Commentary Magazine


Topic: Tehran Research Reactor

White House Seriously Considering Ludicrous Iran Agreement

We knew this was coming. The White House has issued a statement — the perfect mix of gobbledygook and bureaucratic-speak. You have to read it in full to fully appreciate Obama’s desperation for a deal — any deal — that would avoid a confrontation with Iran:

We acknowledge the efforts that have been made by Turkey and Brazil. The proposal announced in Tehran must now be conveyed clearly and authoritatively to the IAEA before it can be considered by the international community. Given Iran’s repeated failure to live up to its own commitments, and the need to address fundamental issues related to Iran’s nuclear program, the United States and international community continue to have serious concerns. While it would be a positive step for Iran to transfer low-enriched uranium off of its soil as it agreed to do last October, Iran said today that it would continue its 20% enrichment, which is a direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions and which the Iranian government originally justified by pointing to the need for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. Furthermore, the Joint Declaration issued in Tehran is vague about Iran’s willingness to meet with the P5+1 countries to address international concerns about its nuclear program, as it also agreed to do last October.

The United States will continue to work with our international partners, and through the United Nations Security Council, to make it clear to the Iranian government that it must demonstrate through deeds — and not simply words — its willingness to live up to international obligations or face consequences, including sanctions. Iran must take the steps necessary to assure the international community that its nuclear program is intended exclusively for peaceful purposes, including by complying with UN Security Council resolutions and cooperating fully with the IAEA. We remain committed to a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear program, as part of the P5+1 dual track approach, and will be consulting closely with our partners on these developments going forward.

So the deal simply raises “concerns” — and Obama is not giving up on engagement (“a diplomatic solution”). The next phase (it’s really the same phase we’ve been in for the last 16 months — engage and stall) will consist of diplomatic forays to test how “sincere” the mullahs are and whether we can verify the “progress.” Obama, you see, has thrown in the towel on every effective measure (i.e., military action, crippling sanctions, and regime change) that could prevent the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons. Now it’s all about devising a strategy whereby Obama can claim diplomatic “success.”

But here’s the hitch: Israel isn’t going to buy this nonsense. So we return to what is becoming the only meaningful question: will Obama support Israeli military action?  American Jewish “leaders” should press Obama to answer that question now. After all, the survival of the Jewish state hangs in the balance and their muteness, like that of American Jewish leaders of the 1930s, will be remembered quite unkindly by history.

We knew this was coming. The White House has issued a statement — the perfect mix of gobbledygook and bureaucratic-speak. You have to read it in full to fully appreciate Obama’s desperation for a deal — any deal — that would avoid a confrontation with Iran:

We acknowledge the efforts that have been made by Turkey and Brazil. The proposal announced in Tehran must now be conveyed clearly and authoritatively to the IAEA before it can be considered by the international community. Given Iran’s repeated failure to live up to its own commitments, and the need to address fundamental issues related to Iran’s nuclear program, the United States and international community continue to have serious concerns. While it would be a positive step for Iran to transfer low-enriched uranium off of its soil as it agreed to do last October, Iran said today that it would continue its 20% enrichment, which is a direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions and which the Iranian government originally justified by pointing to the need for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. Furthermore, the Joint Declaration issued in Tehran is vague about Iran’s willingness to meet with the P5+1 countries to address international concerns about its nuclear program, as it also agreed to do last October.

The United States will continue to work with our international partners, and through the United Nations Security Council, to make it clear to the Iranian government that it must demonstrate through deeds — and not simply words — its willingness to live up to international obligations or face consequences, including sanctions. Iran must take the steps necessary to assure the international community that its nuclear program is intended exclusively for peaceful purposes, including by complying with UN Security Council resolutions and cooperating fully with the IAEA. We remain committed to a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear program, as part of the P5+1 dual track approach, and will be consulting closely with our partners on these developments going forward.

