Centrifuge R&D seen as holdup in implementing Iran nuclear deal

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Differing interpretations over whether Iran can conduct research on more advanced centrifuges under a nuclear deal signed last month is among the key issues to be resolved for the agreement to enter into force, nonproliferation experts suggested Sunday.

Technical experts from Iran and six world powers are scheduled to resume talks on implementing the Joint Plan of Action in Geneva on Monday, December 30th.

“What may be happening here is that Iran has notified the P5+1 that it plans to install additional IR-2M centrifuges at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Facility at Natanz where it has historically conducted centrifuge research and development,” Jofi Joseph, a former US official who worked on Iran nuclear issues, told Al-Monitor.

“Throughout the diplomatic talks that culminated in the Geneva agreement, Iran has insisted upon the right to continue unfettered research and development for its centrifuge program that should fall outside any limits on its centrifuges producing enriched uranium,” said Joseph, who recently wrote about potential pitfalls to the Nov. 24 interim Iran nuclear deal at the Atlantic Council website. “The P5+1 always pushed back, seeking to protect against a scenario where Iran could use this R&D loophole as a back door to expand its centrifuge capacity even as a [confidence building measure] CBM agreement took effect.”

The Joint Plan of Action, signed by Iran and the P5+1 November 24th, states that: “Iran will continue its safeguarded R&D practices, including its current enrichment R&D practices, which are not designed for accumulation of the enriched uranium.”

“The P5+1 likely interprets this language to mean that Iran will not expand the level, scope,or sophistication of its centrifuge R&D beyond existing practice,” Joseph suggested. “While Iran probably takes a more expansive view, arguing instead that, so long as it not expanding the numbers or types of centrifuges in the production-related areas of Natanz or Fordow, it remains in compliance with the Geneva agreement.”

Iranian negotiators did not respond to a query from Al-Monitor Saturday if that was the main issue holding up the JPA entering into force. But Iranian officials seemed to allude to the matter in comments to Iranian news media this week. “A new generation of centrifuges is being built, but they should undergo all tests before mass production,” Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) and MIT-educated former Iranian foreign minister, was cited by Iranian news media as saying Sunday.

“The negotiations are proceeding slowly as there are misunderstandings over interpretation of some elements of the accord,” Iran’s deputy foreign minister and deputy nuclear negotiator Abbas Araghchi told Mehr News Agency, the AFP reported Sunday, adding that “ff expert-level talks are fruitful, a date [for implementing the deal] will be decided, which I guess will be at the end of January.”

The parties should be able to resolve such ambiguities and differences to make way for the JPA entering into force, nonproliferation expert Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Al-Monitor in an interview Sunday.  “This is not a technical problem,” Hibbs said. “There’s a huge amount of documentation – reams and reams and reams of technical discussion between Iran and the US, [on] how to do this….[there are] lots of ways of skinning the cat.”

Negotiators in Geneva last fall, led by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, made the deal in a hurry. “Now what they need to do is nail down all the technical details,” Hibbs said. “What needs to happen [to] close on some of this stuff is just very complicated…for example, verification procedures…questions about what specific piping they have to inspect, who gets access, all these things.”

“The real problem is not that there cannot be a technical solution. Because there can,” Hibbs said. “The real problem is [that] the absence of closure on technical details [could] reignite all of the latent lack of trust.”

But he did not think the parties would let the agreement break down. The Obama administration sees the agreement as “confidence-building; there’s a premium on deal-making,” Hiibbs said. “And the Iranians, like anyone else, want to get the best deal they can.”

(Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the United Nations Palais in Geneva November 24, 2013. Credit: REUTERS/Carolyn Kaster/Pool.)

Kerry urges Iran to let diplomacy succeed

New U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a heartfelt plea on Friday for Iran to take up the offer for serious negotiations, in order to peacefully resolve international concerns over its nuclear program..

“The international community is ready to respond if Iran comes prepared to talk real substance and to address the concerns, which could not be more clear, about their nuclear program,” Kerry said at a press conference with Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird Friday, Reuters reported.

