There is a particularly interesting aspect to the video that has recently surfaced, in which Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, gloats over Iran’s success in coopting European negotiators to keep the Iranian nuclear program on track in the mid-2000s, in spite of pressure from the United States.
The video clip, from an Iranian news-program interview of Rouhani in Farsi, was published by Reza Khalili. Ryan Mauro highlights it at the Clarion Project, tying it to a report from 31 July in which Mauro outlined Rouhani’s extensive history of using deception about the Iranian nuclear program back when he was the chief nuclear negotiator for Tehran.
The deception and Rouhani’s gloating are important (see especially his characterization of the top-cover he received from European negotiators); I will let readers visit the reports and soak in the information at your leisure. What I want to focus on here is the timeline Rouhani refers to in the video. If he is telling the truth – and there is no obvious reason why he would lie about the timing he refers to – the timeline he outlines for bringing Iranian centrifuge cascades online in substantial numbers makes a poignant contrast with the reporting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at the time.
The contrast highlights just how in the dark IAEA was during this period, at least about the centrifuges. (It’s also worth highlighting, in general, the timeline of what was going on during the EU-brokered negotiations Rouhani refers to in the video.) Certainly, many in the West had an uneasy suspicion that, by the end of 2005, Iran may have accomplished more than IAEA was officially aware of. But, as late as February 2006, IAEA acknowledged the following decisive condition:
Due to the fact that no centrifuge related raw materials and components are under Agency seal, the Agency is unable effectively to monitor the R&D activities being carried out by Iran except at the [Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant],* where containment and surveillance measures are being applied to the enrichment process.
The full timeline from the video develops as follows. Rouhani summarizes it between the time hacks of 3:45 and 4:30. His overall allusion is to the period from October 2003 to August 2005, when he was the chief negotiator for the Iranian nuclear program.
His initial discussion of the nuclear power plant at Bushehr contains no surprises; it is couched in the following terms:
- First phase of Bushehr project completed – Beginning of 2004
- Next phase completed – Fall of 2004
These references are presumably to Russia’s completion of facility construction, which was noted at the time in Western reporting.
- Project completed – March 2005
This is probably a reference to an agreement between Russia and Iran, concluded in February 2005, under which Moscow would supply the enriched-uranium fuel for the light-water reactor at Bushehr. (See here as well for a summary from 2006 alluding to the 2005 agreement.)
So far, so good. Next, Rouhani speaks of the heavy-water reactor, or the plutonium reactor at Arak.
- “Production” started at the heavy-water plant – Summer of 2004
Construction of the reactor was begun in June of 2004, but Rouhani here appears to be referring to the heavy-water production plant (HWPP), a particular component of the Arak reactor system, which reportedly began operation (i.e., the production of heavy water) in November 2004.
In this walk back through the Iranian nuclear program, it is worth recalling what the official line was about Arak at the time, in the big middle of the EU-3 talks with Iran:
Iran has started building a research reactor that could eventually produce enough plutonium for one bomb per year, ignoring calls to scrap the project, diplomats close to the United Nations said on Thursday. …
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said Iran had created a “confidence deficit” by concealing parts of its atomic program for nearly two decades and urged Tehran to improve its transparency and cooperation with U.N. inspectors. A concluding statement from this week’s IAEA governing board meeting said the 35 members unanimously said it was “essential that Iran provide full transparency and extend proactive cooperation to the agency.” …
The EU’s “big three” states have offered Iran a package of economic and political incentives if it abandons its uranium enrichment program, which could produce fuel for nuclear power plants or atomic weapons. Tehran has temporarily frozen most of the program but has refused to abandon it.
Iran has, of course, continued the heavy-water reactor program at Arak in the ensuing years, with the HWPP continuing to produce heavy water. The reactor is to be brought online in 2014, according to Iran’s projection; a circumstance the U.S. officially finds “deeply troubling.”
(Also worth noting about Arak is that, like many of the components of Iran’s nuclear program, it was brought to public attention by an Iranian opposition group; in this case, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which published its information about the site in 2002. NCRI provided extensive detail on activities at the site in 2002; Iran, following the usual pattern, later notified IAEA of her intention to construct the reactor there, in May 2003.)