So the deal simply raises “concerns” — and Obama is not giving up on engagement (“a diplomatic solution”). The next phase (it’s really the same phase we’ve been in for the last 16 months — engage and stall) will consist of diplomatic forays to test how “sincere” the mullahs are and whether we can verify the “progress.” Obama, you see, has thrown in the towel on every effective measure (i.e., military action, crippling sanctions, and regime change) that could prevent the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons. Now it’s all about devising a strategy whereby Obama can claim diplomatic “success.”

But here’s the hitch: Israel isn’t going to buy this nonsense. So we return to what is becoming the only meaningful question: will Obama support Israeli military action?  American Jewish “leaders” should press Obama to answer that question now. After all, the survival of the Jewish state hangs in the balance and their muteness, like that of American Jewish leaders of the 1930s, will be remembered quite unkindly by history.

Read Less

Iran Draws Closer to Nuclear Capability as World Watches

Last Friday, the New York Times ran an interesting piece by David Sanger about a puzzling element that emerged in the latest IAEA report on Iran — namely Iran’s decision to bring most of its LEU stockpile to the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant for further enrichment to 19.75 percent levels. The move was puzzling for the simple reason that Iran did not need to feed its entire stockpile for further enrichment in order to address its shortage of 19.75 percent uranium needed at the Tehran Research Reactor for medical isotopes. But the transfer of so much uranium to the surface gave rise to wild theories: why would Iran put its entire stockpile at risk? Would Israel not be tempted to attack and destroy the likely source of Iran’s future nuclear weapons, thus delaying Iran’s nuclear quest? And why would the regime expose itself to such a risk? Perhaps it was a clever ploy by the Revolutionary Guards, who may have wished to get the country attacked so as to rally the restive population around a regime with a dwindling popular support?

Iran has put the matter to rest by removing much of the stockpile from the surface site and sending it back to underground storage, but the episode has urged some fresh thinking about Iran’s capabilities as well as its intentions. In a freshly released report by ISIS, David Albright and Christina Walrond discuss the puzzling transfer decision in relation to the overall centrifuge performance at the Natanz site, where IAEA reports have indicated a steady decrease of active centrifuges alongside an increase in monthly output of LEU from the dwindling number of functioning centrifuges. Nobody knows why Iran has fewer and fewer centrifuges working — are they malfunctioning, is it maintenance? — and Iran is not about to tell. But the move of its LEU (3.5 percent) to produce higher enrichment grade uranium (19.75) while few centrifuges work at all may have troubling implications for its military program. In particular, Albright and Walrond note that,

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.

The important caveat for this scenario to play out, from a technical point of view, is that Iran has enough 19.75 percent uranium stockpiled to go to higher enrichment levels. This is not the case yet, at least not as far as declared stockpiles are concerned. But that could change.

Albright and Walrond note other possibilities. First of all, weapon-grade uranium could be produced in parallel, clandestine sites — the Fordow site exposed in September might have been designed precisely for that purpose. Though it was discovered, there is no guarantee that Iran has no other such facility around the country. According to Albright and Walrond, “the discovery of Fordow eliminates its usefulness in producing weapon-grade uranium in a parallel secret program starting with uranium hexafluoride made outside of safeguards. Its potential role in a breakout strategy using 3.5 percent LEU is also diminished, since Iran is likely to want a secret site if it pursues nuclear weapons.” But their assessment is that a facility like Fordow could serve that purpose — and if Fordow had twins buried elsewhere around the country, then Iran could be close to breakout capacity in more than one way. As Albright and Walrond add,

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.

This possibility might explain the lull in the centrifuge-spinning frenzy at Natanz that characterized the early phases of the site, when every few months Iran would announce many more cascades being installed, in defiance of UN resolutions.

It now looks ominous to see all the installed centrifuges sitting idle — some are new, and never once were fed uranium hexafluoride; a significant number have been disconnected from their module; and a number of new cascades were either removed from their module or are in the process of being removed. Where will they be transferred?

