The latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran might not be cause for celebration, but it does provide some hopeful signs. The first report released since Hassan Rouhani became president, the IAEA assessment gives some small insight into the political decisions and direction of the new regime, and a moderately optimistic outlook for those hoping for progress in a new round of talks scheduled for the fall.
First, the concrete and positive news. Iran has remained firmly below Israel’s stated red line of enough 20 percent enriched uranium for one bomb, and added only marginally to its stockpile since the last report. The stockpile is now at 185.8 kg, up just 3.8 kg since the IAEA’s May 2013 report. Though Iran’s store of 20 percent has been slowing for some time, this is the first time we’ve seen an explicit effort to hold off on any major additions (reports in February and November described increases of approximately 15 and 32 kg, rather than 3.8 kg). The move is largely symbolic, since Iran’s move to convert the rest of its 20 percent stockpile to triuranium octoxide (U3O8) can be reversed relatively easily. But is significant nonetheless.
Additionally, Iran’s work at its Arak heavy water reactor (a source of great concern for those who fear it might provide the country with a second – and easier – plutonium path to a bomb) seems to have slowed. At this point, Iran has made only 10 fuel assemblies for the reactor, short of its planned 55. The country has also announced the postponement of the reactor’s commissioning beyond the planned first quarter of 2014.
Further, Iran has not begun to enrich using any of its newly installed IR-2m centrifuges, which have the ability to enrich uranium at a higher speed than what the country is currently pursuing.
Unfortunately the news is not all good. While Iran has not yet begun to enrich in its more advanced IR-2m centrifuges, it has installed many more since the May 2013 report. The IAEA reports that Iran has installed over 1,000 IR-2m centrifuges, along with an additional 1,861 IR-1 centrifuges, at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP).
These developments put Iran on track to reach what has been called a “critical capability” (a point at which Iran might be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb quickly enough to avoid detection using its existing lower enriched uranium) by mid-2014. This timeline assumes no further delays or decisions that might slow the country’s program.
Though Iran continues to inch closer to critical capability, there are increasing signs that the country may be willing to consider a deal that limits this capacity for enrichment. Hassan Rouhani’s surprising election as President in June has already begun to bring a new tone to the relationship. The latest round of talks between the IAEA and Iran will commence September 27, with another round of talks with the world powers to follow.
While it would be foolish to assume that a deal is imminent, the moment is ripe for a negotiated solution. It will be important to capitalize on this moment of opportunity before it has passed us by.