The United Nations has obtained new information that Iran may have worked on making nuclear weapons, according to a report distributed in Vienna February 25. Its nuclear watchdog agency also said Iran appears to have overcome setbacks from the Stuxnet cyber-virus that set back its enrichment of uranium, a fuel used for both peaceful nuclear energy and to make a bomb.
The report by the International Atomic Energy Agency may increase international concern about the Iran’s controversial program. It also may spur calls for tougher sanctions if diplomatic negotiations with the Islamic Republic remain stalled.
The report shows how Iran has continued to stonewall an IAEA investigation. Tehran claims it only wants to generate electricity from nuclear power rather than make a bomb and has reduced cooperation with the IAEA since facing UN sanctions.
But the IAEA has “new information recently received” which leads to “further concerns (about military-related nuclear work),” the agency said. It did not provide specifics.
Since 2003, following revelations about secret Iranian nuclear work, the IAEA has investigated possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. Since 2005, the watchdog agency has been looking into documents, allegedly from Iran, that detail research on how to explode an atomic bomb and how to fit a nuclear weapon on top of a missile.
Iran rejects these documents as forgeries by foreign intelligence agencies. But the new IAEA report said that Iran has still not provided answers to questions raised by the documents and has in fact has not responded on this issue since August 2008. Iran “is not engaging with the Agency … on … the allegation that Iran is developing a nuclear payload for its missile program,” the new report said.
The United States has reportedly completed a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that expresses concern that Iran has resumed nuclear weaponization work broken off in 2003, when the Islamic Republic feared possible military action after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
A senior diplomat in Vienna told reporters that the most recent IAEA information gave “a better picture of what happened before 2003. And it provides information on what happened after 2003, and this is of course of concern to us. And we need to engage Iran on that.”
The U.S. estimate reportedly concludes that Iran has continued its suspension of most of the weaponization work halted in 2003. U.S. intelligence officials reportedly believe that Iran is riven by a debate over whether to move more decisively towards making a bomb or to keep the nuclear program to the goal of developing electricity from atomic power.
The IAEA said that Iran continues to develop its ability to enrich uranium. It said Iran had produced 3,606 kilograms of low-enriched uranium as of February 5. This is uranium enriched enough for nuclear power but not for weapons. But the same amount of uranium could also be enriched further to make two bombs.
Iran appears to have recovered from a cyber-attack on its Natanz enrichment plant, the report concludes. It now has a total of 5,184 centrifuges enriching uranium; the total had dropped by about 1,000 about 18 months ago. The Stuxnet virus, which some reports claim may have been planted by the United States or Israel, is believed responsible for incapacitating a large number of centrifuges.
The IAEA also reported that Iran is making larger amounts of more highly enriched uranium. It has so far produced 43.6 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent, which it says it needs to fuel a research reactor that produces isotopes for medical purposes. Iran began doing this after a U.S.-backed fuel swap deal with France and Russia broke down in late 2009. However, the United States fears Iran is using this as a pretext to move closer to weapon-grade uranium, which requires an enrichment level of over 90 percent.
Meanwhile, Iran said it will begin feeding nuclear material into centrifuges at a second enrichment site, the Fordow plant, by summer. In the near future, it also plans on testing full cascade lines of more sophisticated centrifuges at a pilot plant at Natanz.
The new developments indicate that Iran is making progress on uranium enrichment despite the cyber-attack and international sanctions. Tehran is also increasingly defiant of U.N. Security Council resolutions calling on it to suspend the strategic enrichment process. In addition, Iran continues to balk at providing information about other aspects of its nuclear work, such as questions about the new Fordow plant. And it has denied full access to a heavy-water reactor under construction which could eventually produce large amounts of plutonium, another possible nuclear bomb material
Michael Adler, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, formerly covered the International Atomic Energy Agency for Agence France-Presse