Yesterday, I described what was known at the time about a mysterious blast near the Parchin military site in Iran. I postulated that satellite imagery would soon be available to help sort out the mystery of what took place. A tweet this afternoon from @dravazed alerted me to this article at the Times of Israel, which, in turn, linked to this story posted at israeldefense.com.
Satellite imagery described as from Sunday night’s blast at the Israel Defense site shows several buildings destroyed. The article claims that the blast looks like an attack on a bunker:
Satellite images obtained by Israel Defense and analyzed by specialist Ronen Solomon clearly show damage consistent with an attack against bunkers in a central locality within the military research complex at the Parchin military compound.
Because of the unique shape of the large building adjacent to those destroyed by the blast, I was able to find the location of the blast on Google Maps. Also, with the help of this article from 2012 in The Atlantic, I was able to locate both the area inspected by IAEA in 2005 and the site of the disputed blast chamber where it is alleged that research to develop a high explosive fuse for a nuclear weapon has been carried out. None of these three locations, the blast site, the chamber site or the area inspected in 2005, lies within the boundaries marked as Parchin on Google Maps. The blast site looks to be near a populated area of what is marked on Google Maps as Mojtame-e Maskuni-ye Parchin (which appears to translate as Parchin Residential Complex A if I used Google Translate appropriately). In fact, the blast site appears to be just over a mile from an athletic field. On the map below, #1 is the disputed blast chamber location, #2 is the blast site and #3 is the area inspected in 2005. Note that both the blast chamber site and the area inspected in 2005 are more removed from what appear to be the populated areas.
I am far from an image analysis expert, but the blast site looks to me to be more like an industrial site than a cache for storing explosives. If a bunker were indeed located here, that would put the local planning in this area on a par with West, Texas.
It will be very interesting to see how US officials describe the damage and the site where it occurred.
Detailed information is not yet available, but by all accounts there was a very large explosion east of Tehran Sunday night, around 11:15 local time. Many believe that the explosion took place at Parchin, the military site that has been at the center of controversy raised by those who accuse Iran of carrying out work there to develop an explosive trigger for a nuclear bomb. Some of the most detailed information comes from Thomas Erdbrink of the New York Times:
A mysterious explosion at or near an important military complex rocked the Iranian capital on Sunday, lighting up the skies over the city.
Iranian official sources denied the explosion had taken place at the complex, the expansive Parchin military site east of the city, where international monitors suspect Iran once tested triggers for potential nuclear weapons. But the enormous orange flash that illuminated Tehran around 11:15 p.m. local time clearly came from that direction, several witnesses said.
Officials at Iran’s Defense Industries Organization, though also denying that the explosion took place at Parchin, confirmed that two people were missing after “an ordinary fire” caused by “chemical reactions of flammable material” at an unspecified production unit, according to the semiofficial Iranian Students’ News Agency. There was no word on the location of the fire.
Witnesses in the east of Tehran said that windows had been shattered in the vicinity of the military complex and that all trees in a hundred-yard radius of two villages, Changi and Hammamak, had been burned. The villages are on the outskirts of the military site.
The map below shows the area in question:
As seen on the map, Changi is very close to Parchin, but Hammamak is on the other side of Parchin and the two villages are over three miles from one another. A blast fireball that scorched trees over three miles apart must have been quite spectacular.
Many factors go into calculating the strength of blasts, including the type of explosive and what type of containment might have been present. However, FEMA provides (pdf) this rough guideline (via DTRA) of the radius over which various types of damage might be expected to occur as a function of the amount of explosive material used:
Because it relates to assessing damage from terrorist bombs, the FEMA figure breaks the amounts of explosives down into the amounts that can be carried by cars, vans and large trucks. The Times story doesn’t report on how far away from the complex windows were shattered, but the effect of burned trees in villages over three miles from one another suggests that such damage would reach quite a ways. At the very least, it would appear that the blast had the equivalent of more than 10,000 pounds of TNT, and perhaps significantly more than that.
Iran’s Ambassador to the IAEA is not happy. Speaking to PressTV today, he protested a report yesterday that final plans are in the works for the next round of meetings between Iran and the IAEA to discuss long-standing issues on Iran’s nuclear program:
A delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) plans to visit the Iranian capital, Tehran, in the coming days to continue talks with Iranian officials.
Iran’s Ambassador to the IAEA Reza Najafi said on Friday that Tero Varjoranta, the deputy director general and head of the Department of Safeguards of the nuclear monitoring body, will head the team.