The yellowcake break
Rouhani alludes next to the production of yellowcake:
- First yellowcake produced – Winter of 2004
Although there have been multiple announcements of Iran’s first production of yellowcake, Rouhani is probably talking here about an initial quantity of 40-50 kilograms of it, produced in conjunction with inauguration of the Gchine uranium mine in July 2004. IAEA recorded this information in its Safeguards report of 15 November 2004. (See here and here for later reports of Iran’s first yellowcake production.)
As a reminder: when Iran became able to routinely produce her own yellowcake – which I assess to have occurred in the late-2008 to early-2009 timeframe – it became impossible for IAEA to track how much of a uranium stock Iran has. In the early 2000s, estimates could be bounded by the size of Iran’s original stock of yellowcake, which had been obtained from South Africa in the 1970s. Once a supply of indigenously produced yellowcake came on the scene, it was impossible to account for everything Iran might have: where all the new yellowcake was going (e.g., all of it to the official, acknowledged facility at Esfahan for conversion; all of that to Natanz for enrichment?), and how much enriched uranium hexafluoride (UF6) was coming out the other end.
Under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran doesn’t owe IAEA an accounting for her raw uranium or yellowcake output. An instrument called the Additional Protocol to the NPT provides for member states to render such an accounting, but under the radical mullahs’ regime, Iran has never agreed to abide by the Additional Protocol. So she does not give IAEA this accounting, or allow IAEA controls to be exerted over her mining and milling activities.
When were the centrifuges in play?
It is with this in mind that we should approach the final piece of Rouhani’s timeline, concerning centrifuge cascades for uranium enrichment:
- “Centrifuges reached 3,000” – In 2005
- 1,700 centrifuges when Rouhani left the project – that is, in August 2005, when he stepped down as the chief negotiator for the nuclear program
Compare those numbers and dates with the understanding of IAEA during that period that Iran had suspended uranium enrichment. Here is what IAEA said about Iran’s centrifuge operations and enrichment activities in August 2005 (in the Safeguards report dated 2 September 2005):
53. Pursuant to the Board’s resolution on 29 November 2004 (GOV/2004/90), and previous resolutions, the Agency has continued its activities to verify and monitor all elements of Iran’s voluntary suspension of all enrichment related and reprocessing activities.
54. Prior to 22 November 2004, the Agency had already established a baseline inventory of all UF6, essential centrifuge components, key raw materials and equipment, and the assembled centrifuge rotors at declared workshops said by Iran to have been involved in the manufacturing of centrifuge components, and had applied containment and surveillance measures to these items.
55. The Agency has continued its monthly monitoring activities at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) at Natanz, most recently from 30 to 31 August 2005, to ensure that the suspension of enrichment activities at PFEP is fully implemented. The surveillance records from the cascade hall have been reviewed to ensure that no additional centrifuge machines were installed. The seals on the equipment and nuclear material have been replaced and verified. The inventory of centrifuge components has been verified periodically, and the seals on the essential components replaced and verified. The cascade hall, and the 20 sets of centrifuge components stored at the feed and withdrawal station, continue to be under Agency surveillance, and all the previously declared UF6 feed material at PFEP, as well as product and tails, remain under Agency containment and surveillance.
At the same time, Alireza Jafarzadeh of NCRI had announced, in separate events on 9 and 18 August 2005, that Iran had produced 4,000 centrifuges which had not been declared to IAEA, and which were ready to be installed for operation. IAEA never did anything with this report.
How many centrifuges did IAEA think were installed and/or in operation? Good question. In October 2003, Iran finalized the installation of the first 164-centrifuge cascade at the PFEP – presumably what Rouhani refers to as Iran having “150 centrifuges” when he took over the nuclear-negotiating job.
IAEA was able to verify the installation of a second 164-centrifuge cascade at the PFEP by October 2006 – an event indicating a much, much lower centrifuge total than 1,700 or 3,000.
In its February 2006 report, linked above, IAEA regretted the lack of transparency in the Iranian nuclear program, which made it difficult to resolve questions about its nature (emphasis added):
Without full transparency that extends beyond the formal legal requirements of the Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol — transparency that could only be achieved through Iran’s active cooperation — the Agency’s ability to reconstruct the history of Iran’s past programme and to verify the correctness and completeness of the statements made by Iran, particularly with regard to its centrifuge enrichment programme, will be limited, and questions about the past and current direction of Iran’s nuclear programme will continue to be raised.
