Most Western diplomats have spent the last day patting themselves on the back for showing a little spine during the latest P5+1 nuclear talks in Baghdad. Faced with yet another Iranian refusal to agree to the conciliatory proposal to ease the way toward an end to the crisis, the West did not give in and remove the tough sanctions that have been belatedly imposed on the Islamist regime. Nor did they promise not to implement the oil embargo on Iran that is supposed to go into effect in July. But by agreeing to another meeting next month in Moscow and the implicit promise to go on negotiating all summer and fall if need be, Iran knows that its centrifuges can keep spinning and they can get closer to their nuclear goal while they allow the clock to run out.
The West already knew this, but it appears t the danger is worse than anyone in the Obama administration or Europe thought. The Associated Press is reporting this morning that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency have discovered the Iranians are refining uranium at a rate of up to 27 percent at their Fordo enrichment plant. This is far higher than previous estimates of their capacity that was only at 20 percent. Because the West has been attempting to cajole Tehran into giving up refinement at that 20 percent level, the news that they have already far exceeded that level ought to dispel the administration’s complacent attitude that assumed Iran’s program was already operating at maximum capacity. Because the 20 percent fuel is already at the level where it can easily turned into weapons grade material, the uranium spike is a troubling sign for those who assume that the West has plenty of time to keep talking about the problem before the Iranians achieve their goal.
Some nuclear experts were willing to discount this development as a mistake due to technicians overshooting their goal as they calibrated the refinement process. While that is possible, it is also just as likely that, contrary to the West’s expectations, the Iranians are secretly raising their enrichment threshold to a weapons-grade level.
While it would be comforting to accept the rationalizations about this finding or to believe that it is somehow a mistake, it is worth recalling that at every step of the way during this process, the West has underestimated Iran’s progress and its will to pursue its nuclear ambitions. The Iranians believe the events of the last few years prove that they can transgress any red lines set by the West and get away with it. Even the proposal at the P5+1 talks that they turned down this week confirms their dim view of Western resolve, as even this supposedly hard line stance would have allowed Iran to keep its nuclear program as part of a deal.
Many observers have noted that the Iranians share a common agenda at the talks with President Obama and the Europeans. Both sides want to keep the negotiations alive so as to make it impossible for Israel to attack Iranian nuclear facilities. And both would like the process to drag on for a while. President Obama doesn’t want the situation to blow up during his re-election campaign. The Iranians are just trying to run out the clock the way they have been doing for years. The new uranium enrichment findings are troubling not just because they may show that Iran’s stockpile of refined uranium may be greater than we thought, but because it also may mean the sanguine assessment of western intelligence agencies about the time Iran needs to build a bomb may have been wildly optimistic. This should cause the West to give up any idea of more concessions to the Iranians. If the 27 percent uranium doesn’t illustrate the futility of the talks to President Obama, then perhaps nothing will.