Iran's nuclear deception
NOW COMES the International Atomic Energy Agency to tell us that Iran has produced more low-enriched uranium than had previously been reported. The discovery of an additional 209 kilograms (460 pounds) of material was noted after a physical verification of Iran's inventory last November. Previous reports relied upon Iranian operating records.
This might be a matter of little concern. The latest IAEA report confidently states that the new, higher number in "the physical inventory as declared by Iran was consistent with the results of the" verification steps, "within measurement uncertainties normally associated with enrichment plants of a similar throughput." Some specialists say that mistakes in material accounting occur, and are not necessarily a sign of nefarious activity.
However, caution is due before deciding that this is a matter of little consequence. Using the IAEA's own figures and standards, the 209 kilograms of additional low-enriched uranium hexafluoride would be a small fraction of a weapon's worth of material, and it would need to be enriched further; yet, it would still pose a serious concern. Moreover, according to IAEA figures, the Iranian operating records had somehow undercounted total production by about a third - hardly a small error from the standpoint of operators who have spent millions on a facility so fraught with national pride that Iranian President Ahmadinejad toured the facility to great fanfare in April 2008.
Context is also important. Iran's track record with respect to full and accurate disclosure of its nuclear activities has been less than pristine. The Natanz facility was disclosed to the world not by a declaration to the IAEA, but by a militant group's press conference in August 2002 and subsequent analysis by others. IAEA inspectors then discovered that Iran had carried out undeclared nuclear activities for many years, leading eventually in 2005 to a finding by the IAEA's Board of Governors that "Iran's many failures and breaches of its obligations to comply with its NPT Safeguards Agreement . . . constitute non compliance . . ." The board also noted ". . .the history of concealment of Iran's nuclear activities . . ." The latest IAEA report laments ". . . the continued lack of cooperation by Iran. . ."
On the other hand, Iran has, if anything, seemed given to overstating its uranium enrichment accomplishments once the Natanz facility became public. Tehran seemed intent on presenting the world with a nuclear fait accompli. Indeed, it boasted publicly of its scientific prowess; Ahmadinejad announced Iran's initial enrichment success saying, "I formally declare that Iran has joined the club of nuclear countries." Why under such circumstances would Iran understate its accomplishments?
One possibility is that Iran is testing the IAEA, seeking vulnerabilities in international inspectors' abilities to account for nuclear material. By probing IAEA capabilities to detect discrepancies in material balances - while using methods that can be explained as benign - Iran may be preparing for future noncompliance. In any event, Iran has learned from this case that it can mislead the IAEA about the amount of material it has produced for a matter of months, but not indefinitely. Such knowledge could be useful for a rapid breakout from Treaty obligations.
This leads to questions about IAEA procedures. An anonymous IAEA official was quoted saying that he had no concerns about diversion because everything remained under seal. He could have added that surveillance cameras (albeit without real-time feeds) remained in place. Nonetheless, the several-month gap in the IAEA's knowledge of how much enriched material Iran had produced is worrisome. The effects of that gap could be made far worse if Iran expands its production capacity from the current 5,000 centrifuges to its announced goal of 50,000 centrifuges. Concerns of this very nature led the Security Council to demand that Iran suspend uranium enrichment, and caused France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States to seek an end to Iran's enrichment program.
We probably will never know whether the case of the found enriched uranium was a mistake or a feint. That uncertainty, however, and the horrible consequences of a significant lapse in our ability to monitor Iran's nuclear program should lead the IAEA, the Obama administration, and our European negotiating partners to exercise great caution in considering proposals that would depend on intricate and foolproof verification schemes.
William H. Tobey is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He was until recently deputy administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration.