This is Part 1 of a two-part post. Part 2 is here.
It’s hard to overstate the concern with which we should view the nuclear “deal” concluded with Iran on Saturday, 23 November. Although everyone will wait, there is actually nothing to wait for with this deal: nothing to watch develop. To say “We’ll see what happens,” in terms of Iran’s compliance, is to misunderstand. As regards what matters to acquiring a nuclear weapon, Iran won’t change anything she’s been doing.* She may (or may not) put off further some things she had already suspended, or had announced she was going to delay anyway. But her program will not actually take a step backward. It’s not even guaranteed to be suspended in place. Iran will not end up further from being able to test a warhead than she is today.
In exchange for this absence of concessions, the West has given up two important forms of leverage: an acknowledgment, long demanded by Iran, that she has a “right” to enrich uranium; and the comparative unity (such as it was) of the previous – now defunct – UN sanctions regime.
The U.S. formula on Iran’s right to enrich is that we did not accept it in the Geneva deal, but rather agreed to disagree with Iran on it. Basically, that means we didn’t want our disagreement to be an obstacle to a deal.
However, Iran is quite correct that we have effectively conceded her right to enrich, since we signed a deal that allows her to continue to doing it unfettered. Regarding the sanctions, doubters will be convinced a year from now that there was no way to reinstate the loosened elements with any semblance of global unity. Stick a fork in them; they’re done.
(If you want to get the big flick on the deal by watching a video less than two and a half minutes in length, see Charles Krauthammer here.)
In early November, IAEA reported that Iran had halted construction activities at the Arak plutonium reactor, and had suspended her efforts to inaugurate additional arrays of new-generation centrifuges. (Iran had announced in January 2013 that she would install 3,000 of the new-generation centrifuges, and some 1,000 of those are now installed. The new-generation centrifuges allow Iran to enrich uranium at a much faster rate than the older ones.)
In the deal struck this weekend (full text here), Iran agrees to leave those suspensions in place. She will not dismantle any portion of the Arak reactor. She will not dismantle any of her enrichment-related machinery; in fact, she will continue enriching uranium hexafluoride to 3.5% purity throughout the next six months, and will be allowed to perform maintenance and repairs on the operational centrifuge arrays.
It should be pointed out here, as well, that Iran already has newer-generation centrifuges operating at the pilot fuel enrichment plant at Natanz. The overwhelming majority of her operational centrifuges, in use in the main fuel enrichment plant at Natanz and the facility at Fordo, are older IR-1 models. But she does have some IR-2 models in operation, along with a small number of newer IR-4 and IR-6 models.
Iran has agreed to dilute half of her current stock of weaponizable higher-enriched uranium as part of the deal. (Claims that Iran will “destroy all of her high-enriched uranium” under the deal are simply erroneous.) But the dilution is fully reversible. In testimony to Congress in October, David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) pointed out that retaining her centrifuge complexes means Iran can replace any such diluted uranium very quickly. What took Iran several years to acquire (she began enriching uranium to 19.75% in February 2010) could be replaced now in a matter of days.
The dilution of her higher-enriched uranium will probably be touted as a great event in the coming months. That perception will be a triumph of form over substance. For one thing, Iran can drag the process out in such a way that she will have actually diluted little of her stock at the end of six months.
But besides the ability to replace her stock quickly, Iran has more than adequate scope for covert stockpiling and deception. She has been mining and refining her own uranium on an industrial scale for five years, outside of UN supervision, which means we don’t know how much raw material she starts with. Genuine accountability on her total stock of anything is thus impossible.** Moreover, Iran has underground complexes at the Esfahan uranium conversion facility and the Natanz enrichment site; IAEA last visited the Esfahan tunnels in 2004, and has never been admitted to the tunnels at Natanz.
Hassan Rouhani, as previously discussed in these pages, has boasted on several occasions of the wool he pulled over the eyes of the world after the landmark 2003 deal struck with the EU-3 (the UK, France, and Germany). At a time in late 2005 when IAEA knew of only one, 164-centrifuge array installed and operational at Natanz, Rouhani says Iran had 3,000 centrifuges installed.
