Escalation of Iranian nuclear tension

30 November 2009

The situation surrounding Iran's nuclear program grew dramatically more tense after the country reacted to a new resolution by announcing ten new enrichment plants.


Ali Asgar Soltaneih (IAEA - Dean Calma)
Iranian ambassador Ali Asgar Soltaneih
during the board meeting
(IAEA/Dean Calma)

A vote on 27 November by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board of governors resulted in a new resolution expressing "serious concern" over Iran's breach of its obligations in not notifying the agency of the Fordow uranium enrichment facility under construction near Qom.


This failure has caused the 29-member board of governors to wonder if there are any more undeclared nuclear facilities under development in Iran. And this comes on top of a longstanding defiance of IAEA and Security Council resolutions to cease uranium enrichment work. Furthermore, the resolution complains that Iran must re-establish proper cooperation with the IAEA and answer questions over apparent military programs.


Leading in drafting the resolution was the '5+1' group of China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK and USA. One part called on Iran to confirm it has not decided on any other nuclear facility as yet undeclared. The ironic response from Iran was to announce a huge boost to its nuclear program with ten new facilities.


According to state media these new uranium enrichment plants are to be built in the "hearts of mountains... In a safe place that cannot be threatened by any kind of attack." The head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, Ali-Akbar Salehi, continued to say that five locations have already been decided.


UK foreign secretary David Miliband called the announcement a provocation, adding that "This epitomises the fundamental problem that we face with Iran. We have stated over and over again that we recognise Iran's right to a civilian nuclear program, but they must restore international confidence in their intentions."


Iran has always maintained that its uranium enrichment work is meant to produce reactor fuel for its forthcoming nuclear power program. However, a secret start to the work immediately raised concern on discovery in 2003 and the Bushehr reactor is to be fuelled by its Russian suppliers, negating any need for domestic supply.


A certain uranium enrichment capability already operates at Natanz and this would be doubled with the completion of Fordow. While IAEA safeguards at both of these ensures that no material is diverted for military use, the agency has said it cannot provide assurance of the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's program without full cooperation.


After years of mistrust, the international community would not be expected to tolerate a profusion of underground enrichment facilities in Iran. Meanwhile, the nation could at any time withdraw from the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty and expel IAEA inspectors.


The plan to refuel a research reactor in Tehran remains a major opportunity for negotiation. The deal on offer means taking a large part of Iran's low-enriched uranium stockpile from the country, perhaps via Turkey, for further enrichment and manufacture in Russia and France. Iran is stalling, and requesting a simultaneous swap of finished fuel for the equivalent stocks of its own.


US officials said Iran was refusing any meeting on the research reactor fuel if the wider nuclear program was on the agenda. They said the 5+1 was preparing a "package of consequences" for Iran if it did not begin to engage positively before the end of the year, "at a point at which we've made clear judgements need to be made."