U.N. Watchdog Reports Iran Stonewalling

IAEA emblemIn a report in November 2021, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said that Iran had twice turned back inspectors at a facility that manufacturers parts for centrifuges used to enrich uranium. The facility in Karaj, outside Tehran, may be again manufacturing parts for advanced centrifuges. Since February 2021, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been unable to inspect the site because of a law passed in December 2020 curtailing access for inspectors. The IAEA also reported that 170 advanced IR-6 centrifuges had been installed at the underground facility at Fordow since September. The following are excerpts from two reports from arms control groups analyzing the status of Iran's program and the impact of its breaches of the 2015 nuclear deal.


Arms Control Association

Iran’s Failure to Cooperate with the IAEA is Raising Tensions

Kelsey Davenport and Julia Masterson

“Iran’s refusal to allow inspectors to access a site in Iran where centrifuge components are produced is escalating tensions ahead of the resumption of talks to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“According to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) most recent report on Iran’s nuclear activities, finalized Nov. 17, inspectors tried twice in October to access the Karaj centrifuge component manufacturing facility to install new cameras and/or confirm that production of parts had not resumed. On both occasions, Iran refused to allow the IAEA to visit the facility. Iran similarly refused access to inspectors in September, but the situation is more serious now as reports suggest that the Karaj facility has resumed operations and is producing centrifuge components. This failure to cooperate puts at risk efforts to restore the deal by creating gaps in the monitoring record of Iran’s nuclear program which make it more difficult—if not impossible—to restore the JCPOA’s verification regime and drives speculation of illicit activities in Iran.”

“The report does not say that Iran has resumed operations at Karaj, but the IAEA does note the installation of more than 170 advanced IR-6 centrifuges at its Fordow uranium enrichment facility since the last IAEA report was issued in September. A Nov. 16 article in The Wall Street Journal reported that Iran resumed operations at Karaj in August and had since produced components for about 170 centrifuges.

“This suggests that some of the IR-6 centrifuge components at Fordow could have been produced at Karaj. But regardless of whether the site is the source of IR-6 centrifuges, any un-monitored production at the facility raises concerns and will undoubtedly give rise to speculation that Iran is producing centrifuges for illicit purposes.

“Operation of the facility without cameras present will also make it more difficult for the agency to maintain its understanding of Iran’s nuclear program and reconstruct its history if the JCPOA is restored.

“At Fordow, the newly-installed advanced centrifuges, if made operational, will significantly increase Iran’s enrichment capacity at the hardened facility, given that the IR-6 machines are significantly more efficient in enriching uranium than the IR-1s. Iran also has limited experience with IR-6 enrichment, so the continued production, installation, and operation adds to the knowledge Iran gains that cannot be reversed if the JCPOA is restored. Creative solutions can still mitigate the proliferation risk caused by these knowledge gains and allow for the nonproliferation benefits of the JCPOA to be restored, but the more knowledge Iran gains, the more challenging it will be to negotiate those solutions.

“While the IR-6 and Karaj developments are the most concerning aspects of the Nov. 17 report, the IAEA also noted that Iran’s stockpiles of uranium enriched to higher levels continue to grow. Iran’s stockpile of uranium gas enriched to 20 percent grew from 84.8 kilograms (by uranium weight) to 113.8 kilograms (by uranium weight). While any growth in this stockpile is concerning, Iran’s production of 20 percent did slow in comparison to the last quarter. According to the IAEA’s report, Iran continues to enrich uranium to 20 percent at Fordow, but it did not stockpile any material enriched to that level at the pilot plant at Natanz, which had been used previously to produce and stockpile uranium enriched to that level.

“The stockpile of 60 percent grew from 10 kilograms (by uranium weight) in September to 17.7 (by uranium weight) in the Nov. 17 report. Iran modified its production method for enriching uranium to this level in mid-August, which has led to an increase in its average monthly production of uranium enriched to 60 percent when compared to the last quarterly report.

“The growth in the 20 and 60 stockpiles is particularly troublesome as these levels are much closer to weapons-grade uranium (above 90 percent). Enriching to 20 percent, for instance, constitutes about 90 percent of the necessary work to enrich to weapons-grade. As the stockpiles grow, Iran’s breakout, or the time it would take to produce enough uranium enriched to weapons-grade for one bomb, decreases. Currently, Iran’s breakout is likely about one month (down from 12 months when the JCPOA was fully implemented). If Iran continues to produce 20 percent at a similar rate, it will likely have enough that, when enriched to weapons-grade, is enough for one weapon as of the IAEA’s next quarterly report (expected late February/early March). That will further decrease breakout.

“Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched from 2-5 percent was down slightly since the prior report, to 1,622 kilograms (by uranium weight), and its stockpile of uranium enriched to 2 percent grew slightly to 559 kilograms (uranium by weight). Flux in these stockpiles, however, does not have an impact on short-term proliferation risk or breakout time. Stockpile growth in the 2-5 percent level, however, would decrease the time it would take for Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for additional bombs.

“The Nov. 17 report also noted that, for the first time, Iran has breached the JCPOA’s limit on 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges (30 cascades) at its Natanz enrichment plant. The IAEA reported that Iran had installed another cascade of IR-1 and completed some of the preparatory work for another five cascades. That would bring the total number of cascades to 36. If Iran completes the installation, it will have about 6,050 IR-1 machines at that facility.”

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Institute for Science and International Security

Analysis of IAEA Iran Verification and Monitoring Report - November 2021

David Albright, Sarah Burkhard, and Andrea Stricker (Foundation for Defense of Democracies)

“The IAEA’s latest report details Iran’s rapidly advancing nuclear activities and steps to limit IAEA monitoring, indicating the inspectors’ diminished ability to detect Iranian diversion of assets to undeclared facilities. At the same time, the IAEA has made no progress on resolving outstanding safeguards issues relating to the presence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran. The latter is discussed in a separate quarterly IAEA safeguards report, NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) Safeguards Agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran, issued also on November 17 and analyzed separately by the Institute. In these reports, and during IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi’s public appearances, the IAEA Secretariat has sounded an alarm to the Board of Governors and to the international community.”

Highlights and Breakout Estimate

  • “Iran has enough enriched uranium hexafluoride (UF6) in the form of near 20 and 60 percent enriched uranium to produce enough weapon-grade uranium (WGU), taken here as 25 kilograms (kg), for a single nuclear weapon in as little as three weeks. It could do so without using any of its stock of uranium enriched up to 5 percent as feedstock. The growth of Iran’s stocks of near 20 and 60 percent enriched uranium has dangerously reduced breakout timelines.
  • “Iran could continue producing more weapon-grade uranium, using its substantial stock of uranium enriched between two and five percent. In just over two months after the commencement of breakout, Iran could have produced enough additional WGU for a second weapon. After about 3.5 months, it would have enough for a third weapon. The additional production of enough WGU for a fourth weapon would be slower, taking six months, reflecting the depletion of Iran’s pre-existing stocks of enriched uranium.
  • “Iran appears to have continued producing near 20 percent enriched uranium metal, although the IAEA does not provide details in its latest report. Despite Iran’s claims of civil use, uranium metal is a key material in nuclear weapons. Iran’s move to create the wherewithal to make uranium metal as well as making the metal itself is concerning because Iran is both instituting a nuclear weapons capability and increasing its knowledge and experience in this key area.
  • “Iran experimented with using near 20 percent enriched uranium as feed in advanced centrifuges at the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP), likely gaining important new knowledge in producing highly enriched uranium (HEU) using advanced centrifuges. This is also the first time Iran has started feeding a centrifuge cascade with uranium enriched more than 5 percent at any of its three enrichment plants, possibly gaining additional, irreversible knowledge in setting up and using equipment designed for smaller feed quantities and higher enriched uranium feed.
  • “In essence, Iran is effectively breaking out slowly by producing 60 percent enriched uranium and continuing to accumulate it. As of November 6, Iran had a stock of 17.7 kg of near 60 percent enriched uranium (in uranium mass or U mass), or 26.1 kg (in hexafluoride mass). If Iran accumulated about 40 kg of 60 percent enriched uranium (U mass), it would have enough to be able to further enrich it and quickly produce 25 kg of weapon-grade uranium (U mass) in just a few advanced centrifuge cascades.”
  • “In a new development, as of November 9, 2021, Iran installed 166 IR-6 centrifuges in a cascade at the FFEP. It also has a total of 23 IR-6 centrifuges in a second cascade. At the end of the last reporting period, only ten IR-6 centrifuges had been installed in this second cascade. The installation of advanced centrifuges at the FFEP enhances Iran’s ability to break out using a declared but highly fortified facility.”

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