But fear not. The UN is about to spring into action — and thanks to China’s constructive role, the Security Council seems set to produce at best another spineless resolution adding a name or two to the already short list of sanctioned Iranian entities and individuals, and at best a presidential statement that will do little to stop Iran’s march to the ultimate weapon.

Congratulations to the Iranians then: their diplomacy, alongside their subterfuge and acts of nuclear brinkmanship playing with the IAEA and its safeguards, may be gaining them a few more weeks, if not months, in a year that, by everyone’s judgment, may be the critical one for their nuclear ambitions.

Last Friday, the New York Times ran an interesting piece by David Sanger about a puzzling element that emerged in the latest IAEA report on Iran — namely Iran’s decision to bring most of its LEU stockpile to the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant for further enrichment to 19.75 percent levels. The move was puzzling for the simple reason that Iran did not need to feed its entire stockpile for further enrichment in order to address its shortage of 19.75 percent uranium needed at the Tehran Research Reactor for medical isotopes. But the transfer of so much uranium to the surface gave rise to wild theories: why would Iran put its entire stockpile at risk? Would Israel not be tempted to attack and destroy the likely source of Iran’s future nuclear weapons, thus delaying Iran’s nuclear quest? And why would the regime expose itself to such a risk? Perhaps it was a clever ploy by the Revolutionary Guards, who may have wished to get the country attacked so as to rally the restive population around a regime with a dwindling popular support?

Iran has put the matter to rest by removing much of the stockpile from the surface site and sending it back to underground storage, but the episode has urged some fresh thinking about Iran’s capabilities as well as its intentions. In a freshly released report by ISIS, David Albright and Christina Walrond discuss the puzzling transfer decision in relation to the overall centrifuge performance at the Natanz site, where IAEA reports have indicated a steady decrease of active centrifuges alongside an increase in monthly output of LEU from the dwindling number of functioning centrifuges. Nobody knows why Iran has fewer and fewer centrifuges working — are they malfunctioning, is it maintenance? — and Iran is not about to tell. But the move of its LEU (3.5 percent) to produce higher enrichment grade uranium (19.75) while few centrifuges work at all may have troubling implications for its military program. In particular, Albright and Walrond note that,

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.

The important caveat for this scenario to play out, from a technical point of view, is that Iran has enough 19.75 percent uranium stockpiled to go to higher enrichment levels. This is not the case yet, at least not as far as declared stockpiles are concerned. But that could change.

Albright and Walrond note other possibilities. First of all, weapon-grade uranium could be produced in parallel, clandestine sites — the Fordow site exposed in September might have been designed precisely for that purpose. Though it was discovered, there is no guarantee that Iran has no other such facility around the country. According to Albright and Walrond, “the discovery of Fordow eliminates its usefulness in producing weapon-grade uranium in a parallel secret program starting with uranium hexafluoride made outside of safeguards. Its potential role in a breakout strategy using 3.5 percent LEU is also diminished, since Iran is likely to want a secret site if it pursues nuclear weapons.” But their assessment is that a facility like Fordow could serve that purpose — and if Fordow had twins buried elsewhere around the country, then Iran could be close to breakout capacity in more than one way. As Albright and Walrond add,

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.

This possibility might explain the lull in the centrifuge-spinning frenzy at Natanz that characterized the early phases of the site, when every few months Iran would announce many more cascades being installed, in defiance of UN resolutions.

It now looks ominous to see all the installed centrifuges sitting idle — some are new, and never once were fed uranium hexafluoride; a significant number have been disconnected from their module; and a number of new cascades were either removed from their module or are in the process of being removed. Where will they be transferred?

But fear not. The UN is about to spring into action — and thanks to China’s constructive role, the Security Council seems set to produce at best another spineless resolution adding a name or two to the already short list of sanctioned Iranian entities and individuals, and at best a presidential statement that will do little to stop Iran’s march to the ultimate weapon.

Congratulations to the Iranians then: their diplomacy, alongside their subterfuge and acts of nuclear brinkmanship playing with the IAEA and its safeguards, may be gaining them a few more weeks, if not months, in a year that, by everyone’s judgment, may be the critical one for their nuclear ambitions.

Read Less

Finally, an IAEA Report That Pulls No Punches

The IAEA’s latest report was leaked yesterday and is available here. It makes, as usual, some pretty technical reading, but it has some important insights to offer that deserve notice.

First, the tone of the report is less circumspect about slapping Iran around for its noncompliance. The report explicitly and unambiguously states and explains why Iran is in noncompliance of many of its obligations — something obvious perhaps to readers of this blog but that was lacking from previous reports. The report makes it clear that Iran is continuing to defy the international community.

Second, the report highlights a number of troubling developments. Iran has succeeded in increasing enrichment levels to 19.8 percent. It has transferred most of its stockpile of Low Enriched Uranium to the feed station of the fuel-enrichment plant in Natanz, where it intends to enrich uranium for its Tehran Research Reactor as fuel to produce medical isotopes. As David Albright, Jacqueline Shire, and Paul Brannan note in their report analysis, “Iran may plan eventually to convert most of its accumulated stock of LEU hexafluoride to 20 percent LEU, a quantity far in excess of the TRR’s needs (this quantity of LEU hexafluoride would yield just under 200 kg of 19.75 percent LEU).”

Given that Iran does not need to convert all its stockpile immediately, one must question the motives for such a move — especially since, in parallel, Iran is preparing the Esfahan site to start producing uranium metal, and the fuel-enrichment plant in Natanz has seen a considerable number of centrifuges sitting idly by, with some more being dismantled. And since Iran’s Fordow site (designed to host 3,000 centrifuges) may well suit a military program but ill suits a civil one, and since uranium metal is needed for weapons production and 200 kilograms of 19.75 percent LEU far exceed Iran’s medical needs, one must suspect the combining of these activities.

The IAEA has just given a sterling performance. And why is this report so much blunter than anything seen previously?

Mohamed ElBaradei is no longer the director general.

The IAEA’s latest report was leaked yesterday and is available here. It makes, as usual, some pretty technical reading, but it has some important insights to offer that deserve notice.

First, the tone of the report is less circumspect about slapping Iran around for its noncompliance. The report explicitly and unambiguously states and explains why Iran is in noncompliance of many of its obligations — something obvious perhaps to readers of this blog but that was lacking from previous reports. The report makes it clear that Iran is continuing to defy the international community.

Second, the report highlights a number of troubling developments. Iran has succeeded in increasing enrichment levels to 19.8 percent. It has transferred most of its stockpile of Low Enriched Uranium to the feed station of the fuel-enrichment plant in Natanz, where it intends to enrich uranium for its Tehran Research Reactor as fuel to produce medical isotopes. As David Albright, Jacqueline Shire, and Paul Brannan note in their report analysis, “Iran may plan eventually to convert most of its accumulated stock of LEU hexafluoride to 20 percent LEU, a quantity far in excess of the TRR’s needs (this quantity of LEU hexafluoride would yield just under 200 kg of 19.75 percent LEU).”

Given that Iran does not need to convert all its stockpile immediately, one must question the motives for such a move — especially since, in parallel, Iran is preparing the Esfahan site to start producing uranium metal, and the fuel-enrichment plant in Natanz has seen a considerable number of centrifuges sitting idly by, with some more being dismantled. And since Iran’s Fordow site (designed to host 3,000 centrifuges) may well suit a military program but ill suits a civil one, and since uranium metal is needed for weapons production and 200 kilograms of 19.75 percent LEU far exceed Iran’s medical needs, one must suspect the combining of these activities.

The IAEA has just given a sterling performance. And why is this report so much blunter than anything seen previously?

Mohamed ElBaradei is no longer the director general.

Read Less