“And so my plea to the Iranians…is a clear statement,” Kerry said. “We are prepared to let diplomacy be the victor in this confrontation over their nuclear program.”

His remarks come as diplomats from the United States and five world powers are preparing to resume nuclear talks with Iran in Kazakhstan at the end of the month, after an eight-month break. Earlier this month, Iran notified the International Atomic Energy Agency that it plans to install 3,000 advanced IR-2M centrifuges at its Natanz enrichment facility, a development Kerry called “disturbing.” President Obama is also expected to be focused on Iran when he meets with Israeli leaders next month.

“The president has made it clear that his preference is to have a diplomatic solution, but if he cannot get there, he is prepared to do whatever is necessary to make certain that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon,” Kerry said.

(Photo: Jason Reed, Reuters.)

ISIS: Iran breakout times shortening, but ‘dash’ unlikely next year

Iran would be unlikely to “breakout” and dash to manufacture weapons grade uranium for a nuclear bomb over the next year, because it would be detected well in time and face war, according to a new report (.pdf) by the Institute for Science and International Studies (ISIS). However, without a confidence building measure that could reduce anxieties over Iran’s 20% enrichment activities and put time on the clock for nuclear negotiations, Iran’s trajectory could put it on a path that makes military confrontation more likely, the group warns.

It would currently take Iran at least 21 months to produce enough weapons grade uranium (WGU) for one nuclear bomb at its fortified Fordow enrichment facility, and two to four months at its above ground Natanz enrichment site.

Those timelines, plus the fact that it would be detected, would make “an Iranian decision to break out risky,” the ISIS report assesses.

However, “Iran’s current trajectory at Fordow is increasing the chance of a military confrontation,” the report warns. Continue reading

IAEA on Iran: 1000 more centrifuges installed at Fordo, but no net gain in 20% stockpile


While Iran has produced about 43 KG of 20% higher enriched uranium since May, its available “stockpile” of 20% remains almost unchanged in that time, a new UN atomic energy agency report finds. That’s because Iran has converted over half of its 20% stockpile for use in a medical reactor.

Those are among the mix of puzzling and concerning facts in the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran which show growing IAEA exasperation with Iranian stonewalling on granting inspectors access to a site where suspected military research occurred.

Iran has installed over a 1,000 more centrifuges in the fortified, underground Fordow enrichment facility near Qom–a doubling since May, the new IAEA report, released Thursday, found. But it does not appear that most of those centrifuges are yet operating. All the newly installed centrifuges are also of Iran’s first-generation, IR-1 model, less powerful than newer designs.

“Iran has not increased the number of centrifuge cascades producing 20 percent LEU at either” of its two enrichment sites, Fordow or Natanz, the Institute for Science and International Studies (ISIS) noted in an analysis of the new report..

As of August 2012, Iran has produced almost 190 KG of 20% enriched uranium since it began the higher level enrichment work in early 2011, the report says. However, Iran has converted over half of that total amount — about 98 KG — for use in fuel plates for a medical reactor, thus leaving only about 91 KG available that could be higher enriched to weapons grade. That represents almost no net gain in its 20% stockpile since May, arms control analysts noted.

“Although Iran has enriched additional uranium to almost 20%–a level that could be more quickly turned into weapons material–Tehran has converted much of this material to reactor fuel,” the Arms Control Association wrote in an analysis of the new IAEA report Thursday. “Thus Iran’s available stockpile of 20% enriched uranium (91 kg) is essentially unchanged from May.”

It would take about 200 KG of 20% enriched uranium to be higher enriched to “weapons grade’–90%  purity —to make enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb. However, Iran is unlikely to “break out” without enough fissile material to make two or more bombs, many  arms control experts believe.

Even if Iran may accumulate 200 KG of 20% enriched uranium, “this is only the first step to a nuclear weapon capability,” the Arms Control Association analysis continues. In addition, Iran would still need “time to produce the nuclear device itself (likely several months), which it has never done before, and then develop and probably explosively test a warhead that could fit on a ballistic missile, which would take still more time.”

