Less than a week after declaring to the international community that Iran was increasing its uranium enrichment from 3.5 to 20 percent, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated that the efforts were successful and that Iran should be considered among the nuclear countries of the world.
Making his declaration at an event in Azadi Square in Tehran to commemorate the thirty-first anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Ahmadinejad insisted that the uranium enriched to 20% was for peaceful purposes. “The Iranian nation is brave enough that if one day we wanted to build nuclear bombs, we would announce it publicly without being afraid of you,” he told the crowd assembled for the observation of the anniversary.
Uranium enriched to 20% U235 is considered highly enriched uranium that could be further enriched with relative ease to make a nuclear weapon. Iran claims that the enriched uranium will be used in a research reactor to produce medical isotopes. Tehran backed away from an earlier international offer to further enrich its low-enriched uranium outside the country, raising concerns that Iran’s intentions may not be as benign as it is making them out to be…
There is consensus among nuclear experts that, while Iran does have the capacity to enrich uranium to 20%, the amount that could have been produced by the time of Ahmadinejad’s announcement is negligible. The International Atomic Energy Commission suggested that Iran’s increased enrichment efforts are only modest to this point, though David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security suggested that at the rate Iran plans to produce 20%-HEU, it may have enough HEU in three years to further enrich enough material for one nuclear weapon.
The announcement of Iran’s intention to increase the level of uranium enrichment, and the later claims of success, was met with an announcement by the United States Treasury Department of further “smart sanctions” against a handful of Iranian construction companies affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard allegedly involved in weapons production and trade.
There is also talk of a fourth round of sanctions by the United Nations Security Council. Russia — which has historically been less enthusiastic about sanctions than the United States, the United Kingdom, and France — has indicated that they might support further sanctions. The international community seems increasingly dubious of Iran’s denial of intent to develop a nuclear bomb. However, China remains reluctant to impose new sanctions and may thwart attempts by the UN Security Council to tighten the economic sanctions imposed on Iran.
In light of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran’s sudden announcement of scaling up mere days before the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, one cannot help but wonder if Ahmadinejad’s triumphant proclamation was an attempt to flex muscle to an increasingly vocal and active opposition and an international community sympathetic to the anti-government activists and increasingly distrustful of the aims of Iran’s nuclear program.
All steps adopted by the United States and the international community should be careful to avoid undermining the pro-democracy opposition movement in Iran. The international community should continue strong and active diplomatic engagement with Iran, and impose sanctions only so long as they are targeted and designed to minimize the burden on the civilian population. Calls for aggression and military intervention should be turned aside; the consequences of such escalation on both the stability and security of the region and on the civilian population would be catastrophic.
At the same time, the international community must continue to implore Iran to be more transparent with the IAEA about its intentions and grant it greater access to suspected nuclear-related information and facilities. Iran should know that its plans to increase enrichment will only increase concerns over its nuclear program, especially since it rejected an earlier international offer to further enrich its low-enriched uranium in France and Russia.
Patience, careful monitoring and involvement by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and persistent diplomatic engagement by Western powers will not guarantee success but is the only sensible option to try to block Iran’s nuclear weapons plans.