrick even opens with a hopeful tone:
Iran appears to have dramatically slowed work on its atomic energy program since the summer, U.N. officials said Thursday. The report could add momentum to diplomatic efforts to resolve a decade-old dispute over Iranian nuclear activities.
The report by the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran all but halted the installation of new centrifuges at its uranium enrichment plants beginning in August, the same month that moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani was sworn in as president. Work on a controversial nuclear reactor also slowed, the U.N. watchdog agency said. Iran continued producing low-enriched uranium, but at a slightly reduced rate, it said.
Similarly, the New Times also finds the report encouraging and associates the improvement with the election of Hassan Rouhani:
President Obama made a vigorous appeal to Congress on Thursday to give breathing space to his efforts to forge a nuclear deal with Iran, and the prospects for an interim agreement may have improved with the release of a report by international inspectors who said that for the first time in years, they saw evidence that the Iranians have put the brakes on their nuclear expansion.
The inspectors, from the International Atomic Energy Agency, said that very few new advanced centrifuges had been installed since President Hassan Rouhani of Iran took office in June, promising a new start with the West, and that little significant progress has been made on the construction of a new nuclear reactor, which became a point of contention in negotiations in Geneva last week.
Note that one of the big pieces of news heralded by the Post and the Times is the halting of installation of new centrifuges. But buried in the back of the report (pdf), in the second annex, is a graph showing the total number of centrifuges installed, the number of centrifuges dedicated to enrichment of uranium up to 5% and the number of centrifuges dedicated to enrichment to 20%. I have reproduced that graph here, but I have added arrows pointing to two major discontinuities in the trends shown in the graph.
The early arrow, where we see a halt of nearly two years in the installation of new centrifuges and a loss of a number of centrifuges enriching to 5%, corresponds very closely to the release of the Stuxnet worm in early 2010 (although it looks like the loss of functioning centrifuges may have been in late 2009, so the actual release most likely was around that time).
Beginning in early 2011, Iran put more of its installed centrifuges into operation for enrichment to 5% and continued at a fairly steady pace throughout much of the year. At the beginning of 2012, the US and EU imposed much stronger sanctions on Iran. Although Iran did put some centrifuges into operation for enrichment to 20% around that same time, this graph shows that even though Iran restarted installation of new centrifuges in 2012, no additional centrifuges have been put into service for enrichment to either 5% or 20% since early 2012. This capping of enrichment capacity that is in actual operation has rarely, if ever, been noted in the press. Significantly, it predates Rouhani’s election by over a year. Perhaps it is a sign that the sanctions were effective in getting Iran to put the brakes on their program. Alternatively, it might suggest that Iran knew where Israel’s “red line” would be (a stockpile of around 200 kg of 20% enriched uranium might be enough to make a bomb after further enrichment) and made sure that the approach to this line would be slow. They also delayed its onset by converting some of the 20% enriched uranium to fuel plates so that it would be less readily subjected to further enrichment under a “breakout” scenario.
The halting of new centrifuge installation shows up in the graph, where we see the installed centrifuge line level off in the middle of this year, but this seems less dramatic than stopping the process of putting installed centrifuges into use for enrichment.
When we realize that significant steps were taken to slow advancement of Iran’s nuclear program before Rouhani was elected, it becomes easier to understand why his “moderate” stance and willingness to enter into negotiations have not met with significant resistance from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Kahmenei and other leading clerics.
As we approach the re-start of the P5+1 international talks on Iran’s nuclear technology this weekend, there are multiple signals that Iran may be planning to make a major move aimed at reducing tensions. As CNN pointed out yesterday, Iran suggested last weekend that it may halt its enrichment of uranium to the 20% level and return to only enriching to 3.5%:
“Based on our needs and once the required fuel is obtained, we will decrease the production and we may even totally shift it to the 3.5%,” Iranian nuclear chief Fereydoun Abbasi said in a televised interview, according to state-run Press TV.
Iran does not plan to produce 20% enriched uranium for long, Abbasi said, according to Press TV.
Uranium enriched at 20% is typically used for hospital isotopes and research reactors, but is also seen as a shortcut toward the 90% enrichment required to build nuclear weapons. Nuclear experts say Iran’s supply is far greater than it would need for peaceful purposes.
Iran says there is a medical purpose to its nuclear program.
Further signaling that a big move is in the works, we have this today on PressTV:
“Iran’s representatives will participate in the negotiations with new initiatives and we hope that the P5+1 countries will also enter talks with constructive approaches,” Jalili told reporters in Tehran on Wednesday, IRNA reported.
“The language of threat and pressure against the Iranian nation has never yielded results but will lead to more seriousness in the attitude of the Iranian nation,” he added.
He emphasized, “We are ready to hold progressive and successful talks on cooperation.”
At the same time that we are seeing hints of progress on the diplomatic front, it appears that a number of Iranian and Israeli spies have been taken out of action from their operations bases in Azerbaijan.
Back in the middle of March, Azerbaijan announced they had arrested 22 spies working for Iran:
The authorities in Azerbaijan have arrested 22 people on suspicion of spying for Iran, accusing them of links to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
The undated arrests were confirmed in a brief statement by the Azerbaijani national security ministry.
“Firearms, cartridges, explosives and espionage equipment were found during the arrest,” the Azerbaijani national security ministry said.
The 22 detainees are said to have received orders from the Revolutionary Guards to “commit terrorist acts against the US, Israeli and other Western states’ embassies and the embassies’ employees”.
In a move that is sure to disappoint war hawks who have been convinced that Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 20% has been to produce material for further enrichment to the 90%+ needed for nuclear weapons, Iran today very publicly had President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad load the first domestically produced nuclear fuel plates (which use 20% enriched uranium) into the Tehran reactor which is used to produce medically useful radioisotopes. From Mehr News:
The Tehran reactor was loaded with domestically produced nuclear fuel plates during a ceremony held on Wednesday to unveil Iran’s latest nuclear achievements.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Saeed Jalili, Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Director Fereydoun Abbasi, presidential aide Mojtaba Hashemi-Samareh, the Chinese and Russian ambassadors to Iran, and a number of other foreign diplomats attended the event.
During the ceremony, a number of domestically produced radioisotopes, which are used for the treatment cancer, were also unveiled.
The same article also noted that Iran has increased its capacity for low-grade enrichment to 3.5%:
On Wednesday, the first cascade of a new generation of centrifuges was also installed at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility and was brought on line.
With the installation of the new centrifuges, the capacity of the facility for the production of 3.5 percent enriched uranium was increased by 50 percent.
Further frustrating those who want to say Iran is moving rapidly toward construction of a nuclear weapon, Iran also took the next formal steps toward re-establishment of the Group 5 + 1 negotiations on nuclear technology:
Iran’s chief negotiator and Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Secretary Saeed Jalili sent a reply to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s letter about talks between Tehran and the six world powers, and welcomed resumption of negotiations between the two sides.
According to the secretariat of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, in the letter which was delivered to Ashton’s office on Wednesday, Jalili welcomed the readiness of the Group 5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members – Russia, China, Britain, France and the US plus Germany) to resume talks with Iran.
The Iranian chief negotiator underlined in his letter that returning to the negotiation table would be the best means to broaden cooperation between the two sides.
Despite the fear-mongering over Iran developing a nuclear weapon, Iran provided its alternate explanation yet again for why it had to produce its own 20% enriched uranium for the Tehran reactor:
After Iran announced to the IAEA that it had run out of nuclear fuel for its research reactor in Tehran, the Agency proposed a deal according to which Iran would send 3.5%-enriched uranium and receive 20-percent-enriched uranium from potential suppliers in return, all through the UN nuclear watchdog agency.
The proposal was first introduced on October 1, 2010, when Iranian representatives and diplomats from the Group 5+1 held high-level talks in Geneva.
But France and the United States, as potential suppliers, stalled the talks soon after the start. They offered a deal which would keep Tehran waiting for months before it could obtain the fuel, a luxury of time that Iran could afford as it was about to run out of 20-percent-enriched uranium.
Stay tuned for further developments to see how Iran’s use of a large portion of its 20% enriched uranium in the Tehran reactor will still result in their being described as on the fast track to a weapon by those who want a war there.