The hope harbored for talks with Iran continues to baffle me. This weekend, on the eve of the new round of talks in Geneva, Iran once again made a provocative announcement about its nuclear accomplishments, reporting that its uranium-processing facility had taken delivery of the nation’s first locally produced yellowcake. The West has been aware of the Iranians’ indigenous uranium-mining effort for at least two years (I wrote about it here in March); U.S. officials could not have been surprised by the declaration. But all its implications point to one melancholy truth: the current process of negotiation and inspection is worse than irrelevant. It is counterproductive — because it gives Iran time.
The use Iran has made of that time promises to make the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection regime pointless. Western analysts have known since 2008 that Iran was trying to produce its own yellowcake — and that once it could, accountability on the Iranian stockpile of uranium might quickly be lost. The IAEA doesn’t inspect uranium ore at the mining or milling sites. The agency’s first look at stocks of uranium occurs at Esfahan, where yellowcake is turned into uranium hexafluoride. To inspect the milling process or the raw ore as it is mined, the UN would have to get Iran to honor the “Additional Protocol” to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, something the Islamic Republic has repeatedly declined to do.
With the vast tunneling projects at both Esfahan and Natanz, to which inspectors have not been admitted since 2005, Iran has the underground space to potentially process uranium outside IAEA supervision. If Iran can mill its own yellowcake, it doesn’t even have to divert portions of the known uranium stockpile to a separate, unsupervised processing cycle: it can circumvent the IAEA inspection regime entirely.
The news media have focused on the fact that Iran’s indigenous uranium is scarce and less pure than is cost-effective for commercial use. These factors mean that indigenous uranium won’t support a network of nuclear power plants. Therefore, pressing forward with local yellowcake production is probably a means of pursuing nuclear weapons. But frankly, we knew that already. The real “news” here is that Iran is on the threshold of circumventing IAEA inspection accountability altogether — and that the Iranians thought it was in their interest to announce that rather than keeping it a secret.
The move looks like Iran is pulling a “North Korea”: hoping to increase the stakes and buy a fresh round of time-wasters from the West. It is foolish at this point to keep giving this adversary the one thing it wants most: time. There’s no time like the present to recognize a reality we should have confronted years ago. Giving ourselves time gives Iran time, too, and every extra month imposes a cost on us. Today that cost includes Iran’s posting all its biggest weapons-program triumphs after UN sanctions were first imposed in 2006. Ultimately, the cost is likely to be much higher.