The envoy also expressed concern about Iran’s secret nuclear information obtained by the IAEA leaking out.
“It is regrettable that classified information in the agency has not been protected again, and while Iran and the agency were busy planning [the meeting], the news was published by a Western media outlet,” he said.
“This issue once again confirms Iran’s misgivings that spying exists in the agency,” Najafi said.
But wait, you might say. Where is the harm in breaking the news that a meeting is planned? The first clue might come from the suspect report itself, a Reuters article by Fredrik Dahl:
The U.N. nuclear agency is expected to make a new attempt soon to advance its investigation into suspected atomic bomb research by Iran, diplomats said on Thursday, more than a month after Tehran missed a deadline for cooperation.
They said experts of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran may meet early next week in Tehran, with the IAEA seeking to achieve progress in the slow-moving inquiry into the country’s nuclear program.
There was no immediate comment from the IAEA, a Vienna-based U.N. agency which for years has been trying to investigate Western allegations that Iran has worked on designing a nuclear warhead. Iran says its nuclear program is entirely peaceful.
True to the usual path employed by Dahl and his fellow Vienna-based colleague from AP, George Jahn, Dahl relies on “diplomats” for his inside information. Note also that Dahl reports that the IAEA did not have a comment for him to include in the report. This suggests that the IAEA and Iran were still in the process of planning the next meeting and not ready to announce it publicly yet.
If meeting plans were the only leaks to come out of IAEA through “diplomats” in Vienna, then this would be a non-story. But there is much more. Here is PressTV in January of 2012 after an Iranian nuclear scientist had been assassinated:
Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman says confidential information on the country’s nuclear experts has been leaked to the terrorists by the so-called inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
“Certain individuals who came to Iran under the pretext of inspecting the country’s nuclear facilities have identified Iranian scientists and given their names to the terrorist groups,” Ramin Mehmanparast said on Friday.
The Iranian official highlighted that Tehran would pursue the case in relevant international bodies.
The comments came in the wake of the assassination of Iranian scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan on January 11 when an unknown motorcyclist attached a magnetic bomb to his car near a college of Allameh Tabatabaei University in Tehran.
He was killed immediately and his driver, who sustained injuries, died a few hours later in hospital.
At long last, a conspiracy theory on Iran’s Parchin site has surfaced that is too crazy to have come from David Albright and his merry band at the Institute for Science and International Security. Recall that Iran has played the ISIS folks expertly on Parchin, giving them a series of interesting things to look at in satellite images of the site. Iran’s manipulations hit their high point when they covered a number of buildings in pink tarp, provoking an especially cute level of concern over just what those tarps might be hiding.
The folks at Debka.com, though, have put themselves firmly into the position of world leaders when it comes to Parchin conspiracy theories. You remember the Debka folks, they are the ones who initially claimed that Israel’s Iron Dome had successfully shot down two incoming missiles when it turns out that the explosions that were heard were actually just Iron Dome misfiring in the absence of any incoming fire earlier this month.
Here is Debka’s glorious new theory, which follows on their recounting of the recent news that Iran has actually moved faster than the initial schedule in the interim agreement with the P5+1 powers on removing its stock of 20% enriched uranium and that they will redesign the Arak reactor to produce less plutonium:
But only on the face of it: This scenario ignore Tehran’s duplicity and conveniently passes over the sudden spurt in Iran’s production of low, 5-percent grade enriched uranium and the covert smuggling of the surfeit to the Parchin military facility of near Tehran for its secret upgrade to 20 percent, a level which can be rapidly enriched to weapons grade.
So with one hand, Tehran has reduced its low-grade enriched uranium stocks, but with the other, has smuggled a sizable quantity of those stocks for further enrichment to a facility barred to nuclear watchdog inspectors.
DEBKAfile’s intelligence sources reveal that 1,300 kilos of low-grade material has been transferred to Parchin and 1,630 advanced centrifuges have been installed there for rapid upgrade work.
Okay, then. Even though every single report from the IAEA has shown that every bit of uranium enriched by Iran has been accounted for and that none has been diverted (see this article from 2012 fear-mongering that grudgingly admits no diversion of material), Debka now wants us to believe that since Iran is removing its stock of 20% enriched uranium, it is doing so as a way to hide their diversion of over a ton of uranium that has been enriched to 5%. Oh, and at the same time, they have secretly installed 1630 centrifuges at Parchin.
