The Debate

Iran Surprises on Uranium

A new IAEA report says Iran has enriched uranium to a higher level than expected. Should the West worry?

Iran may have enriched uranium to higher level than expected, according to the latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which I received a copy of at the weekend.

Is this further sign that Iran isn’t negotiating in good faith? That remains to be see, and Iran for its part indicated to the IAEA that the production of such particles “above the target value” may “happen for technical reasons beyond the operator’s control.”

“The Agency is assessing Iran’s explanation and has requested further details,” the report says. “On 5 May 2012, the Agency took further environmental samples from the same location where the particles in question had been found. These samples are currently being analyzed.”

One of the most interesting sections in the IAEA’s previous report on the issue, which came in November, was that covering the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. It stated that it was unclear that modeling studies alleged to have been conducted in 2008 and 2009 involving spherical geometries, “consisting of components of the core of an HEU nuclear device subjected to shock compression, for their neutronic behavior at high density, and a determination of the subsequent nuclear explosive yield,” could be useful for “anything other than a nuclear explosive.”

The new report similarly has a section devoted to possible military dimensions, and again notes that the IAEA has identified a number of outstanding issues. In addition, the report says that the agency requested Tehran provide it with early access to a specified location within the Parchin site.

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“As previously reported,during the second round of talks in Tehran and in response to the agency’s request, Iran provided the agency with an initial declaration in connection with the issues identified in Section C of the Annex to the Director General’s November 2011 report,” it said. “Iran’s declaration dismissed the agency’s concerns in relation to the aforementioned issues, largely on the grounds that Iran considered them to be based on unfounded allegations.”

According to a U.S. analyst cited by Reuters, there isn’t anything inherently “nefarious” in the discovery of the uranium sample, and the U.S. has said the Iranian explanation could be accurate. But as the enhanced enrichment accomplishes “much of the technical leap” towards 90 percent (weapons-grade) uranium, Western concerns are understandable. Meanwhile, the head of Iran’s atomic energy agency reportedly said that he was unconvinced the IAEA needed to inspect Parchin.

At this stage in the game, the “of course that’s nonsense” response just doesn’t cut it.