What to make of the fact that there has been no net growth in Iran’s 20% stockpile since May? Is Iran demonstrating tacit restraint on the sensitive 20% front even while doubling the number of centrifuges installed, if not operating, at Fordo, to signal potential for further expanding enrichment? Is it some sort of signal from Iran towards potential flexibility on the 20% front?  (Former Iran nuclear negotiators Syed Hossein Mousavian has, for instance, proposed a “zero 20% stockpile” idea, under which there could be international supervision that Iran would produce only the amount of 20% it needs for medical purposes.)

“It is a plausible interpretation that there is a signal here,” George Perkovich, director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Al Monitor by email. “Nothing would be lost in seeking to explore it with the Iranians.  We needn’t guess: the involved states should try to find out.”

Other elements of the report document growing IAEA exasperation with Iranian run around and open defiance on one front. Continue reading

Cyber expert: Iran scientist reports new malware attack

IAEA, meet AC/DC?

On Sunday, Finnish cyber security expert Mikko Hypponen received a series of emails from someone purporting to be a scientist at Iran’s atomic energy organization.

“The scientist reached out to publish information about Iranian nuclear systems getting struck by yet another cyber attack,” Hypponen, wrote on his blog., citing from the scientist’s emails:

I am writing you to inform you that our nuclear program has once again been compromised and attacked by a new worm with exploits which have shut down our automation network at Natanz and another facility Fordo near Qom.

According to the email our cyber experts sent to our teams, they believe a hacker tool Metasploit was used. The hackers had access to our VPN. The automation network and Siemens hardware were attacked and shut down. I only know very little about these cyber issues as I am scientist not a computer expert.

There was also some music playing randomly on several of the workstations during the middle of the night with the volume maxed out. I believe it was playing ‘Thunderstruck’ by AC/DC.

Hypponen, reached by Al Monitor Tuesday, said he has confirmed the emails were coming from Iran’s atomic energy organization, but can’t vouch for the AC/DC breaking out on the work stations., or any of the other details his correspondent provided.

“I only know what the scientist from AEOI told me,” Hypponen told Al Monitor by email Tuesday. “I can’t confirm any of his sayings, but I can confirm the emails were coming from AEOI.”

“He emailed me three times on Sunday,” Hypponen continued, adding that he published the message with his correspondent’s permission. “Since then he hasn’t responded to my emails. He was sending and receiving email at an official aeoi.org.ir address.”

So is the correspondent really who he says? It’s interesting to note that he gave permission for his email to be published. Was he looking for help in halting the alleged malware attack–or publicity? Perhaps a clever information operation meant to stoke more paranoia in the ranks of Iran’s nuclear program.

(Photo: AC/DC lead guitarist Angus Young performs at the O2 Millenium Dome stadium in LondonApril 14, 2009.   REUTERS/Luke MacGrego.)

Operation “Olympic Games”: Report details US role in cyber-weapon targeting Iran centrifuges

The Obama administration pursued a Bush-era US-Israeli cyber-offensive aimed at setting back Iran’s nuclear program, David Sanger reports in the New York Times Friday.

Code-named “Olympic Games,” and initiated in 2006, the cyber-operation targeted the computer systems that run the centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility.

But the operation, undertaken by the U.S. National Security Agency and its Israeli counterpart, went through various phases and updates, and in 2010, there was a big glitch: the Stuxnet worm spread beyond its intended target of Natanz to other facilities, and soon caught the attention of computer security experts around the world. And as Sanger reports, when US intelligence officials had to brief Obama about the alarming development, naturally, they initially blamed their Israeli partners for modifying the program without telling them:

At a tense meeting in the White House Situation Room within days of the worm’s “escape,” Mr. Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency at the time, Leon E. Panetta, considered whether America’s most ambitious attempt to slow the progress of Iran’s nuclear efforts had been fatally compromised.

“Should we shut this thing down?” Mr. Obama asked […] Continue reading