But then the Debka conspiracy really starts to fall apart. It appears that they are only claiming that Iran will use these 1600 secret centrifuges to enrich the 5% uranium to 20%, rather than taking it to weapons grade of more than 90%. If we use the standard figures of approximately 25 kg of weapons grade uranium for one bomb and the numbers in this article (where one ton of natural uranium feed leads to up to 130 kg of 5% uranium and then 5.6 kg of weapons grade material), then 1300 kg of 5% uranium could be enough for two bombs.
It’s a good thing Debka is only claiming that conversion from 5% to 20% enrichment would be carried out with these secret centrifuges at Parchin, because getting to weapons grade with so few centrifuges in any sort of reasonable time frame is problematic. If we consult this document from Albright’s group, Figure 1A (on page 5 of the pdf), we see graphs for the amount of time needed to get to 25 kg of weapons grade uranium under scenarios of various numbers of centrifuges and various amounts of 20% enriched uranium. With Debka’s new conspiracy, if they were positing breakout to weapons grade, then we need to start at zero 20% uranium available and look between the 1000 and 2000 centrifuge scenarios. For 1000 centrifuges, ISIS calculates just over 24 months to produce one bomb’s worth of material, while for 2000 centrifuges, that time drops to 14 months. Interpolating for 1600 centrifuges would give us about 20 months of secret work with these 1600 secret centrifuges using 1300 kg of material secretly hidden from a previously perfect mass balance of Iran’s enrichment work.
Back in October, I noted that as the P5+1, IAEA and Iran all moved toward agreements on Iran’s nuclear technology, the usual pathway employed by those who wish to disrupt peaceful talk and agitate toward military solutions was remarkably silent. Here’s a bit of how I described that process and its apparent silence at that time:
I have remarked in many of my posts on the Iranian nuclear technology issue that “diplomats” in Vienna have a long history of leaking what they claim to be incriminating evidence against Iran to reporters there, primarily George Jahn of AP (look at the pretty cartoon!) and sometimes Fredrik Dahl of Reuters. Joby Warrick at the Washington Post often chimes in with information leaked from his sources who also seem to prefer a violent path. The intelligence is often embellished by David Albright and his Institute for Science and International Security. While there have been improvements lately by Jahn and Dahl in questioning the material leaked to them and providing alternative information available from other sources, much damage has been done to the diplomatic pathway by this process.
Remarkably, there is little to no pushback so far from this group to the progress made in Geneva. A story co-authored by Jahn late yesterday afternoon fits with most of the reporting on the meeting and his single quote from an unnamed source is innocuous
Dahl also has no disruptive quotes in the several Reuters stories to which he contributed. Completing their shutout from the trio of their usual helpers, the hawks planted no inflammatory language in Joby Warrick’s story in today’s Washington Post. The David Albright pathway to propaganda also hasn’t been activated, as the most recent post on his site at the time of this writing was dated October 3.
The dogs that aren’t barking now are the most encouraging sign of all that there is widespread optimism that diplomacy has a real chance of succeeding.
Sadly, Fredrik Dahl and Reuters have broken the silence from those who want to disrupt talks, but even within this blatant attempt to derail negotiations, there are elements of hope. Dahl has granted anonymity to “sources” who tell him that the IAEA last year considered putting together a new report on Iran’s nuclear activities similar to the annex included in the 2011 report that prompted much controversy. After making only vague hints about what sort of evidence might have been in the report, Dahl then goes on parrot the sources in saying the IAEA chose not to issue the new report because of warming relations between Iran and the negotiating countries. He also states the IAEA had no comment, but he completely ignores the likelihood that the IAEA did not provide the new report because the “evidence” in question was found not to be credible. Dahl and Reuters completely ignore the history of known false information being supplied to IAEA and the ongoing process of new bits of information from the “laptop of death” being leaked by the sources in question.
Here is how Dahl’s report frames the information being fed to him:
The U.N. nuclear watchdog planned a major report on Iran that might have revealed more of its suspected atomic bomb research, but held off as Tehran’s relations with the outside world thawed, sources familiar with the matter said.
Such a report – to have been prepared last year – would almost certainly have angered Iran and complicated efforts to settle a decade-old dispute over its atomic aspirations, moves which accelerated after pragmatic President Hassan Rouhani took office in August.
According to the sources, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has apparently dropped the idea of a new report, at least for the time being.
There was no immediate comment from the IAEA. The sources said there was no way of knowing what information collected by the agency since it issued a landmark report on Iran in 2011 might have been incorporated in the new document, although one said it could have added to worries about Tehran’s activities.
