Red Herring?

Yukiya Amano, the new Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has a different tone than his predecessor Mohamed ElBaradei when informing the IAEA Board of Governors about Iran’s nuclear activities. When again reprehending the country’s lack of cooperation and again mentioning long-known allegations in his recent report this should not be interpreted as talk about a smoking gun. Ambassador to the IAEA Ali Asgar Soltanieh’s nervous response to Amano’s sober report may even revive the already declared dead swap deal suggested by ElBaradei in October.

What is in a way disturbing is that the starting point of new movements in the dialogue with Iran, namely its request for buying uranium enriched to 19.75% for the sole purpose of fueling it into its research reactor in Tehran (TRR) for producing medical isotopes, has not been mentioned in Amano’s report. That Iran has started now to further enrich its 3.5%-enriched uranium may be quite comprehensible. Whether they are able to succeed, in particular whether they can manufacture fuel rods (only France and Argentina do it currently in sufficient numbers) is a different story.

That Iran’s ‘real’ motivation for further enrichment (which would in fact be  a significant step towards enriching uranium to weapon-grade uranium) is no longer considered in analyses by pundits. On the eve of expected new sanctions imposed on Iran David Albright and Christina Walrond of the Institute for Science and Scientific Information (ISIS) express once more their concerns which mingle, as usual, facts and fantasy in a pretty misleading way.

The report makes the point that Iran’s efforts in Natanz would never yield enough low-enriched uranium (LEU) as fuel for their nuclear plants but rather speculates that the country then must use it for nuclear weapons.

“The data in the latest IAEA safeguards report further support a central finding of the original ISIS report, namely that Iran is unlikely to deploy enough gas centrifuges to make enriched uranium for commercial nuclear power reactors for a long time, if ever.  As such, one of the most striking lessons from reviewing Iran’s accomplishments at Natanz is just how unachievable a commercial enrichment program remains, while at the same time, how comparatively little enrichment capability is required for a nuclear weapons capability. “

The report is once more very suggestive in depicting possible uses for LEU produced in Natanz.

“Iran is unlikely to face significant delays in making weapon-grade uranium at Natanz if it decides to build nuclear weapons.  Starting with natural uranium, Iran could produce enough weapon-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon in a year, although it may need more centrifuges to do so than predicted in earlier ISIS estimates. In a breakout scenario using low enriched uranium, Natanz could currently produce enough weapon-grade uranium for a weapon in six months or less.”

Whether it is actually helpful in the current diplomatic crisis, which is largely due to not very serious proposals of the West, has to be questioned. Does the IAEA have some experiences with scenarios which are described in Albright and Walrond’s report below?

“In this light, Iran’s recent decision to start producing 19.75 percent low enriched uranium (LEU) in the pilot plant from 3.5 percent LEU, ostensibly for civil purposes, is particularly troubling.  If Iran succeeds in producing a large stock of 19.75 percent LEU, in a worst-case scenario, the FEP is large enough to turn this LEU into sufficient weapon-grade uranium for a weapon within a month.  Its production could even occur between visits by IAEA inspectors, a time period that Iran could easily lengthen by positing some emergency or accident that requires a delay in permitting the inspectors inside the plant.  Although the IAEA would later discover what happened, Iran may have only marginally violated its IAEA safeguards commitments by producing this weapon-grade uranium (Iran’s production of weapon-grade uranium by itself is not a safeguards violation, although its continued enrichment already violates several UN Security Council resolutions).  Yet, it would have successfully used the FEP to secretly emerge with enough nuclear explosive material for a nuclear weapon.  This worst-case assessment depends on Iran accumulating sufficient 19.75 percent LEU, an achievement not likely in 2010 but increasing in likelihood in 2011 and 2012.  Although the most important goal is achieving a suspension of Iran’s gas centrifuge program as called for in multiple IAEA and U.N. Security Council resolutions, it is also vital to improve the safeguards at Natanz and drastically reduce Iran’s stocks of LEU.” (Emphasis added.)

Albright and Walrond also suggest further enrichment sites apart from Natanz and the ‘hole in the mountain’ in Fordow near Qom.

“A major unknown is how much dedicated enrichment capacity Iran has established in secret outside Natanz and Fordow.  Available, albeit limited, evidence about clandestine activities, the discovery of the incomplete Fordow site, and the struggles Iran is encountering with cascades at Natanz would suggest that Iran has not completed a centrifuge facility operating with a nuclear-weapons significant number of P1 centrifuges.  However, it may well be building one now.  Thus, in 2010 Iran may be limited in its ability to produce weapon-grade uranium outside of the Natanz site, either in a breakout mode using its existing stock of LEU or in a parallel effort starting with natural uranium.”

They conclude in their analysis:

“Iran’s goal of a large domestic enrichment capability is driven in part by a fear of foreign suppliers cutting off LEU fuel for its nuclear power reactors. However, these very sanctions, worsened by Iran’s lack of cooperation with the IAEA, are making it impossible for Iran to create that enrichment capability. While it struggles with its commercial goals, Iran is strengthening an enrichment capability able to produce weapon-grade uranium for nuclear weapons.  The number of ways it can do so is also increasing. If Iran develops a stock of 19.75 percent LEU, it could even use Natanz’s FEP to quickly produce weapon-grade uranium before the international community could respond.  Unless IAEA safeguards inspectors are stationed at the FEP far more frequently, the international community may not learn about the weapon-grade uranium production until it already had left the site.” (Emphasis added.)

In dealing with Iran one may be well-advised to accept first Iran’s domestic problems. That radioisotopes, which are being produced in the TRR, are running out later this year, is a simple fact. That Iran can demand, as a signee of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, and not least on humanitarian grounds, that it is provided with 19.75% enriched uranium, is only fair. That Iran is facing serious problems in further enriching uranium is widely discussed even by ISIS. That Iranians are generally not willing to lose face should be self-evident. So, revival of the swap deal may be an excellent way to overcome the impasse.

In that sense, Amano’s rebuke which has left the Iranians pretty troubled might in fact be the right way to call them to order.

Last update March 4, 2010

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