Iran’s decision to inform the International Atomic Energy Agency about a new pilot fuel enrichment plant it is building has been seized upon by the United States, and its allies as proof of the danger posed to the world by the Iranian nuclear programme.
Appearing before reporters an hour before the first plenary session of the G-20 group of leading world economies was set to begin here, U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister accused Tehran of defying the U.N. Security Council and directly challenging the international non-proliferation regime. They called upon Iran to provide the IAEA immediate access to the facility or face new international sanctions.
According to an IAEA spokesperson, Iran informed the agency about the facility on September 21.
Although U.S. officials say Iran had been forced to admit the existence of the new plant because it feared imminent exposure by Western intelligence agencies -- an unverifiable claim that has, nevertheless, been dutifully echoed by the American media – Tehran’s safeguards agreement with the IAEA only obliges it to provide design information not later than 180 days before the introduction of nuclear material into a new facility. Indeed, the Iranian government insists it informed the IAEA about the plant in line with its declared intention of being more transparent with the Agency.
The facility is said to be in the preliminary stage of development, with the introduction of uranium still several months away. Any international inspection of the facility could only come after that point, not before. That is why the IAEA never considered the Natanz facility whose existence was only revealed in 2002 a violation of Iran’s safeguards agreement.
In 2003, Iran agreed to a modified subsidiary arrangement requiring it to inform the IAEA as soon as a decision to construct a new facility was taken. But Tehran withdrew its adherence to the arrangement four years later, in retaliation against UN sanctions.
In March 2009, the IAEA’s Legal Adviser was asked by some member governments to qualify in legal terms Iran’s non-implementation of the new disclosure rules. His reply made it clear that there was considerable ambiguity and the matter was not as clear-cut as the U.S. and its allies claimed it to be. While Iran could not unilaterally withdraw its adherence to the new arrangement, the Legal Adviser said its actions should be seen in proper context. Elaborating, he said that since the old rules had been considered consistent with a country’s safeguards obligations for 22 years, it is difficult to conclude that providing information in accordance with the earlier formulation in itself constitutes non-compliance with, or breach of, the Safeguards Agreement as such.
Though Iran may be on reasonably firm legal ground, the politics of its latest disclosure could swing either ways. Tehran will begin formal talks with the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany on October 1. It is possible that it may use the new facility as a bargaining chip to resist the demand for an end to its enrichment programme. On the other hand, the new facility clearly gives the U.S. an excuse to harden its own stance in the run up to those talks.