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Iran: IAEA Praises Tehran, But Where Does Crisis Go From Here?

  • Charles Recknagel

The UN nuclear agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is praising Iran for taking steps to meet today's deadline for answering questions about its nuclear program. IAEA officials say Iran has submitted an extensive report on its activities and that the report should help international inspectors evaluate Tehran's nuclear intentions. RFE/RL looks at how Tehran's showdown with the IAEA has increasingly moved from confrontation toward apparent cooperation and where the crisis over Iran's suspected efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capability goes from here.

Prague, 31 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It may be days or weeks before the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) formally declares whether Iran has met today's deadline for responding to international concerns over its nuclear program. But the agency today is praising Iran's apparent spirit of cooperation.

IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told our correspondent today that Iran has submitted an extensive report on its activities and that the report should help international inspectors evaluate Tehran's nuclear intentions.

"We can say that we have received what Iran assured us to be a complete and accurate declaration of its past nuclear activities, and that at first read it does appear to be comprehensive. Also, IAEA inspectors have been getting access to the facilities they have requested to enter. That said, we are not at this point making any judgment of the completeness and accuracy of the declaration until we have had a period to verify all the elements," Fleming said.

IAEA chief Muhammed el-Baradei told reporters in Ottawa, Canada, yesterday that, in his words, "I think we are making good progress." Tehran submitted the report to the IAEA late last week as one of several last-minute steps to demonstrate it would cooperate with the agency.

Tehran's other steps included a pledge to the visiting foreign ministers of Britain, France, and Germany that it will sign an additional protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran also told the European officials it would voluntarily suspend -- for an undefined "interim" period -- its uranium enrichment and processing program. That program, which was clandestine until exposed by an Iranian exile opposition group two years ago, has raised concerns among international arms experts that Iran could be seeking to enrich uranium to levels useful for bomb-making.

The governing board of the IAEA had set an 31 October deadline for Iran to clarify numerous questions about its nuclear program which were raised after Tehran -- under international pressure -- admitted inspectors to several previously secret sites this summer.

Among the agency's most pressing questions are where Iran obtained technology and equipment for enriching uranium through gas centrifuges at an operational pilot plant south of Tehran at Natanz. The Iranian government, which has claimed the plant is intended to produce fuel for its commercial nuclear energy program, has publicly said only that it obtained some of the equipment from an unidentified foreign country. The IAEA is determined to learn the origin of Iran's sensitive gas centrifuge technology in order to cut off any further clandestine flow of materials to Iran that might help it secretly pursue a weapons program.

Another key question is to what level Iran already has sought to enrich uranium and where it obtained sample amounts of uranium for doing so. IAEA inspectors reportedly found traces of uranium enriched to a 20 percent level in Iran this summer. That is far beyond the usual 2 percent to 3 percent enrichment level needed to produce nuclear fuel, and noteworthy progress toward reaching the some 90 percent enrichment level needed to produce the kind of lightweight, missile-deployable nuclear bombs that would make Iran a nuclear power.

To date, Iran has said that the 20 percent enrichment traces found by the IAEA do not reflect its own enrichment activities but are due to contamination that was already on equipment it received from unnamed suppliers. In an apparent gesture to ease international concerns over the findings, Tehran earlier this week said it is allowing UN inspectors to examine thousands of pieces of imported uranium enrichment equipment and take additional samples from them.

Fleming told RFE/RL that however comprehensive Iran's report to the IAEA proves to be, the agency expects there still will be outstanding questions that could require months more of inspections work to clarify.

"We do expect that there will still be questions outstanding that will need to be followed up and some of those questions are very complex and require going to other countries, for example, to find why these traces of highly enriched uranium showed up. And that kind of investigation might take some months," Fleming said.

Iran's decision to provide an extensive report on its nuclear work ahead of today's deadline has helped calm tensions with the IAEA that just two weeks ago threatened to spark a major row between Tehran and the UN. The IAEA had warned Iran that failure to meet its deadline could result in the agency referring the matter to the UN Security Council for deliberations that possibly might lead to punitive sanctions. Iran had originally rejected today's deadline as an ultimatum and tied its signing of the additional protocol to obtaining greater access to Western nuclear know-how.

Tensions between the IAEA and Tehran reached a high point two months ago, when top Iranian officials accused the U.S. of orchestrating the whole crisis in order to deprive Iran of its legitimate right to a commercial nuclear program. The U.S. has said that Iran's commercial program, whose centerpiece is a reactor being built with Russian assistance near the Gulf port of Bushehr, merely provides a smokescreen for steps to build atomic weapons.

With tensions now subsiding, the Iran nuclear crisis is likely to leave the front pages over the weeks ahead until the next key date on the calendar: a meeting of the IAEA's governing board in Vienna on 20 November. At that time, the agency's top officials will determine to what extent Tehran has in fact made its nuclear activities fully transparent.

Iran has said that by next week it will send the IAEA a formal letter accepting the additional protocol permitting unfettered inspections. The IAEA hopes to confirm receipt of the letter at the Board of Governors meeting next month, clearing the way for Tehran to sign the protocol and seek ratification from the Iranian parliament. Once complete, those steps would permit international arms monitors to routinely carry out surprise visits to Iranian nuclear sites and carry out environmental sampling around them to detect any ongoing weapons-related activities.