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Iran: Tehran Backtracks On Pledge To End Uranium Enrichment

  • Charles Recknagel

Iran appears to be having second thoughts about its promise to the European Union to suspend its uranium-enrichment effort -- a central part of the international crisis over Iran's suspected nuclear-weapons program. The Foreign Ministry now says Tehran will have to consider the "modalities of a suspension" before taking action, while the arms-control community remains determined that Iran renounce its enrichment activities.

Prague, 27 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iran is showing signs of backtracking on its pledge to European Union leaders last week to fully cooperate with demands by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it stop activities that could lead to the development of a nuclear weapons capability.

One of the key steps Tehran promised to take was to cease clandestinely enriching uranium. In an accord reached with the visiting foreign ministers of Great Britain, France, and Germany on 21 October, the Iranian government said it would suspend that activity for an unspecified "interim period," as well as accept more intrusive IAEA monitoring of its nuclear-related facilities.

But over the weekend, Tehran modified that pledge by saying it had yet to suspend uranium enrichment and would need further domestic deliberation before deciding whether to do so. A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Hamid Reza Asefi, told Western correspondents in Tehran that Iranian officials are now considering what he called the "modalities of a suspension." He gave no further details.

The hesitation to fully commit to suspending uranium enrichment comes less than a week before the 31 October deadline the IAEA had set for Iran to fully answer all remaining questions about its nuclear activities and to demonstrate it is pursuing only civilian-use nuclear programs. The IAEA has previously threatened to refer its concerns over Iran's suspected weapons development to the UN Security Council -- a measure that could ultimately lead to the council levying sanctions against Iran -- if Tehran fails to meet the agency's demands.

Iran's uranium-enrichment effort worries international arms-control experts because it could provide the direct means for developing a nuclear bomb. Iran's enrichment activities first came to light in the summer of last year when an exiled Iranian opposition group reported the existence of a secret pilot enrichment plant at Natanz, south of Tehran. A visit to the site by IAEA inspectors earlier this year revealed Iran had constructed some 160 operational gas centrifuges for enriching uranium in fortified facilities largely being built underground.

Fred Wheling, an arms control expert at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, said the secret nature of the site casts doubt on Tehran's subsequent explanations that it is purely intended to develop fuel for commercial reactors. "If Iran was to develop an indigenous enrichment capacity, it could eventually make its own fuel, which could then be used in [Iran's planned commercial reactor at] Bushehr," Wheling said. "But if that were really the case, then you wouldn't need to go to all the trouble of having a clandestine facility and acquiring uranium under the table to test it and so on."

Iran plans to build up to seven electricity-generating commercial reactors by 2020 and is currently constructing the first one with Russian technical assistance near the Gulf port of Bushehr.

Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which Iran is a signatory, Tehran has the right to build the reactors and produce its own reactor fuel through uranium enrichment. However, if Iran already has begun enriching uranium at Natanz, as many arms experts suspect, that secret progress would be in violation of the treaty's requirement that signatories declare such activities to the IAEA so inspectors can monitor them. The monitoring is intended to ensure that no enriched uranium is diverted to weapons making.

In one sign that Iran might have already begun enriching uranium, samples taken by inspectors this summer reportedly found traces of uranium at Natanz enriched to a level of 20 percent. That is well above the 2 to 3 percent level needed for commercial reactor fuel. Tehran has said the readings are due to preexisting contamination on equipment it received from unidentified foreign sources and do not indicate any Iranian weapons program.

Charles Ferguson, a nuclear expert at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, called uranium enriched to a 20 percent level "right at the dividing line" between civilian and military-use nuclear programs. He says that uranium enriched to 7 percent or less is only usable in commercial applications, while 20 percent is already adequate to produce a primitive nuclear device -- primitive because the result would weigh close to one metric ton and be difficult to deploy. "If you had 800 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium 235, you could -- in principle -- produce a nuclear bomb," Ferguson said. "But it is hard to work with that much material.... As enrichment [level] goes higher, you need less uranium to form a bomb."

To build the kind of lightweight bomb that could be deployed by missiles or strike aircraft, an enrichment level of 90 percent would be needed. Critics of Iran's nuclear activities say Tehran appears to be interested in developing such lightweight bombs to give it a modern nuclear force. If so, the work at Natanz could be another step on the long road toward that goal.

Some nonproliferation experts have predicted that Iran could develop the capability to produce an operational nuclear bomb in seven to nine years if left unobstructed.

As Iran now hesitates to suspend its uranium enrichment activities, it is unclear whether the hesitation is motivated by its stated desire to develop a fully indigenous nuclear energy capability or by a secret desire to keep a dual-use program that could directly contribute to building nuclear weapons.

Making a final decision to give up uranium enrichment would be difficult for Tehran, in either case.