In the latest of its quarterly reports on the Iranian nuclear program (PDF), the U.N. nuclear watchdog said that Iran is expanding its uranium enrichment capacity and has not provided IAEA inspectors with an explanation for a significant quantity of missing nuclear material.
The report, which comes on the heels of two days of talks between International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors and Iranian officials, details how IAEA personnel were denied access to the Parchin military facility and failed to get answers about the role of foreign experts in Iran’s nuclear research:
The Agency is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.
The new report reiterated the IAEA’s concerns — stated at length in its Novermber 2011 report — about Iranian non-compliance, particularly as it relates to possible nuclear weapons work, referring again to “serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.”
“There’s nothing that’s really unexpected,” said Peter Crail, a nonproliferation analyst with the Arms Control Association, in an interview with ThinkProgress. The Iranians are “sort of steadily moving ahead.”
He noted that though latest generation centrifuges were reported as installed for the first time, they were in early stages of development and Iran appeared to still be tinkering with earlier generation centrifuges. “This (report) was more of a standard update of where the program is,” he said. “As expected, they are still making progress in installing things, but there’s no massive expansion or breakthrough development.”
While the IAEA again raised concerns about lack of access, expanding production, and a quantity of unaccounted for nuclear material, the report doesn’t indicate Iran is any closer to deciding on building a nuclear weapon. The absence of such an assertion is in line with reported U.S. intelligence estimates and statements by top military and intelligence officials.
Since the November report, the greatest change in Iran’s nuclear program, according to inspectors, has been the stepped up enrichment of uranium. The Natanz nuclear facility is now operating 52 cascades — each containing 170 centrifuges — up from 37 in November, and the Fordow facility is now refining Uranium to a 20% concentration with almost 700 centrifuges.
In January, Iran informed the IAEA of revisions in its intentions at the Fordow enrichment plant to include enrichment to 5 percent, in addition to the 20 percent enrichment that can be more easily upgraded to weapons-grade fissile material. “I’m not clear exactly what that means,” said ACA’s Crail. “But if Fordow isn’t dedicated only to 20 percent (enrichment), it also may suggest that they are willing to halt 20 percent because they are hedging with the facility by doing two types of production.”
The IAEA also raised concerns about 19.8 kilograms of unaccounted for uranium “related to conversion experiments carried out by Iran between 1995 and 2002.” The discrepancy in measurement amounts was previously reported, but Iran again refused to answer questions about the missing quantity. Asked in the February meetings between the IAEA and Iran, the new report said, Iran stonewalled:
Iran indicated that it no longer possessed the relevant documentation and that the personnel involved were no longer available… The discrepancy remains to be clarified.
Diplomats told the Associated Press the quantity could be enough to work on weapons. ACA’s Crail said, however, it wasn’t “nearly enough” yet to actually make a bomb, though “because it’s in uranium metal form it may be useful for carrying out warhead R&D (research and development).”
The report will likely raise tensions between Iran and the West over the former’s nuclear progress, which it insists is for peaceful purposes.