Iran's nuclear program takes medium jump forward - analysis

On one hand, Iran still did not take any of the large jumps it seemed to be toying with: it did not start enriching uranium up to 20% nor did it kick the IAEA out of any major nuclear facilities.

November 6, 2019 19:04
3 minute read.
A general view of the Bushehr main nuclear reactor, Iran

A general view of the Bushehr main nuclear reactor, Iran. (photo credit: REUTERS/RAHEB HOMAVANDI)

Iran’s two announcements this week were collectively qualitative jumps forward regarding a path to a nuclear weapon, but still short of smashing all the dishes.

On one hand, the Islamic Republic still did not take any of the large jumps it seemed to be toying with leading into this week: it did not start enriching uranium up to 20% nor did it kick the IAEA out of any major nuclear facilities.

Either of these actions would have been bold and potentially dangerous signals that Tehran had decided to try to make a dash for developing a nuclear bomb.

On the other hand, starting to use approximately 1,000 more IR-1 centrifuges for enriching uranium in the underground Fordow nuclear facility and adding up to around 60 IR-6s more advanced centrifuges are collectively a much bigger jump forward to a weapon than prior violations.

This will bring Iran up above around a potential 7,000 centrifuges from around a potential 6,000 centrifuges.

Since May when the US ended waivers from sanctions against Iran for eight countries, the Islamic Republic has announced a new violation of the 2015 nuclear deal every two months.

At first, Iran was exceeding the 300 kg. of enriched uranium limit and pushed enrichment up from 3.67% to around 5%.

However, even after six months of these violations, Iran still has only around 500 kg. of uranium and only enriched at low levels.

Before the 2015 deal, Iran had more than 20 times that amount of enriched uranium as well significant quantities of uranium enriched to the 20% level. Also, before the deal, Iran was operating around 19,000 centrifuges, including a sizable number of IR-2ms, more advanced than the IR-1s.

Another violation was to start using more advanced centrifuges, but the number of advanced centrifuges was so small that it still did not dramatically shorten the time Tehran would need to develop a nuclear weapon.

Adding 1,000 IR-1 centrifuges still falls short of dramatically reducing the time for breaking out to a weapon, but it is far more significant than anything to date and will shorten the time.

Also, if Iran adds another 1,000 centrifuges or more next month, the cumulative impact will be significant.

Now add into the mix that the new centrifuges are in Fordow.

Although enriching uranium at Fordow is not technically different than enriching at Natanz (where most of the enrichment has occurred since the 2015 deal), it sends a strong symbolic signal to the West and Israel.

Because Fordow is deep underground, it is harder to even potentially strike militarily.

It is generally accepted that the US bunker-buster bombs, which to date have not been provided to Israel according to any public reporting, are the only weapons capable of destroying Fordow.

This means Israel is unable to strike the underground centrifuges enriching uranium there.

Also, Iran hid Fordow from the international community, and intelligence work exposing it was part of what rallied the UN to finally impose tougher sanctions against Iran leading to the 2015 deal.

The IAEA and the UN have avoided responding, while the EU powers are echoing the same feckless disapproval they have projected since May.

The big questions is whether Iran will stick to its old plan of pressuring the world, but not trying to blatantly break out to a weapon before the 2020 US presidential election, or whether its cumulative violations will create a crisis in the coming months.

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