Ever since Iran publicised its nuclear fuel cycle plans in 2003, western experts have tried to downplay its rate of progress in nuclear engineering. The Iranian scientific community is often viewed as technologically inept. Relatively minor obstacles have been portrayed as next to insurmountable. These arguments are now growing increasingly false – Tehran is adding centrifuges faster than the UN security council can step up the pressure. Time is not working in the favour of the west.
Iran is making good progress in many key areas of nuclear engineering. Presently, it has some 4,000 operational centrifuges at its facility in Natanz. This means that it is learning about the intricate art of connecting a large number of centrifuges with a vast amount of pipework while maintaining everything under vacuum. Getting centrifuges to run is not difficult; getting them to run as a single entity is the challenge.
Iran’s increasing capabilities also mean that it can produce some 3.2 metric tons of low-enriched uranium (LEU) per year. This is about a tenth of the annual fuel load of a typical light water reactor. However, the technology can have other uses too. If Iran decides to re-enrich this product, it can theoretically produce some 115kg of weapons-grade uranium per year. It can have a bomb’s worth of material in less than three months.
This does not mean, however, that Iran is producing weapons-grade material. Neither does it mean that it intends to. Indeed, capabilities and intentions are two different things. The IAEA is still insisting it has no evidence of any ongoing Iranian weapons programme. Some states therefore worry about what Iran could do if it builds enough capacity to go down the weapons route. In particular, many worry about what Iran could do with its LEU stockpile.
Many things need to happen before Iran can convert its low-enriched uranium stockpile to weapons-usable material. It would first need to get enough LEU in its warehouses. The international community would know when this happened, as long as all Iranian enrichment capacity is safeguarded by the IAEA.
Furthermore, the Natanz facility is set up to produce LEU only. Iran must therefore disconnect many miles of pipework and reconnect them to make it suitable for weapons-grade enrichment. Unless the Iranian floor managers are notorious gamblers, they would want at least a month to do this. Getting the centrifuges back on stream without testing the new configuration could cause severe damage to the sensitive rotors.
This provides the international community with a clear trigger to take decisive action against any Iranian weaponisation: once the inspectors are ejected, the clock is ticking. Current divisions within the security council on how to deal with Iran would probably be overcome. In fact, an agreement can be reached beforehand on how to deal with any Iranian move towards re-enrichment.
The bottom line is that inspections are instrumental in preventing Iranian weaponisation and much can be done to prevent Iranian enrichment from equating with an Iranian bomb.
Instead of investing further in a security council track focused on the losing proposition of stopping Iranian enrichment altogether, resources should be diverted towards making it as unattractive as possible for Iran to make the choice of re-enriching the LEU. This would require boosting inspections of Iranian facilities while defining the steps the security council will take in case Iran seeks to re-enrich. This could be spelled out in a security council resolution.
According to former weapons inspector David Kay, the west must also take measures now in regard to regional security to make any potential failure to stop an Iranian bomb an irrelevant development.
Nuclear weapons have little military utility, and their deterrent value has never been proven. In the Middle East, however, wihout a new security architecture, the spread of nuclear weapons is likely to be a game changer.
Unless the west redefines the game and makes the nuclear stand-off with Iran about bomb-making and not enrichment, and devotes resources to create disincentives for Iran to weaponise, time will continue to be on the side of Iran.
First published in The Guardian.
Trita Parsi is Presdient of National Iranian-American Council (NIAC) and the author of Treacherous Alliance – The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the US, a silver medal recipient of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Arthur Ross Book Award. Andreas Persbo is a senior researcher at the Verification Research, Training and Information Centre.