Iran: IAEA again verifies Tehran's NPT compliance

Issue 

"Iran has provided sufficient access to individuals and has responded in a timely manner to questions, and provided clarifications and amplifications" about its past nuclear activities that "are consistent with ... information available to the agency", Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, stated in a 10-page report distributed to the IAEA's 35-member governing board on November 15.

Much of ElBaradei's latest report focused on the history of Iran's past black-market procurements of uranium enrichment technology, undertaken because the US and its allies blocked Iran's legal purchases of such technology.

Under the 1970 nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), non-nuclear-armed signatory countries like Iran are entitled to develop the full nuclear fuel cycle, including producing enriched uranium, provided they do not divert any nuclear material for military purposes.

Low-enriched uranium (LEU) — with 3-5% of the fissionable U-235 isotope — is used to fuel nuclear power plants. Natural uranium ore has a U-235 content of about 0.7%. Weapons-grade uranium must be enriched with U-235 to about 90%, a far more complex and difficult process than the production of LEU.

ElBaradei reported that his agency "has been able to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran" to military purposes, but could not categorically rule out the diversion of undeclared nuclear material. Iran is not alone in this regard. The IAEA has listed 46 member-states, including Germany and 13 other West European countries, as being in the same situation.

However, as part of laying the propaganda groundwork for a future Iraq-style regime-change invasion of oil- and gas-rich Iran, US officials have alleged for years now that Iran's IAEA-monitored nuclear program, particularly its enrichment research, is aimed at producing a nuclear weapon.

Seizing upon ambiguities in Iran's past reporting to the IAEA about its acquisitions of enrichment technology, Washington pressured the UN Security Council in July 2006 into adopting a resolution calling on Iran, "as a confidence-building measure", to suspend all its enrichment activities.

Arguing that this violated its right under the NPT to develop "without discrimination" nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, Iran refused to do so.

Washington then pressured the Security Council into passing resolutions in December and March imposing limited international financial sanctions on Iran.

ElBaradei reported that, "Since early 2006, the agency has not received the type of information that Iran had previously been providing", and that consequently his agency's "knowledge about Iran's current nuclear program is diminishing".

US officials immediately seized on this comment to argue that it "proved" Iran is not cooperating "fully" with the IAEA. Gregory Schulte, the US envoy to the Vienna-based IAEA, said: "The key thing from the director-general's report is that Iran's cooperation remains selective and incomplete."

In reality, Iran has met all of its disclosure obligations under its 1974 NPT safeguards agreement with the IAEA. But after the Security Council imposed sanctions on it last December, Iran ended the "go anywhere, anytime" inspections of its nuclear facilities that it had voluntarily allowed from late 2003 as a non-binding "confidence-building measure".

Even so, ElBaradei reported that since "March 2007, a total of seven unannounced inspections have been carried out at" Iran's pilot enrichment plant at Natanz, confirming that Iran was continuing its enrichment research.

He also reported that Iran had put into operation 3000 gas centrifuges separating out U-235, a tenfold increase on a year ago. The November 15 New York Times misleadingly reported: "In theory, that means that Iran could produce enough uranium [sic] to make a nuclear weapon within a year to 18 months."

ElBaradei pointed out in a February 19 interview with the London Financial Times that there was "a big difference between acquiring the knowledge for enrichment and developing a bomb ... And that's why I said the intelligence, the British, intelligence, the American intelligence, is saying that Iran is still years, five to 10 years, away from developing a weapon."

Indeed, that same month, Vice-Admiral Mike McConnell, US President George Bush's new national intelligence director, told the US Congress that Iran would not have the technical capability to produce weapons-grade uranium until at least 2015.

Since Iran had failed to suspend uranium enrichment as called for by the Security Council, the US "will work with our partners on the UN Security Council and Germany as we move towards a third set of Security Council sanctions", White House spokesperson Dana Perino told a November 15 media briefing.

Washington has been seeking a new UN sanctions resolution against Iran since June, but has been stymied by opposition from Moscow and Beijing, which want the issue resolved through negotiations between Tehran and the IAEA.

Reuters reported on November 16 that "Russia, which like China opposes further UN sanctions against Iran, added fuel to the fire by announcing on Friday that the UN nuclear watchdog would soon start inspecting and sealing atomic fuel bound for an Iranian reactor ...

"Russian state-owned nuclear fuel producer TVEL said inspectors from the IAEA will begin preparatory work on November 26 until November 29 on a shipment of nuclear fuel bound for the Bushehr nuclear plant."

The Bushehr nuclear power plant, Iran's first, has been constructed with Russia's assistance and is due to become operational next year.

"Israel believes it is incumbent upon the international community to send a crystal clear message to the leadership in Tehran that their nuclear program is unacceptable and must cease immediately", Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson Mark Regev said in response to ElBaradei's report.

While Israel, Washington's closest ally in the Middle East, is a member of the IAEA, it has refused to sign the NPT or allow IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities. According to the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, Israel has secretly built 65-85 nuclear bombs.

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