Dahl relies completely on his sources saying that the IAEA chose not to issue the report so as not to anger Iran without considering that the IAEA very likely found the “new” information to be neither new nor credible.
A bit further in the piece, we get a vague description of what the “new” information might have been: Continue reading
Today, the IAEA has confirmed that Iran has discontinued enrichment of uranium to 20%, and has complied with the additional steps required at the beginning of the historic agreement between Iran and the P5+1 group of nations. By implementing the interim agreement, Iran has triggered the start of the six month period for negotiation of a final agreement that will be aimed at providing verifiable assurance that Iran does not seek to develop a nuclear weapon.
Fredrik Dahl reports:
Iranhas halted its most sensitive nuclear activity under a ground-breaking deal with world powers, a confidential U.N. atomic agency report reviewed by Reuters on Monday showed, paving the way for the easing of some Western sanctions.
Western states were expected to ease sanctions later on Monday after the United Nations nuclear watchdog confirmed Iran is meeting its end of the bargain under a November 24 interim accord to resolve a decade-old dispute over its nuclear program.
Thomas Erdbrink has more:
Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, arrived in Tehran two days ago to begin validating the deal, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said in a statement reported by the state-financed broadcaster Press TV.
In Washington, the State Department said in a statement on Monday: “Today, the International Atomic Energy Agency provided a report on the current status of Iran’s nuclear activities, focused on the steps Iran has committed to take by or on the first day of implementation of the joint plan of action. The United States, our P5+1 partners, and the E.U. are now studying this report. We will have further public comment after all parties have had the opportunity to review the report.”
The Washington Post reports that Iran confirms it has halted the most sensitive activities:
Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization and a former foreign minister, said in an interview on state television Monday that the deal with world powers over Iran’s nuclear activities was a victory for the Islamic republic.
Speaking of Western powers, and the United States in particular, Salehi said: “We know that they have power and do not wish us well. They wanted to put pressure on us with sanctions, but we were able to manage the situation well.”
Salehi, who holds a doctorate in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Iran does not need to continue the 20 percent sensitive uranium enrichment program to maintain what he said are his country’s peaceful nuclear activities. The deal allows Iran to continue enriching uranium to 5 percent.
“Now the iceberg of sanctions is crumbling while our centrifuges are still also working. This is our greatest achievement,” he said.
Returning to Dahl’s report, we have more details on the report that was filed today by the IAEA (it is only two pages and can be read here):
The IAEA said Tehran had begun the dilution process and that enrichment of uranium to 20 percent had been stopped at the two facilities where such work is done.
“The Agency confirms that, as of 20 January 2014, Iran … has ceased enriching uranium above 5 percent U-235 at the two cascades at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) and four cascades at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) previously used for this purpose,” its report to member states said.
It was referring to Iran’s two enrichment plants, at Natanz and Fordow. Cascades are linked networks of centrifuge machines that spin uranium gas to increase the concentration of U-235, the isotope used in nuclear fission chain reactions, which is found in nature at concentrations of less than 1 percent.
Iran now stands to reap about $7 billion in sanctions relief that will phase in over the coming six months, provided that negotiations continue and that Iran continues to adhere to the terms of the interim agreement.
War mongers and backers of Israel are distinctly unhappy, but at least for now, peaceful negotiations have taken major steps toward making the world a safer place.
Although the P5+1 interim agreement with Iran was first reached in late November, ongoing talks have been required to fill in the details of just how the agreement is to be implemented. Those talks came to fruition yesterday with the announcement that on January 20, the six month period of Iran making concessions on enrichment in return for limited sanctions relief will begin. The hope is that this period of pausing progress in Iran’s development of nuclear technology and the loosening of some sanctions will provide a window to negotiate a broader agreement that provides verifiable prevention of Iran producing nuclear weapons.
US Secretary of State John Kerry noted the significance of the latest negotiating progress:
We’ve taken a critical, significant step forward towards reaching a verifiable resolution that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
On January 20, in just a few short days, we will begin implementation of the Joint Plan of Action that we and our partners agreed to with Iran in Geneva.
As of that day, for the first time in almost a decade, Iran’s nuclear program will not be able to advance, and parts of it will be rolled back, while we start negotiating a comprehensive agreement to address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s program.
Because of the determined and focused work of our diplomats and technical experts, we now have a set of technical understandings for how the parties will fulfill the commitments made at the negotiating table. These understandings outline how the first step agreement will be implemented and verified, as well as the timing of implementation of its provisions.
