Reuters: Iran’s move to curb cooperation with U.N. nuclear monitors could free it to build back-up uranium enrichment facilities in secret for use if the United States bombed its flagship Natanz plant, some analysts say.
By Mark Heinrich
VIENNA (Reuters) – Iran’s move to curb cooperation with U.N. nuclear monitors could free it to build back-up uranium enrichment facilities in secret for use if the United States bombed its flagship Natanz plant, some analysts say.
But the decision — retaliation for widened U.N. sanctions over Iran’s refusal to halt disputed nuclear work — poses no active proliferation threat as Tehran reaffirmed an obligation to provide six months’ notice of new fuel production, they add.
Still, Iran’s announcement it will no longer give monitors early design information about planned nuclear installations symbolised growing international difficulty in tracking Iran’s nuclear work even as it makes strides to ratchet up enrichment.
“It’s a political message from Iran: ‘If the U.N. Security Council steps up pressure on us, we will (continue to) whittle away our cooperation with the IAEA,” said Gary Samore, head of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, referring to the watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency.
Iran says it aims to turn experimental-level enrichment of nuclear fuel into industrial production only for electricity.
The West suspects a camouflaged bomb project as Iran hid enrichment research from the IAEA until 2003 and has hindered IAEA inquests since. They have unearthed no proof of diversions into bomb-making. But doubts about Iran’s intentions prevail.
The United States, the Islamic Republic’s arch-foe, has not ruled out last-resort military action to halt Iranian enrichment work if sanctions or diplomacy prove futile. Iran built the Natanz plant underground and flanked it with anti-aircraft guns.
The Iranian announcement signalled a pullout from a “Subsidiary Arrangements” deal which it accepted in 2002 as a voluntary supplement to its binding 1974 Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA to improve the agency’s monitoring ability.
The IAEA has declined comment on the move, with officials saying its implications were being examined.
Tehran made clear the decision did not affect its legal commitment to inform the IAEA a minimum six months before it ushers material into a nuclear facility for fuel production.
“They would still inform us prior to introducing new nuclear material. So this step is not a proliferation threat,” said a senior diplomat close to the Vienna-based U.N. watchdog agency.
But Iran would be able to erect nuclear-related facilities without alerting the IAEA well in advance, a further potential blow to transparency, some analysts said.
“No one has any evidence that Iran is building something in secret now. But this move opens the door for nuclear surprises,” said David Albright, director of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.
“Iran’s decision to walk away from these Arrangements is a significant setback for transparency. It allows them to legitimately build a backup centrifuge plant without telling anyone, run it under vacuum and then start to produce (bomb-grade) uranium if Natanz gets attacked,” he said.
Another diplomat close to the IAEA said: “If the U.S. tried to bomb their declared peaceful nuclear sites into oblivion, which would likely drive Iran out of the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty), Iran would have an insurance policy. It makes it less likely you could choke off the nuclear programme by force.”
Iran has been cutting cooperation with the IAEA to a legal minimum, handicapping the scope of inspections, since the IAEA’s 35-nation board referred Tehran to the Security Council a year ago. Iran has since been hit with two sanctions resolutions.
“Iran is honouring the minimum legal requirements of the Safeguards Agreement, but giving the IAEA headaches in every legal grey area,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, chief nuclear analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
Tehran last year withdrew voluntary compliance with snap inspections at sites not declared to be nuclear-related.
It forced the IAEA to remove its Iran section head by declaring him persona non grata, and banned re-entry to 38 inspectors from four Western states that backed sanctions.
It has occasionally held up inspection visits to Natanz in rows over how frequent they should be. And Iran has refused to let the IAEA install remote-monitoring cameras there just as it winds up preparations to launch “industrial-scale” enrichment.
Tehran has installed six cascades, or networks, of 164 centrifuges for a total of almost 1,000, a threefold rise over the past month, diplomats said, and has told the IAEA it will have 3,000 in all operational by May.
If run non-stop for long periods, a technical prowess experts believe Iran may need a few years to perfect, 3,000 could yield enough highly enriched fuel for one bomb within a year.