There is no way to prove otherwise, because from late 2004 until early 2007, IAEA was unable to gain access to the main fuel enrichment plant (FEP) at Natanz, although such access had been agreed to in the 2003 deal. By May of 2007, when inspection visits had resumed (after the UN imposed its first round of sanctions in February), IAEA was aware of some 1,300 centrifuges installed in the FEP at Natanz – still well short of the 3,000 Rouhani has described as being in place 18 months before. It wasn’t until late 2007 that IAEA’s total centrifuge count caught up with Rouhani’s figure for late 2005.
We could argue endlessly whether Rouhani was lying or exaggerating in his recent claims, but what matters is that we don’t know. No one can definitively claim to know everything that was going on with Iran’s nuclear program, in 2005, 2007, or any other year up to and including this one. Indeed, IAEA has explicitly acknowledged that reality, on multiple occasions, in its safeguards reporting.
Which alone ought to give us pause, but Iran’s record of denying access to IAEA and cruising the landscape with earth-movers, razing and sanitizing suspect sites (in particular, Lavizan-Shian in Tehran in 2003, and a part of the Parchin industrial complex southeast of Tehran starting in 2011), is highly informative as well. So is Iran’s practice of developing new sites in secret – e.g., the Natanz enrichment complex itself, along with the infamous Fordo enrichment site near Qom – and declaring them to the UN only when exposure by foreign governments forces her hand.
To the question “Will Iranian deception figure into the 2012 deal?” the answer must be, “Of course.” Nothing else has ever been the case.
Closing the gap to a weapon
How close is Iran to a nuclear “breakout?” If we define the breakout as enriching sufficient uranium to weapons grade (93.5% purity), followed by testing a warhead: very close. I continue to assess that Iran has, in effect, paused her own operations – which she did before the deal was struck on the 23rd – because the next step is breaking out. Here’s a brief summary of where Iran stands with the three component of a nuclear weapon: fissile material, warhead, and delivery platform.
Iran has over 10,000 kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU), or enough to produce at least five bombs through further enrichment to weapons-grade purity. (Some estimates are higher; e.g., that the LEU stock is enough for 7-8 bombs. Israel is using the lower figure.) This stock will continue to grow during the terms of the six-month deal.
By some calculations, Iran has enough uranium enriched to the so-called “medium” level for at least one bomb, and possibly two. The threshold used by Israeli policy-makers is 240 kg of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) enriched to 19.75% purity. As of 5 November 2013, IAEA’s tally of the Iranian stockpile, specifically in the non-blended and weaponizable form indicated, was 196 kg. Some analysts believe 180 kg is enough (some suggest even less may be enough, depending on the type and sophistication of the warhead mechanism). If less is enough, then Iran is already at a point where she has enough for the final enrichment step: the “dash” to the finish line, which she could complete in a little over a month using her older centrifuges, or in less than two weeks using her new-generation centrifuges.
Iran is almost ready, as well, to start up her 40-megawatt plutonium reactor at Arak, which would be a source of 1-2 bombs’ worth of weaponizable plutonium per year. At this juncture, the plutonium path to a bomb would be lengthier than the uranium path, at least as far as we know. Besides the time required to produce the plutonium, Iran would have to demonstrate a capability to handle plutonium and prepare it for use in a bomb. Iran’s close cooperation with North Korea, which has already developed a plutonium bomb, suggests that she may have made strides in this area already, but direct evidence of that is scant. She is probably at least two years from being capable of producing a plutonium bomb.
On the warhead component: Iran performed experiments on a warhead-detonator device for a uranium bomb as far back as 2002-2003. Various forms of information on this intelligence have come out in the years since, from media revelations, to court cases against commercial companies in the West, to an IAEA summary of the agency’s concerns in November 2011. All these revelations relate back to the intelligence on activities in the 2002-2003 timeframe. Iran’s big site “sanitization” effort at Lavizan-Shian was undertaken immediately following the period when these experiments were reported to have occurred. More recent reporting has suggested that some of the detonator-testing activity took place at Parchin, in a remote part of the complex that was “sanitized” in 2011, and to which IAEA has yet to be admitted for an inspection.