Iran will voluntarily take immediate and important steps between now and January 20 to halt the progress of its nuclear program. Iran will also continue to take steps throughout the six months to live up to its commitments, such as rendering the entire stockpile of its 20% enriched uranium unusable for further enrichment. As this agreement takes effect, we will be extraordinarily vigilant in our verification and monitoring of Iran’s actions, an effort that will be led by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The United States and the rest of our P5+1 partners will also take steps, in response to Iran fulfilling its commitments, to begin providing some limited and targeted relief. The $4.2 billion in restricted Iranian assets that Iran will gain access to as part of the agreement will be released in regular installments throughout the six months. The final installment will not be available to Iran until the very last day.
That last bit is critical. While the war mongers will be crying about the US giving sanctions relief to Iran, that relief will be doled out over time and only provided as Iran continues to live up to its side of the agreement, with the final portion of funds only coming on the very last day of the six months. Central to this agreement, as previously reported, is that Iran will completely halt its enrichment to 20% uranium and, by the end of the six month period, will have no stockpile of 20% enriched uranium that is in a chemical form that could rapidly be enriched further to weapons grade.
Kerry appreciates that the six month period will provide a large window in which Congressional war mongers will be doing their best to disrupt the agreement:
We now have an obligation to give our diplomats and experts every chance to succeed in these difficult negotiations. I very much appreciate Congress’ critical role in imposing the sanctions that brought Iran to the table, but I feel just as strongly that now is not the time to impose additional sanctions that could threaten the entire negotiating process. Now is not the time for politics. Now is the time for statesmanship, for the good of our country, the region, and the world.
As I pointed out when Robert Menendez put together his bill for further sanctions, that particular bill goes far beyond a mere promise of further sanctions if a final agreement is not reached. Instead, it promises these sanctions even if a final agreement is reached that allows Iran to retain the right of enrichment of uranium below 5%. It has been clear to me from the start that Iran will insist on retaining the right to low level enrichment, and today’s Washington Post story on implementation of the agreement makes that point very strongly: Continue reading
There will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth by Bibi (Red Line) Netanyahu, war mongers John (Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran) McCain and Lindsey Graham and paid MEK shills throughout Congress today because an agreement was reached early Sunday morning local time in Geneva, culminating a process that has been over ten years in the making to seek a peaceful route to preventing any weapons development in Iran’s nuclear technology. Although this is only an interim agreement, it takes significant steps toward making it much more likely that any move by Iran to construct a weapon would be detected and would take longer. More or less simultaneously with the announcement of the agreement, AP reported that the US and Iran have been engaging in secret bilateral talks since March, well before Rouhani’s election this summer.
A fact sheet on the agreement is posted at the White House web site.
Concern over Iran’s nuclear program had ratcheted up in early 2012 when Iran significantly increased its rate of production of uranium enriched to 20%. That concern arose because 20% enriched uranium is technically much easier to take the remaining way to the 90%+ needed for a weapon. Before that point, most of Iran’s work had been directed toward uranium enriched below 5%. Netanyahu’s famous “red line” applied to the stockpile of 20% enriched uranium that would be needed to produce sufficient weapons grade uranium for one nuclear bomb. Significantly, the agreement reached today stops all of Iran’s enrichment to 20% and calls for Iran to either dilute back to below 5% or convert to a chemical form that makes it much harder to convert to weapons grade all of Iran’s stock of 20% uranium. In addition to halting enrichment to 20%, the agreement also prevents Iran from increasing its stockpile of uranium enriched to up to 5%.
Recall that when the IAEA’s latest report came out, I noted that Iran had been showing restraint since the beginning of 2012 by not committing any of the new centrifuges it was installing to actual enrichment activity. Further, no new centrifuges had been installed since Rouhani’s election. The agreement reached today includes a commitment by Iran to take steps to reduce the the number of centrifuges that are available for enrichment, among other restrictions on centrifuges. From the fact sheet:
Iran has committed to halt progress on its enrichment capacity:
· Not install additional centrifuges of any type.
· Not install or use any next-generation centrifuges to enrich uranium.
· Leave inoperable roughly half of installed centrifuges at Natanz and three-quarters of installed centrifuges at Fordow, so they cannot be used to enrich uranium.
· Limit its centrifuge production to those needed to replace damaged machines, so Iran cannot use the six months to stockpile centrifuges.
· Not construct additional enrichment facilities.
