What the August IAEA report means
With the nation focusing on the brewing crisis in Syria and the anniversary of the March on Washington, it may have been easy to miss a very important bit of news: the release of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) third quarter report. Though it garnered less immediate coverage, the implications of this report are significant, especially as talks are set to resume between Iran and the IAEA in September.
The report concludes that while the Iranian nuclear program continues to advance, Iran is actually still a long way from having a nuclear weapon. In several critical areas, the program slowed. Iran’s supply of 20% enriched uranium – which could, at some point, be used to form the core of a weapon – saw only a marginal increase, and the commissioning of the Arak heavy-water reactor – which could be used to produce plutonium – was slowed.
This report, which comes at the end of former President Ahmadinejad’s administration, serves as a final report card for the progress of Iran’s nuclear program over the past eight years. As such, the report does not reflect the shifts made by incoming President Hassan Rouhani. In the three weeks since his inauguration, Rouhani has completely transformed the leadership of the Iranian nuclear program, and has signaled his willingness to negotiate a resolution to the years-long crisis the program has triggered.
The Bad News
Iran’s current stockpile of enriched uranium increased to 185.8kg, up from 182kg in the previous report. This small increase can be attributed to Iran’s continued conversion of enriched uranium into fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor, used to produce medical isotopes. The August report concludes that Iran has steadily increased its capacity to enrich uranium. Iran has installed 1,008 new-generation uranium enrichment centrifuges, which have not yet been tested, nor have produced enriched uranium. Iran has also installed 1,861 IR-1 centrifuges at the same enrichment plant.
The Good News
While these small increases may appear concerning, it is important to note that the report also shows that Iran is still significantly short of the amount of 20% medium enriched uranium (MEU) necessary to convert for one nuclear weapon. In fact, there has only been a 2.1% growth in Iran’s holding of 20% MEU since the previous IAEA report in May 2013, making this the smallest increase in MEU in the past four reporting periods. As it stands, Iran’s level of MEU remains well below the 240 kg to 250kg needed to make a bomb. Another opportunity for cautious optimism comes with Iran’s decision to delay commissioning the Arak heavy-water reactor. This delay is promising as Arak, when commissioned, will be capable of producing plutonium that could be used to build a nuclear weapon.
The material in this report indicates that the U.S. still has time to reach a diplomatic solution. Iran has not yet reached “critical capability” – having enough enriched uranium to produce one bomb. Kelsey Davenport and Daryl Kimball, of the Arms Control Association, note it is exceptionally unlikely that Iran could achieve this capability without being detected by the international community. If Iran made the decision to build a weapon, they explain, “it would need to expel IAEA inspectors, use existing facilities and stockpiles to produce weapons grade uranium, and probably test a nuclear device, all of which would raise the alarm to the international community.”
According to the best U.S. intelligence, Iran has not yet decided to build a nuclear weapon. In fact, under the new leadership of Rouhani, Iran has quickly made movements toward diplomacy. Though the IAEA report notes Iran’s continued advancements in its nuclear program, the report is largely reflective of Iran’s nuclear program under former President Ahmadinejad, who left office in early August 2013. Since his inauguration, Rouhani has replaced senior officials from the former regime, including several key leaders relevant to the nuclear program. New Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was once exiled for working “too closely” with the West (NYT), and since his confirmation has already met with a former senior U.S. diplomat. In conjunction, Rouhani replaced Ali Asqar Soltaniyeh, decade-long IAEA Envoy, with former disarmament expert, Reza Najafi. These appointments signal Rouhani’s determination to change the long-entrenched direction of Iran’s foreign policy and nuclear program, demonstrating his penchant for moderation.
Even with new potential partners for diplomacy, the opportunities before us today have a short shelf life. Ambassadors Thomas Pickering and William Luers, and Jim Walsh, advocate that “innovative and assertive diplomacy…can, in our view, still help change the direction of U.S.-Iran relations, reach an interim nuclear agreement, and possibly open the door to discussion on other regional and bilateral issues.” The opportunity for a diplomatic solution is viable, and we must be certain not to miss it.