Easy to Explain PMD Issue on the Table in IAEA Talks with Iran

The following is a quick explanation by Dr. Yousaf Butt of some important developments this weekend in negotiations between the IAEA and Iran. I really appreciate our good friend Yousaf using his considerable technical expertise to explain things like this to us simple country lawyers.

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Easy to Explain PMD Issue on the Table in IAEA Talks with Iran

By Dr. Yousaf Butt

The IAEA and Iran just released a joint statement on the talks that took place this weekend.

The agreement is a welcome development. The agreed measures are:

1. Providing mutually agreed relevant information and managed access to the Saghand mine in Yazd;

2. Providing mutually agreed relevant information and managed access to the Ardakan concentration plant;

3. Submission of an updated Design Information Questionnaire (DIQ) for the IR-40 Reactor;

4. Taking steps to agree with the Agency on the conclusion of a Safeguards Approach for the IR-40 Reactor;

5. Providing mutually agreed relevant information and arranging for a technical visit to Lashkar Ab’ad Laser Centre;

6. Providing information on source material, which has not reached the composition and purity suitable for fuel fabrication or for being isotopically enriched, including imports of such material and on Iran’s extraction of uranium from phosphates; and

7. Providing information and explanations for the Agency to assess Iran’s stated need or application for the development of Exploding Bridge Wire detonators.

This last element is part of the “Possible Military Dimensions” file that has hung up Iran’s case at the UN Security Council.

It is refreshing to see that this issue (7) will finally gain a likely resolution.

Frankly, it is surprising that it has taken this long for the Agency to get to the point of resolving the still-outstanding issue of the use of “Exploding Bridge Wire” (EBW) detonators. The Agency felt that these EBWs were for nuclear weapons (per the November 2011 IAEA report).

But there are many non-nuclear weapons uses for EBWs, especially for an oil-rich nation like Iran. One manufacturer of EBWs explains that these have “…applications in explosive welding of piping and tubing, seismic studies, oil well perforating & hard rock mining”

The manufacturer is explicit that EBWs “…have found a wide range of applications within the mining, explosive metal welding and energy exploration field. Many of these uses could not be accomplished using conventional blasting equipment without a compromise of safety.”

Furthermore, Iran was not secretive about its work on EBWs. As the November 2011 IAEA report states: Iran “provided the Agency with a copy of a paper relating to EBW development work presented by two Iranian researchers at a conference held in Iran in 2005. A similar paper was published by the two researchers at an international conference later in 2005.”

Would Iran be so open in pursuing a secretive nuclear weapon technology?

The Agency, however, noted, “Iran’s development of such detonators and equipment is a matter of concern…” It really is not given its other civilian (and conventional military) uses, and Iran’s relative openness in pursuing the technology.

As long ago as 2011 Robert Kelley, a former IAEA inspector, stated: “The Agency is wrong. There are lots of applications for EBWs….To be wrong on this point, and then to try to misdirect opinion shows a bias towards their desired outcome…. That is unprofessional.”

News reports have cast the agreement today as Iran finally providing openness on the issue — but Iran has told the IAEA before that the EBWs were for non-nuclear weapons uses.

Clearly, this issue could have been resolved long ago. But it is a positive development that the IAEA seems willing now to listen to reasonable explanations and hopefully the issue will likely – finally – soon be off the table.

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13 Comments on “Easy to Explain PMD Issue on the Table in IAEA Talks with Iran”

  1. As I explained in my analysis of the IAEA’s November 2011 report, if Iran were to use EBWs, it would not have presented the results of its research in a conference. I gave the link to the abstract of that paper explaining the research:

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2011/11/opinion-the-iaea-report-on-irans-nuclear-program-alarming-or-hyped.html

    • yousaf says:

      Thank you Muhammad — I had not seen that or would have cited it above. I think it is a critical point, and the IAEA itself makes it in the Nov 2011 report: Iranian scientists wrote and published a paper at an international conf! Why would they do if this was a super secret project?

  2. yousaf says:

    Thank you to Muhammad for pointing out that the paper on the EBW-relevant paper is publicly available —

    http://www.civilica.com/Paper-ICEE14-ICEE14_326.html

    [Dan, I'd be happy of you can insert a hot-link to Muhammad's PBS piece in the relevant part of the post.]

  3. yousaf says:

    Again, what this underscores is that the IAEA should stick to its real role as nuclear INSPECTOR and not try to become a nuclear weapons __investigator__, as it does not have the necessary technical skills to do so in-house.

    The IAEA only has 2 people with nuclear weapons background, and it is not clear that they are on the Iran beat:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/28_05_13_fo4_iran'snuclearstandoff.pdf

    The IAEA is not a nuclear weapons watchdog since it does not possess the needed technical skills. Furthermore there are indications that it is politically biased.

    Technical incompetence (as weapons investigator) and political bias are not a great combo for the Agency.

  4. yousaf says:

    Let me offer some thoughts on why this EBW stuff came up now — I think it is seen as an easy thing to resolve. So IAEA can say “We challenged them sneaky I-ranians with that EBW stuff they was doing, and the Iranians can say ‘and this is the explanation (like we have been telling you for 2 years)”…and everyone can be happy and close this issue.

    • Dan Joyner says:

      Yes, I agree with the idea that this was low hanging fruit to ease into the PMD issue with. It will be interesting to see if the IAEA/P5+1 insist on eventually moving forward into the really sensitive PMD issues, or if they will do enough of these softball things to, as Yousaf says, at least put up a show of dealing with PMD, but not risk derailing the negotiations on the larger issues.

  5. yousaf says:

    Bloomberg is carrying a better story than REUTERS/AFP on this:

    “Unlike conventional blasting caps and resistorized detonators normally used in oilfield perforating operations, EBWs do not contain sensitive primary explosives,” Core Laboratories said in a September 2012 presentation. “The greatest advantage of EBW detonators for oilfield use is the fact that they are extremely insensitive to accidental initiation.”

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-02-10/un-says-iran-yielding-twice-shows-pragmatism-amid-world-mistrust.html

  6. Russ Wellen says:

    Thanks for explaining that, Yousaf. I excerpted the part about EBWs and left a comment to a post about it at ArmsControlNow, the ACA blog. They don’t seem to know anything about it.

  7. yousaf says:

    Atomic reporters on EBW dets:

    http://atomicreporters.com/2014/02/09/iran-new-developments-exploding-bridge-wire-ebw/

    Tariq Rauf, former Head, Verification and Security Policy Coordination, Office reporting to the IAEA Director General, 2002-2012, who worked on high priority safeguards issues including, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, South Korea, and Syria.

    “While the IAEA-Iran track on implementation of Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement is a separate one,”said Rauf, “now it is somewhat related to the EU3+3 and the Iran track.”

    “There needs to be better coordination between the EU3+3&Iran and the Agency. In its work, the IAEA’s normal practice is to go about its business in accordance with its confidentiality rules and requirements of safeguards and the Agency’s Statute and report developments to the Board of Governors”.

  8. Nick says:

    The toughest parts for future PMD discussions are:

    1) Parchin visit; which will jeopardize Iran’s non-nuclear military test facilities, completely outside of CSA.
    2) Interview of Iran’s scientists, in particular Fakharizadeh, the alleged head of that weapon’s program (Project/Dept 111?). He will be a sitting duck after such interview.


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