My initial understanding of the reductions in centrifuges would apply only to those centrifuges that had been installed but were not yet in use. By consulting the actual IAEA report (pdf) from earlier this month, I calculated that there are roughly 15,660 centrifuges installed at Natanz, with about 9048 of them in use. That means there are an excess of 6612 centrifuges installed but not being used. Half of those would be about 3306 centrifuges to be made unavailable. At Fordow, there are about 2976 centrifuges installed, with 744 in operation. Of the 2232 extra centrifuges there, 1674 are to be made unavailable. Combining the numbers for the two facilities, Iran would be giving up access to 4980 centrifuges under this understanding of the agreement.
However, the fact sheet states quite clearly that the reductions apply to all installed centrifuges. With that as the case, then the reduction is much more dramatic, with 7830 centrifuges being made unavailable at Natanz and 2232 at Fordow, for a total of 10,060 centrifuges being made unavailable. These numbers seem to reduce the centrifuges actually being used for enrichment at Natanz, with the number going down from 9048 to 7830. This reduction of 1200 or centrifuges does seem to match with the number shown in the graph in Annex II of the November IAEA report that are associated with enrichment to 20%, so it would appear that those centrifuges are being shut down entirely rather than being shunted back to enrichment to 5%.
Of course, promising these changes is one thing, but verifying them is critically important. The agreement comes with much greater access to Iranian facilities by IAEA inspectors. Returning to the fact sheet: Continue reading
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.
Despite the near-miss over the weekend of an agreement between Iran and the P5+1 group of countries aimed at diffusing the crisis over Iran’s nuclear technology, an agreement was announced today in Tehran between Iran and the IAEA. The text of the agreement and its annex is quite short. Significantly, it grants access to and monitoring of the new heavy water reactor at Arak and to a uranium mine that has recently started producing yellowcake.
The Arak reactor is important because it was seen as one of the major sticking points in the P5+1 talks. Reactors of this type produce large amounts of plutonium that can be reprocessed into a nuclear weapon. France appeared to be insisting that this plant not begin operations. However, even those who accuse Iran of seeking to develop a nuclear weapon readily admit that Iran does not have the equipment or technology required for reprocessing spent fuel from this reactor into weapons-grade plutonium. Iran explains that this reactor is meant to take over for the aging Tehran research reactor in production of radioactive isotopes for medical applications. Presumably, IAEA monitoring of the reactor would be to confirm this process and to track the materials produced as they are shipped to hospitals for use in imaging and treatment.
No direct mention of the Parchin site is made in the document, and the New York Times speculates that Parchin is not part of the agreement. However, I suspect that Parchin will be the topic of an additional agreement to come, based on Amano’s comments in today’s press conference:
Amano, for his part, described the signing of the joint statement as “an important step forward,” adding that more work needed to be done.
“Under the framework of cooperation, Iran and the IAEA will cooperate further with respect to verification activities to be undertaken by the IAEA to resolve all present and past issues,” Amano said.
The IAEA chief said these “substantial measures” will be implemented in three months “starting today.”
There is no way that Amano would be talking of resolving “all present and past issues” if he didn’t believe there would eventually be agreement on access to Parchin.
Don’t panic on the bits in the document about laser enrichment or new enrichment sites. Although it hasn’t been discussed much, Iran’s previous efforts at laser enrichment of uranium (a separate technology from the centrifuge-based enrichment they currently employ) was known and appears to have been completely shut down in 2003 when all aspects of their nuclear work that could have weapons applications were shut down. Also, it is clear that the agreement only speaks of obtaining further clarification on already disclosed new enrichment facilities, so there is no disclosure of a previously unannounced facility.
Note also that the agreement makes reference to a “step by step” process. This is somewhat of a slap to France and the US (and of course, Israel), because the Russians first proposed a plan they called a step by step process back in July of 2011. And, of course, the agreement is significant because by signing this agreement, the IAEA is getting ahead of the US and the rest of the P5+1 group despite the Wikileaks cable that described Amano as eager to do the bidding of the US while running the IAEA.
The other huge news over the weekend out of Tehran is the assassination of Safdar Rahmat Abadi Sunday evening. PressTV reports that he was the Deputy Minister for Parliamentary Affairs in the Iranian Ministry of Trade, Industry and Mine. The Reuters article on the killing has this bit:
There was no immediate indication that the killing had anything to do with Iran’s nuclear dispute with the West.
However, there is this very interesting announcement just prior to the most recent round of P5+1 negotiations. On October 29, we learned this about an experts-level meeting that was to be held on October 30-31 which was meant as preparation for the high level meeting that wrapped up over the weekend: Continue reading