Friday, December 21, 2012
The postponed Iranian crisis
At the end of October, Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave a revealing interview to London's Daily Telegraph in which he explained why the urgency around the Iranian issue had changed. Iran was still progressing toward its goal of obtaining nuclear weapons. Israel was still concerned with Iran's stock of 20 percent enriched uranium that could be converted very quickly to weapons-grade uranium.
But during the course of 2012, Tehran took nearly 40% of its 20%-uranium stock and converted it into fuel rods, which could not be used for nuclear weapons. Theoretically, the Iranians could convert the fuel rods back into 20% uranium and enrich the product to weapons grade fuel, but that would take time. This startling information was not classified intelligence that Barak disclosed to the British newspaper, for it could also be found by carefully reading International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports.
According to the IAEA report from August, Iran had produced, by the end of last summer, a total of 189 kg (416.7 lbs.) of uranium enriched to 20%. Leading experts had long established that the moment the Iranians obtain 225 kg (496 lbs.) of 20% uranium, they would have enough for their first bomb. In short, Iran was getting dangerously close to that point.
Assuming the Iranians maintained a production rate of 14.8 kg (32.6 lbs.) per month of 20% enriched uranium, the Iranians would have crossed the nuclear finishing line of having the quantity necessary for one bomb by the end of Oct. 2012. This was the red line that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew on Sept. 27 during his speech at the U.N. General Assembly. By drawing down 98 kg (216 lbs.) from its 20% uranium stock, Iran was left with only 91 kg (200.6 lbs.) — well below the 225 that it needed for its first atomic weapon.
According to Barak, "the moment of truth" had been delayed by "eight to 10 months." How did Iran's reduction of its inventory of 20% uranium affect its nuclear calendar? Taking the monthly rate of production of 20% enriched uranium during 2012, Iran should be able to again increase its 20% stock and cross the 225 kg (496 lbs.) threshold by May 2013. Yet, at the time of Barak's interview, there were still a number of unknowns that could affect the new Iranian timeline.
First, it is possible that Iran will continue to divert quantities of 20% enriched uranium to manufacture fuel rods and thereby delay crossing the 225 kg (496 lbs.) threshold. Some might try to use this argument to say that the Iranian threat is likely to diminish. However, the recent November IAEA report indicated that the quantities of 20% enriched uranium are again on the rise: Iran's stock has gone up from 91.4 (201.5 lbs.) to 134.9 kg (297.4 lbs.). Moreover, Iran's stock of low-enriched uranium, according to the report, has continued to grow, reaching 5,688 kg (12,539.9 lbs.), which by itself is sufficient for five or six atomic bombs after it undergoes further enrichment to the weapons-grade level.
Second, there is also a possibility that Iran might even accelerate the rate of enrichment in the coming months. For example, in its hardened Fordow facility near Qom, Iran installed some 1,720 centrifuges for enriching uranium to the 20% level, but it only was using 696 of them. If Iran used all 1,720 centrifuges at Fordow, it could reach the 225 kg (496 lbs.) threshold, which Israel deems a "red line", by Feb. or March, 2013. Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, stated at the end of November that recently there had been a significant increase in the number of centrifuges and what he called an acceleration of Iran's capability in this area will continue during the months ahead.
Earlier in the year, President Barack Obama clearly stated that the U.S. was not planning on containing a nuclear Iran, but rather was prepared to do what is necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, as of late, the U.S. has not sent the strongest signals to Iran, despite it now being clear that Iran is again accumulating greater stocks of 20% uranium. At the end of November, Robert Wood, who was representing the U.S. at the IAEA in Vienna, issued a statement that Iran must not be allowed to indefinitely ignore its obligations. He focused on its failure to answer international concerns about the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program that had been raised by the IAEA in past reports. Then Wood issued what sounded like a March deadline for Tehran. Was the U.S. saying that it was considering a military option if by then Iran still refuses to cooperate?
All Wood really said was that if there was no change in Iranian behavior, by that time, the U.S. will work with other members of the IAEA Board of Governors to report on Iran to the U.N. Security Council. The U.S. statement was not a real threat to Iran. If there was any doubt, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took out any of the sting from what her envoy in Vienna said when she remarked in answer to a question that March was mentioned because it was an ideal time for negotiations, coming after the U.S. elections and before the June 2012 Iranian presidential elections. Last week, in fact, the State Department spokesman said that the EU was trying to set a date with Tehran for new nuclear talks.
Iran cut back its stock of 20% uranium during 2012 probably because it believed that before the U.S. elections, the chances were greater that it could face an attack on its nuclear facilities by either the U.S. or Israel. But without any real concern about facing military measures against it, the chances that diplomacy will get Iran to suddenly adhere to its international commitments are minimal. Unfortunately, the dilemmas that the U.S. and Israel faced in 2012 are only likely to have been delayed, requiring both countries to make difficult choices about how to stop Iran during the upcoming year.