IAEA: Iran slows nuclear expansion

Iran’s nuclear slowdown may be intended to back up President Rouhani’s warmer tone toward West

The quarterly IAEA document was the first to focus on developments since Hassan Rouhani took office on Aug. 3.
Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Iran has stopped expanding its uranium enrichment capacity since Hassan Rouhani became president, a U.N. inspection report showed Thursday, in a potential boost for diplomacy to end Tehran's nuclear dispute with the West.

Iran halted a previously rapid increase in its capacity to refine uranium, which can fuel nuclear power plants but also bombs if processed more, "when their team changed" in August, a senior diplomat familiar with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report told Reuters, referring to Rouhani and his administration.

The marked slowdown may be intended to back up Rouhani's warmer tone toward the West after years of confrontation and to strengthen Tehran's hand in talks with world powers due to resume on Nov. 20.

But Iran is still pressing ahead with its most sensitive nuclear activity, the enrichment of uranium to a fissile concentration of 20 percent, a relatively short technical step from weapons-grade material, the report showed. 

Iran, however, insists its nuclear program is peaceful, saying it is enriching uranium only to create reactor fuel and that the reactor will be used strictly for medical and research projects.

Arak reactor

The quarterly report by the IAEA also said that since August "no additional major components" had been added to a reactor at Arak, which is located 180 miles southwest Tehran.

The so-called IR-40 reactor at Arak, which Iran previously said it would start up in the first quarter of 2014 but later postponed, worries the U.S. and its allies because it could provide Iran with plutonium, an alternative to uranium for a nuclear weapon.

France said during talks between Iran and world powers in Geneva last week that Tehran must suspend building Arak. 

However, the IAEA report showed that Iran has "more or less frozen" construction of the heavy water reactor, the diplomat told Reuters, making clear he did not believe it would be up and running any time soon: "Major components are missing from the plant."

The IAEA report did not link the nuclear slowdown to Iran's recent talks with the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, but the time frame covered by the report is significant.

It encompasses the roughly 2 1/2 months since the end of August. Rouhani took office a few weeks after that with pledges of concessions on his country's nuclear programs in return for relief from the international sanctions hurting Iran's economy.

Both sides have since spoken of noteworthy progress in nuclear talks after years of deadlock and say a first-step deal may be possible at the next round in Geneva next week.

Netanyahu 'not impressed'

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who strongly opposes any deal with Iran that does not dismantle its entire enrichment program, said he was "not impressed" with the report as Iran did not need to expand its program. 

"They've got enough facilities, enough centrifuges to develop and to complete the fissile material which is at the core of an atomic bomb," Netanyahu said. 

Israel, believed to be the Middle East's sole nuclear-armed power, has long warned it could use force to prevent Iran from gaining such weapons. 

The IAEA document was the first that included developments only since Rouhani took office on Aug. 3, prompting a diplomatic opening during which Iran and the world powers have made progress towards a possible nuclear accord. 

It was issued the same week as Iran agreed to grant IAEA inspectors access to two nuclear-related facilities as part of a cooperation pact to resolve outstanding issues between the two, including suspicions of nuclear bomb research by Tehran. 

"Iran has now taken two unilateral steps to show it wants a deal — it has stopped expanding its nuclear program and begun to provide more transparency," Cliff Kupchan, an Iran expert with the risk consultancy firm Eurasia Group told Reuters. This was "clever diplomacy — it puts the onus on the West to respond." 

Wire services 

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