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.