Nuclear Reaction: Why Won’t the IAEA Get Tough with Iran?

As Iran’s nuclear program has come under increasing international scrutiny, the case that it may have violated the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has become progressively stronger. Until a year ago, that case was largely circumstantial—no state with Iran’s oil and gas resources, the argument went, had any plausible economic rationale for a nuclear energy program. During the past several months, however, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors have uncovered increasingly troubling indications of Iranian violations, from clandestine uranium imports to denial of access to critical facilities. In turn, they have met with shifting Iranian explanations for those findings.

Yet when presented with this, the international response has been effectively inert. Despite so much public hand-wringing over Iran’s nuclear program, the IAEA Board of Governors has declined to declare Iran in violation of its NPT obligations, a move which would send Iran’s case to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions. Some worry that strong action would impede the future flow of peaceful nuclear technology; others worry that finding Iran in violation would spike delicate negotiations over a so-called Additional Protocol, which, if accepted by Iran, would give IAEA inspectors broader access to Iran’s nuclear programs. Their hesitance, however, is ill-founded and counterproductive. The board will meet again in early September—and when it does, it should cite Iran and send its case to the Security Council.

The strange reluctance of the IAEA to take a harder line against Iran has its roots in part in the organization’s peculiar dual role as both promoter of the spread of peaceful nuclear technology and arbiter of compliance with the NPT. Despite Western worries about nonproliferation, an equal concern among a large fraction of the IAEA board’s members—primarily those from the Non-Aligned Movement, which controls 15 of the board’s 35 seats—is their own acquisition of peaceful nuclear technology. From that narrow perspective, any action against Iran sets a dangerous precedent that might jeopardize their own future access to nuclear technology.

The group’s fears, however, are unwarranted: All countries can be secure in knowing that there is a unique and factual case for referring Iran’s case to the Security Council. The windfall of evidence supporting such a move began last summer, with the revelation that Iran had secretly been building a facility for enriching uranium near the city of Natanz. (Enrichment facilities can be used to produce fuel for nuclear reactors—Iran’s stated intention—but can also be reconfigured easily to yield material for nuclear bombs.) After months of negotiation, IAEA inspectors were permitted access to the facility, where Iran revealed a small, pilot enrichment plant, already complete, alongside a major commercial-scale enrichment cascade, which was still under construction.

That revelation puzzled expert observers, who found it implausible that Iran would have undertaken such massive construction without first testing the basic centrifuge constituents—single tubular rotors—with uranium hexaflouride. But Iran denied having done just that, clearly aware that conducting such tests in secret would have been a flagrant violation of the NPT. To resolve the discrepancy, the IAEA asked to take material samples from the Natanz site, which subsequently tested positive for enriched uranium. In theory, the facility may have been contaminated with enriched uranium by equipment imported from abroad. But, initially, the Iranians were unwilling to admit to getting outside assistance, suggesting the traces indicate the Iranians may have illegally tested centrifuges. Compounding outside suspicions, IAEA inspectors were for many months forbidden from taking material samples from the Kalaye Electric factory in Tehran, where the Iranians have admitted to assembling centrifuges. And early leaks from a new IAEA report indicate that, before inspectors were finally admitted in July, “considerable modifications were observed,” suggesting the site had been sanitized.

While investigating Iran’s enrichment program, the IAEA also discovered that Iran had secretly imported uranium—1,000 kilograms of uranium hexaflouride—in the early 1990s in explicit contravention of its NPT obligations. When inspectors subsequently weighed Iran’s uranium hexaflouride storage cylinders, they found a small amount—1.9 kilograms—of material missing. Iran has claimed that the uranium hexaflouride leaked through bad valves on the storage cylinders. But this explanation should be treated skeptically. Uranium hexaflouride, which is stored as a solid, tends to leak in very small amounts. If a leak in the cylinder develops, the uranium is exposed to water vapor in the air, and reacts to produce gaseous hydrogen fluoride, which leaks, and solid uranyl fluoride, which naturally plugs the leak, keeping the release small—most likely, below the stated 1.9 kilograms. Iran’s recent revelation to the IAEA that it had carried out “uranium conversion experiments” in the early 1990s supports this skepticism: The Iranians may have offered that explanation as a new excuse for the missing uranium.

Also on the list of covert imports was 400 kilograms of uranium tetraflouride, which Iran secretly converted into uranium metal. Though that conversion was not illegal, it is perhaps the most disturbing of Iran’s clandestine activities. Neither Iran’s reactor at Bushehr, nor its planned heavy-water reactor, requires uranium metal. Iran claimed that the metal was used for radiation shielding, but, as David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security noted recently in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, such a rationale is implausible, since the materials is too highly refined. More recently, Iran has shifted its argument, claiming it built the metal-conversion facility when it was considering building a Magnox nuclear plant, which uses uranium metal. There is another use for uranium metal, though: It is a primary constituent of a first generation nuclear weapon.

In short, the case against Iran is unusual in both detail and scope. According to leaks, the forthcoming IAEA report notes that “some of the information [recently provided] was in contrast to that previously provided by Iran”—which is to say, either Iran was lying earlier or it’s lying now. In either case, Iran has created a situation where the rest of the world can have little confidence in its truthfulness or its good intentions. Less developed states should thus be secure in knowing that citing Iran would not lead to their being denied legitimate technology. Quite the opposite: If Iran is allowed to build a nuclear-weapons option without IAEA opposition, industrial states that might sell nuclear technology will become even more careful than they are now in controlling access to nuclear energy products.

For many of the more industrialized states on the IAEA Board of Governors, including most Europeans, the dilemma is subtler. They have little doubt that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program, but they are unsure precisely how to confront it. They worry that an IAEA citation at its September board meeting would be bad timing, placing ongoing negotiations over an Additional Protocol to the treaty in jeopardy. To be sure, there is some risk that an overt confrontation would spook Iran, hurting prospects for conclusion of an Additional Protocol. Yet given Iran’s tepid interest in signing a protocol thus far, it seems equally likely that the prospect of broad sanctions will be just the incentive it needs.

Indeed, citing Iran in September may be bad timing, but the other timing options are likely to be worse. Russia may finish shipping Iran fuel for its Bushehr nuclear reactor before the next IAEA board meeting, depriving concerned states of an important potential negotiating lever. Though Russia has been resolute in its refusal to link fuel shipments to nonproliferation concerns, its attitude might well change were the IAEA to send the Iranian case to the Security Council.

More fundamentally, by focusing narrowly on the Additional Protocol, states are ignoring the broader problems posed by the Iranian program. Even if a protocol is concluded, Iran will be legally allowed to accumulate enriched uranium and could produce scores of bombs within a year of withdrawing formally from the NPT. Iran’s neighbors, and others too, will not be fundamentally secure unless Iran can be persuaded to forego its uranium enrichment program. Moving to the Security Council is the best hope to raise the specter of pending action, and thus to persuade Iran to give up that part of its nuclear enterprise.

What the IAEA does with Iran will also have a broad impact beyond this single case. There has been no shortage of analysts pointing out that Iran will be watching to see how the world confronts North Korea, in order to formulate its own strategy. But the road goes both ways: North Korea and other would-be proliferators will be trying to divine rules from the world’s treatment of Iran. If the IAEA is firm in demanding that its safeguards be respected, and the world is steadfast in affirming its commitment to nonproliferation, the result will be a strengthened bulwark against nuclear proliferation. But if the world lets Iran off because of shortsighted self-interest and a weak commitment to nonproliferation, the danger will grow.