Iran Restarts Uranium Conversion

By Kerr, Paul | Arms Control Today, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Iran Restarts Uranium Conversion


Kerr, Paul, Arms Control Today


Iran's August restart of its uranium-conversion facility near Isfahan has set the stage for a diplomatic showdown this month.

Iran's action ended a suspension that had been part of a November agreement with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. For the time being, the Europeans have halted their negotiations with Tehran.

Two days after opening an emergency meeting, the Europeans joined with the United States and other members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors to adopt an Aug. 11 resolution expressing "serious concern" about Iran's actions and urging Tehran "to re-establish full suspension" of work at the conversion facility. The resolution calls for IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei to present by Sept. 3 a "comprehensive report" on the status of Iran's conversion activities, as well as other aspects of its nuclear programs.

Iran's uranium-conversion facility is a key component of its gas-centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program. Such centrifuges spin uranium hexafluoride gas at very high speeds in order to increase the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope. This process can produce either low-enriched uranium for civilian nuclear reactor fuel or highly enriched uranium (HEU). HEU can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons. Uranium-conversion facilities convert uranium oxide-lightly processed uranium ore-into several uranium compounds, including uranium hexafluoride.

Iran has ratified the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which does not bar countries from possessing either uranium-conversion or -enrichment facilities. But suspicions that Tehran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program have motivated diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to go beyond its treaty commitments and give up its enrichment program completely.

Tehran's decision to resume conversion at this time has reinforced European and U.S. suspicions that Iran is ending the suspension to pursue fissile material production. Iran, which currently lacks an industrial capability to enrich uranium, has no short-term need for uranium hexafluoride. Two Western diplomats told Arms Control Today that a desire to overcome the facility's technical limitations is likely one motivation for restarting the facility (see page 33).

Derailed Diplomacy?

Iran notified the IAEA Aug. 1 that it intended to restart its uranium-conversion facility. Iran began feeding uranium oxide into an unsealed portion of the facility on Aug. 8 even though the necessary IAEA surveillance equipment had not yet been fully tested. Two days later, Iran removed agency seals from the facility. The seals had been used to monitor the suspension.

Iranian ambassador Cyrus Nasseri told the IAEA board Aug. 9 that, although Iran will "absolutely not" give up its uranium-enrichment program, "for the present, [Tehran] will maintain suspension" at its centrifuge facilities.

Many observers feared that Iran would restart its uranium-conversion facility, especially after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in June. Ahmadinejad's administration is widely viewed as being less willing than its predecessor to compromise on the nuclear issue. But in Iran's political system, primary authority over such decisions rests with the country's supreme cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In October 2003, Iran first pledged to the Europeans that it would "suspend all uranium-enrichment and reprocessing activities as defined by the IAEA," but the scope of the agreement was contentious for some time, particularly with regard to Iran's uranium-conversion facility. Iran continued to conduct work on the facility and eventually produced a small quantity of uranium hexafluoride. Iran later began to convert a quantity of uranium oxide that could eventually produce enough weapons-grade uranium for several crude nuclear weapons. (See ACT, October 2004.)

The ensuing diplomatic crisis eventually resulted in Iran's November deal with the Europeans. …

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