Ahead of talks set to take place in Kazakhstan next week, the IAEA has released its quarterly safeguards report providing the most recent data on Iran’s nuclear progress. While the report does not suggest that a nuclear-armed Iran is either imminent or inevitable, it illustrates Iran’s steady progress and highlights the dangerous game of chicken the US and Iran are currently playing. The time for a diplomatic resolution has not yet expired, but the window of opportunity is getting smaller. The goal of the upcoming talks in Kazakhstan should be to put time back on the clock.
The IAEA largely confirms what the media has already reported, namely that Iran has installed additional IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz along with more advanced IR-2 centrifuges, the installation of which has just begun. The report states that 180 of the advanced centrifuges were either fully or partially mounted during a February 6 inspection, but does not state whether the centrifuges are connected. Iran has also continued to grow its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20%, but has taken steps to convert a large portion of that uranium for use as fuel in the Tehran Research Reactor.
According to the report, Iran has produced a total of 280 kg (+47 kg since the Director General’s previous report) of 20% enriched uranium, of which 167 kg remains in that form. Approximately 111 kg has been converted. Experts believe that approximately 250 kg of 20% enriched uranium is required to produce, via further enrichment, one bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium.
By resuming the conversion of its uranium to fuel plates, Iran has not yet crossed the critical point at which it would have enough 20% enriched uranium for one bomb, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stated red line. Despite some walking back of his earlier statements, Netanyahu’s office today expressed concern, stating that the report’s findings “prove that Iran continues to advance quickly to the red line” and that, “Iran is closer than ever to achieve enrichment for a nuclear bomb.” However, in taking steps to limit its stockpile, Tehran seems to be demonstrating its reluctance to dash past any perceived red line, at least at this time.
Additionally, two new pieces of information are of note. The first is the speed with which Iran has continued to install IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz, which is faster than expected, and the second is Iran’s use of the Tehran Research Reactor to test fuel for a heavy water reactor at Arak that could eventually be used to produce plutonium. Heavy water reactors produce spent fuel that is more suitable for extracting plutonium for weapons than light water reactors.
Reports of Iran’s centrifuge expansion at Natanz imply that the country intends to continue to install additional centrifuges at a rate similar to that noted by the IAEA, thereby increasing the speed with which it can enrich uranium. This implication is buttressed by recent reports that Iran attempted to purchase 100,000 highly specialized magnets that can be used to construct centrifuges (in theory, enough to outfit 50,000 additional machines, though the report has been refuted by some reputable sources). Importantly, however, it is still unclear whether Iran’s leaders have made the political decision to acquire a nuclear bomb. Current US intelligence states that they have not.
Moreover, Iran’s use of the Tehran Research Reactor to test fuel for its IR-40 reactor at Arak is troubling. The heavy water reactor, the spent fuel from which could be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium, has been of concern for some time, prompting the United Nations Security Council to demand that Tehran discontinue construction of the reactor. Experts believe that Iran could achieve “break out” capacity, or the ability to quickly build a bomb, by mid-2014 if it so chooses. However, plutonium provides a second option for the construction of a bomb. Iran has stated that it plans to start up the Arak reactor in the first quarter of 2014. Though Iran is unlikely to go down this path to a weapon, particularly given the fact that the facility at Arak is more vulnerable to attack than Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities, it could see the reactor as an additional bargaining chip in ongoing negotiations.
Iran’s apparent dual-hatted strategy of limiting its production of 20% enriched uranium yet installing more advanced centrifuges mirrors the strategy of the US and its international partners, who have continued to increase sanctions and threaten the use of military force whilst also offering to strike a deal. For some time now, the two sides have been engaged in a dangerous game of chicken, waiting for the other to blink. But as the sides come closer and closer to colliding, the likelihood of a crash is growing. Both sides must come to the table in Kazakhstan willing to seek a solution that holds calamity at bay.