INSIGHT BRIEFING: Iran rebuked by sanctions

12 January 2007

Financial and trade restrictions have been placed on Iran by the United Nations Security Council. Iran's response to resolution 1737, adopted on 23 December, has been restrained.

The resolution imposed sanctions against Iran for its failure to suspend uranium enrichment and demanded suspension "work on all heavy water-related projects" and of "all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development." It also calls for a ban on trade with Iran in goods related to its nuclear programmes and missile delivery systems.

Iranian government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham said Tehran was keeping open the option of quitting the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) if Western pressure on its atomic programme continues. The Iranian parliament passed a bill in December obliging the government to review its cooperation with the IAEA in response to sanctions. "If Iran is deprived of its rights under pressure, then the government will decide whether to continue its NPT membership or leave it," he said. However, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, said subsequently that Iran was still committed to the NPT.  "We are determined to pursue our peaceful nuclear programme in the framework of the international rules and regulations, including the NPT," he noted.

The final version of the unanimously-approved resolution was relatively mild, following several revisions insisted upon by Russia as a condition for its support. Russia and China have consistently pressed for a step-by-step approach to sanctions while the USA argued for tough sanctions with the sometimes reluctant support of France and the UK. Moscow and Beijing voted for the final text, but only after one Iranian company was dropped from the list of companies and individuals subject to sanctions. During negotiations, a mandatory travel ban was also dropped at Russia's insistence. Instead, the resolution calls on all states "to exercise vigilance" regarding the entry or transit through their territory of 12 top Iranians involved in nuclear and missile programmes. The Security Council will review the situation in light of a report from Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), requested within 60 days.

Russia's ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said Russia wanted to ensure "that activities which are completely legal, valid, and have nothing to do with the risk of proliferation can be conducted without any hindrance or interference." The first revision also removed any reference to the nuclear power plant being built by the Russians at Bushehr which is expected to go online in late 2007.  Iran said it appreciated "the constructive role" Russia played in drafting the resolution.

Moscow has been working hard to sort out a series of problems which had arisen over the Bushehr project. These related to inefficiencies on the Russian side due to restructuring of export company Atomstroyexport (ASE) and late payment of financing by Tehran, all of which had led to delays. However a new understanding was reached at the end of last year as Bushehr's cooling system was installed and commissioned.

Meanwhile, Iran is pressing on with its nuclear development, despite the UN resolution, and on 3 January Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran would Iran will soon start industrial production of nuclear fuel. Iran started up a second experimental chain of 164 centrifuges at its pilot nuclear facility at Natanz in October, and said it will launch a total of 3000 centrifuges there by March.

Further information

United Nations Security Council statement on Resolution 1737 
 Iraq, North Korea & Iran - Implications for Safeguards information paper


There is one nuclear power reactor under construction in Iran. The construction of two pressurised water reactors was started in 1975 by Siemens of Germany, but work stopped with the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

In 1994, Iranian officials contracted Atomstroyexport (ASE) of Russia to complete the plant to ASE's VVER-1000 design. It should begin operation in 2008. Russian state companies are also contracted to supply fuel for the reactor as well as take back the highly-radioactive used fuel for storage and disposal. This 'fuel leasing' contract is the first of its kind in the world, although Russia has some similar arrangements with former Soviet states.

Iran has its own uranium mines and a conversion plant at Esfahan. The country wants to feed the product of that plant, uranium hexafluoride (UF6), into its enrichment plant at Natanz before putting the enriched uranium into fresh nuclear fuel for the Bushehr power reactor.

Uranium enrichment

Only 0.7% of natural uranium is 'fissile', or capable of undergoing fission, the process by which energy is produced in a nuclear reactor. The fissile isotope of uranium is uranium 235 (U-235). The remainder is uranium 238 (U-238).

Nuclear fuel for civilian power reactors is typically enriched to less than 5% U-235. This is done by converting the uranium to a gaseous form (uranium hexafluoride, UF6) and exploiting the 1% difference in mass between U-235 and U-238. In a centrifuge this is done by rotating the UF6 at high speed so that the heavier molecules containing more U-238 move to the outside and the lighter U-235 molecules can be extracted from the centre.

Proliferation concerns

Although power reactor fuel need only be enriched to 5% U-235, enriching to levels of 90% or more could produce nuclear fuel that could be used in a weapon. That the same technology could be used to produce either grade naturally raises concerns about enrichment facilities. That's why the 188 states that have signed the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor their use of uranium and other nuclear materials. Some countries have gone further and signed the Additional Protocol (AP) to the NPT which allows more access to inspectors and more intrusive inspections.

Iran is among the group of NPT and AP signatories and IAEA inspectors are working in the country to establish that nuclear materials are only used for peaceful purposes. IAEA expert reports inform the United Nations Security Council which can then vote on resolutions sponsored by its member nations.

Concerns over Iran

Signatories to the NPT agree to notify the IAEA of their activities in the nuclear fuel cycle, the process of uranium enrichment being a particularly sensitive part. Iran embarked on a uranium enrichment programme in 2000 but failed to notify the IAEA until forced to by announcements by a dissident group that work had already started on a uranium enrichment facility at Natanz. Iran had also imported 1.8t of uranium from China without declaring it.

Since the enrichment programme has been in the open, Iran has cooperated with the IAEA, although there have been a number of difficult questions for Iranian officials. For example, traces of high-enriched uranium were found on centrifuge components imported from Pakistan (these traces were later shown to have originated in that country), and Iranian scientists have undertaken some small-scale research (conversion of uranium to metallic form and separation of plutonium) which is not called for by a civilian nuclear power programme.

Also of great concern to the international community is the construction of a 40 MWt heavy water reactor at Arak. Iran describes this unit as a research reactor, but heavy water reactors can be used to rapidly breed plutonium from natural uranium. They are thought to have been instrumental in the Indian nuclear weapons programme as well as the supposed Israeli one. One result of Resolution 1737 is that the IAEA will not provide technical assistance with this reactor, in contrast to its normal role promoting peaceful nuclear science and production of isotopes for nuclear medicine.

The international community, led by the USA and supported primarily by the 'EU3' of France, Germany and the UK, has consistently called for Iran to suspend its enrichment programme and undertake 'confidence building measures'. Iran has at various times suspended its programme, but has always insisted upon its 'right' to employ uranium enrichment for civilian use.