IAEA basically had its November 2004 baseline for centrifuges at the PFEP to work with during this period. It did not have a good handle on what was going on in the larger FEP, nor did it have the slightest idea what was going on in the underground facilities at Esfahan, where extensive tunneling activities were revealed in late 2004. IAEA visited an underground chamber at Esfahan in November 2004, but it was empty at the time. IAEA has not visited Esfahan’s underground complex since, nor has it ever been allowed to visit the vast underground network identified at Natanz by 2007.
Tunnels at Esfahan, Feb 2005 (Annotations: Institute for Science and International Security/ISIS)
IAEA’s lack of information continued throughout 2006. Another Safeguards report refers to centrifuge operations on 23 May 2007, 21 months after August 2005. In May 2007, IAEA registered this lament (emphasis added):
Since early 2006, the Agency has not received the type of information that Iran had previously been providing, including pursuant to the Additional Protocol, for example information relevant to the assembly of centrifuges, the manufacture of centrifuge components or associated equipment and research and development of centrifuges or enrichment techniques.
But in this report, at least, IAEA was finally able to give some numbers on the centrifuge cascades in the FEP at Natanz:
On 13 May 2007, eight 164-machine cascades were operating simultaneously and were being fed with UF6; two other similar cascades had been vacuum tested and three more were under construction.
The centrifuge total from this layout would come to 1,312, operational and being fed with UF6. That’s below the total Rouhani cites for a timeframe of 21 months earlier, although it is not fully clear from the translation what status Rouhani assigns to the centrifuges he talks about. Does he mean the 1,700 were installed and operational by August 2005, when he departed his nuclear-negotiating job? Or does he mean their manufacture and delivery were completed? What about the 3,000 by the end of 2005? If his starting number – 150 – means the same thing as his ending numbers, then he is, in fact, referring to operational centrifuges, and not just the number of finished machines on-hand. But we can’t conclude that as an indisputable interpretation.
The long march of gaps in knowledge
In any case, IAEA can’t help us with this question, because it just didn’t know. The May 2007 observation concludes a period in which the comprehensive timeline looks like this:
Oct 2003 – 164 centrifuges begin operating at the PFEP
Oct 2004 – Suspicious tunneling begins at Esfahan
Nov 2004 – IAEA’s last baseline inventory of Iranian UF6 and centrifuges/parts
Nov 2004 – Last/only IAEA visit to underground chamber at Esfahan
Aug 2005 – NCRI announces Iran has produced approximately 4,000 centrifuges and plans to install them in secret
Aug 2005 – According to Rouhani, the nuclear program had 1,700 centrifuges
Dec 2005 – According to Rouhani, the nuclear program had 3,000 centrifuges
Oct 2006 – IAEA can account for 328 centrifuges operating at the PFEP
May 2007 – IAEA can account for 1,312 centrifuges operating at the FEP, in addition to the 328 at the PFEP (making a total of 1,650)
There is a big blank space in IAEA accountability events between November 2004 and May 2007. At no time during this period, from when the tunneling started at Esfahan to when IAEA could finally report a number on centrifuges operating at the FEP – i.e., the Iranians let a team in to have a look – was IAEA able to confirm what was going on in the FEP or in the underground chambers of the tunnel complex.
Indeed, nothing can be confirmed, on any date since that time, about what’s going on in the tunnel complexes, either at Esfahan or Natanz.
Certainly, if Rouhani referred in the video to operational centrifuges in 2005, his totals are between 1,536 and 2,836 more than the baseline of operational centrifuges known to IAEA in 2005. We may never know for sure how many there were operational then. Among other things, that means we may well not know how many there are operational today. (We have other reasons for not being certain about that, of course.)
One thing we do know, however, in our little universe of known knowns about the Iranian nuclear problem, is that the uranium enrichment curve has continued to accelerate. It may have accelerated more than we know, but it has accelerated at least as much as we know.
* The Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant, or PFEP, is a facility located at Natanz where Iran initiates new enrichment processes on a small scale. The co-located main Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) houses the industrial-scale enrichment cascades, where Western analysts have assessed the bulk of the uranium enrichment to be done.
About the Author: J.E. Dyer is a retired US Naval intelligence officer who served around the world, afloat and ashore, from 1983 to 2004.
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