CREDIT: AP Photo/Hans Punz
The latest report from the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog shows that Iran is thus far following the terms of the interim deal signed between Tehran and the international community last fall, reducing stockpiles of enriched uranium and granting unprecedented access.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has released quarterly reports on the status of Iran’s nuclear program since 2003, Iran is holding up to the terms of the interim agreement signed off on last November. Under the Joint Plan of Action, Iran agreed to halt the processing of uranium to 20 percent enrichment and convert its present stockpile of nuclear fuel enriched to that level into a form unable to be processed further.
Now enrichment of uranium hexafloride (UF6) above 5 percent enrichment is “no longer taking place” at Iran’s facilities, the report concludes. “The amount of nuclear material that remains in the form of UF6 enriched up to 20% U-235 is 160.6 kg,” it says, not just a reduction from the amount detailed in November but the most significant in the last four years. “A proportion of this material is being downblended and the remainder is being converted to uranium oxide.”
“That decrease has been quite important,” a senior diplomat familiar with Iran’s nuclear program told Reuters. “That progress has been quite substantial in terms of inventory.”
Prior to the deal, Iran had held 196 kg of 20 percent enriched material, enough to cause concern from some of its neighbors in the region. Given that the technology required to produce the highly enriched uranium — about 90 percent enrichment — necessary for detonating a nuclear device is a small step from that required to reach the 20 percent threshold, the international community has been much more concerned about this stockpile than the overall total fuel possessed. Approximately 250 kilograms of highly enriched uranium is required to create one nuclear weapon and even before the deal it seemed that Iran was taking extra precaution to stay a safe distance from that number.
Also included in the report is confirmation that Iran has opened up many of its facilities related to the nuclear process that they have previously blocked IAEA inspectors from accessing. Among those includes the Saghand uranium mine, the Ardakan concentration plant, and production workshops for the centrifuges that spin in Iran’s nuclear facilities to enrich fuel. The IAEA also confirmed that Iran has not made “any further advances” at the Arak heavy water reactor, which was of particular concern to the international community for its potential ability to produce plutonium.
The report represents the formal documentation of the IAEA’s confirmation of Iran’s willingness to accede to the terms of the deal that was first given last month. “By halting enrichment to 20 percent, converting and diluting the existing 20% enriched uranium stockpile, and freezing the number of centrifuges available for enrichment,” wrote the Arms Control Association’s Daryl Kimball at the time, “the first phase agreement will, by the end of first six months, add several weeks to the amount of time that it would theoretically take Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon.”
Iran does continue to enrich uranium to the 5 percent level according to the report, with a 754 kg increase in its stockpile since November’s report, bringing the total to just over 11,000 kilograms. Contrary to conservative talking points, however, discontinuing low-level enrichment was never part of the terms of the JPA. Experts currently believe that such terms are unlikely to be agreed to in any final deal, despite calls from hawks in the United States for the administration to press for the so-called “zero enrichment” option.
Thursday’s report comes as members of the P5+1 negotiating group — composed of the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, and Germany — concluded the first round of talks with Iran over a final agreement, setting the agenda of items up for discussion. According the schedule laid out, the next round of talks will be held in Vienna on March 17th, while technical negotiations will proceed continuously between now and then.
“We all feel we made some progress,” a senior U.S. administration official told journalists after the meetings concluded. “We can’t predict all ahead. But we do now have a path forward for how these negotiations will proceed.”