With the fissile material and a warhead, Iran would have a capability similar to what the U.S. had in 1945. Finally, regarding the delivery platform component, Iran has improved her missile capability, and today can reach Southeastern Europe and Israel with nuclear-capable missiles. British intelligence revealed in mid-2011 that Iran had conducted Shahab-3 and Sejjil launches to the range in question (2,000 km or 1,200 statute miles) between October 2010 and February 2011. (Splashdown was in the Arabian Sea. See p. 32 of this CRS report from December 2012.)
There are strong recent indications that Iran is developing ICBMs as well; U.S. intelligence believes Iran will be able to test an ICBM by 2015. Beyond that, media reporting based on Western intelligence indicates that since late 2010, Iran has been constructing a missile silo complex in the northwestern tip of Venezuela, from which her currently available, nuclear-capable missiles could reach Florida and part of Georgia. Iran already has silo complexes at a minimum of two military sites in western Iran, where missiles can be kept prepared for launch and with substantial protection against foreign strikes.
Continued in Part 2.
* This is implicit in the terms of the deal; it’s also how Iran is interpreting her obligations under the deal. MEMRI has translated statements from Iranian officials – Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif – in which they make, among others, the following points (MEMRI summary):
1. The Right To Enrich Uranium
President Rohani said at a November 24 press conference (view the MEMRI TV
clip of his statements in Farsi here)
“The results of these talks is that the 5+1, or in other words the world
powers, have officially recognized Iran’s nuclear rights… the right to
enrich [uranium] on Iranian soil is the right of the Iranian nation, and
everyone can interpret it as they wish… The text states explicitly that
Iran will continue to enrich [uranium], and for this reason I say to the
Iranian nation that the uranium enrichment activity in Iran will continue as
in the past… In this six-month agreement, our [uranium enrichment]
facilities at Natanz, Fordo, the Arak [plutonium reactor], [the uranium
conversion facility at] Isfahan, and Bandar Abbas [i.e. the Bushehr reactor]
will continue their activity.”
Also, in a November 24 letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Rohani
declared: “The absolute achievements of this initial agreement are official
recognition of Iran’s nuclear rights, and preservation of the nuclear
achievements of the sons of this nation.”
At a Geneva press conference the same day, after the signing of the
agreement, Foreign Minister Zarif said: “The agreement today is important
from several perspectives. Most important is that Iran’s right to enrich
[uranium] is officially recognized. This [nuclear] program will continue…
The [activity of the] enrichment centers will not be frozen.”
2. Level Of Uranium Enrichment
Iran Will Continue To Enrich Uranium At 20%; The Number Of Centrifuges Will
Foreign Minister Zarif also said at the November 24 press conference in
Geneva after the signing of the agreement: “Regarding Natanz and Fordo, the
[current] number of centrifuges will be maintained; our 5%- enriched
material will be maintained; and we also need to enrich to 20% for the
research reactor in Tehran, and [therefore] this process [of enrichment to
20%] will continue based on the plans that we had…”
3. Activity At Arak Reactor Will Continue
At the November 24 Geneva press conference following the signing of the
agreement, Foreign Minister Zarif emphasized, “Our heavy water project [at
Arak] will continue along the same lines as in the current situation.”
Also on November 24, Deputy Iranian Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi told the
Iranian news agency IRNA: “The activity at the heavy water reactor at Arak
will continue based on the agreement, but in the next six months [this
activity] will not be expanded.” Also, the Iranian Press TV channel stated,
“The interim deal allows for Iran to continue its activities at [the] Arak,
Fordo, and Natanz facilities.”
4. Enriched Material Will Not Be Taken Out Of Iran
Foreign Minister Zarif told the Geneva press conference that “no material
[i.e. enriched uranium] will be taken out of the country.”