Is Iran's advanced uranium centrifuge a game-changer? - analysis

Is Iran's latest claim of "50 new achievements" in the nuclear sector a sign of scientific achievements or a mere public relations tactic?

A general view of the Bushehr main nuclear reactor, Iran (photo credit: REUTERS/RAHEB HOMAVANDI)
A general view of the Bushehr main nuclear reactor, Iran
Iran said on Saturday that “50 new achievements will be unveiled on April 9, including new centrifuge systems,” referring to the date of National Nuclear Technology Day.
Is this the final nail in the coffin of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal? Will Iran continue racing toward a nuclear weapon in the hope it will achieve that point before anyone can stop it?
As with the Islamic Republic’s four prior violations of the nuclear deal, the answer is probably still not yet – but keep watch.
A number of experts have pointed out in the past that many of Iran’s big declarations seem like bluster for public relations more than major new scientific achievements.
Institute for Science and International Security President David Albright told The Jerusalem Post that the sheer volume of types of centrifuges that Iran is working on developing at the same time makes no sense for efficiency in design.
He said if a country wants to get a particular design right, then it usually sticks with that design or maybe one easier design and one more advanced design.
Albright said that Iran working on the IR-1, IR-2m, IR-4, IR-6, IR-8, recently mentioning an IR-9 and on Saturday claiming to work on an additional design merely makes its program look incoherent to someone versed in the nuclear trade.
A hint missed by most that this new alleged advanced centrifuge system is likely not an immediate game-changer is that Iran said the new system will be unveiled on April 9.
In other words, in four months from now something might happen. Not exactly a formula for a sudden jump forward.
However, Israel and the West cannot get overconfident.
The Post recently learned from sources close to Mossad Director Yossi Cohen that Tehran is viewed as a dynamic actor that can make sudden unexpected jumps forward, and has proven this ability in the past.
The sources pointed out multiple times that Iran surprised the West, including with its underground Fordow nuclear facility and its pre-JCPOA jump to enriching uranium to the 20% level, up from the much lower 3.67% and 5% levels.
Furthermore, the sources indicated that the Mossad’s appropriation of Iranian nuclear secrets in April 2018 revealed a wide range of additional nuclear sites that were unknown, many of which still have not been revealed or inspected.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed the Abadeh nuclear site in September, this was only one of many still undisclosed nuclear sites.
Returning to Albright, he warned the Post that even if the Islamic Republic’s discussion of advanced new centrifuges may be hubris, there are many reasons to worry that Iran could quickly shorten what he currently estimates as a six- to 10-month breakout timeline to a nuclear bomb.
Albright noted that IAEA reports and other information show that Iran’s standard IR-1 centrifuges have been failing much less than in the past.
Adding in that Russia has had a JCPOA-endorsed role in Iran’s centrifuge program, he said it is possible that Moscow illegally helped Tehran on the side improve its centrifuge performance.
While Russia publicly bristles at such accusations, that does not mean it has not secretly helped Iran or that the Iranians have not obtained additional know-how simply from closer proximity with Russian scientists, as provided for in the JCPOA, said Albright.
An even greater worry could be that any such additional nuclear know-how could easily be transferred upstream to the more advanced centrifuges.
Sometimes, he said, these advances could be as simple as the Iranians learning from foreigners that they needed to use clean gloves when handling centrifuge rotors to avoid corrosion from grease from people’s bare hands.
In other words, Albright said the big announcements might not be the reason to worry, but there is still plenty to worry about when it comes to Iran advancing in the centrifuge business.
Last weekend’s announcement was not a game-changer. But between the Mossad and Albright’s warnings to the Post, if and when Iran does make a jump forward, Israel and the West may suddenly find themselves playing catch-up much closer to the nuclear finish line than expected.