A Long View of Iran’s Nuclear Progress

by Peter Jenkins

I was still a serving diplomat in Vienna when, in January 2006, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran had resumed uranium enrichment, suspended since November 2003. Like my Western colleagues, I feared the worst. I assumed that Iran was going to install as many centrifuges as it could as quickly as it could, and that within a very few years Iran’s production of enriched uranium would bring into existence an intractable nuclear deterrent capability (even then I doubted Iran wanted an offensive nuclear capability).

I would have been incredulous had someone assured me that seven years later Iran would only possess some 16,000 assembled centrifuge machines; that Iran would only be operating some 60% of these; that it would only just be starting to install some 3,000 machines of a more advanced and efficient design, which it first obtained in 1995; that it would only have produced 8,300 kg of enriched uranium; and that less than 30% of this production would have been enriched to the intermediate level of 20% U235.

Of course, there are people who say that Iran would dearly love to have built more machines and produced more enriched uranium since 2006. For all I know, these people are right when they tell us that a number of technical impediments, some contrived by the West, and procurement problems have slowed progress.

But the latest IAEA report (GOV 2013/6 of 21 February) makes me think, as some previous reports have, that this may not be the whole story. I sense that Iran is deliberately adopting a cautious, measured approach to the expansion of its nuclear program. I speculate below about possible reasons for this.

In this latest report, the headline grabber has been Iran’s declaration to the IAEA of plans to install 18 cascades (some 3,000 machines) of the more advanced IR2m type. This has been greeted with alarm in some quarters and with condemnation by Western governments.

That was predictable but is not strictly rational. These machines are being installed at the Natanz plant, not the less vulnerable (to aerial attack) Fordow plant. They are to be used, Iran has declared, to enrich uranium to 3.5%, not 20%. They are being introduced in modest quantities (Western enrichment plants contain tens of thousands of machines). Could Iran be signalling that the West should not be alarmed: Iran has no intention of using these machines for the rapid “breakout” that is the stuff of Mr. Netanyahu’s nightmares?

Equally noteworthy are two other IAEA findings. Iran is still only using 4 out of a possible 16 cascades at Fordow to enrich uranium to 20%. And of the 47 kg of 20% U235 produced since November at Fordow and Natanz combined, some 60% has been transferred to Isfahan and converted from gaseous to metallic form.

One consequence of this is that only 167kg of the 280kg of 20% U235 produced since early 2010 is still available in gaseous form for enrichment to weapon-grade, were Iran to start re-configuring the Fordow cascades in order to “breakout”. And of this it seems likely (the IAEA report is silent) that fewer than 100kg are located at Fordow, assuming that at least a portion of the 130kg produced at Fordow has been transferred to Isfahan.

Could this be a signal that Iran has no intention of giving Mr. Netanyahu a pretext for another bout of war fever by approaching his “red line” of 240kg of 20% U235 hexafluoride ready for higher enrichment?

Anyway, it would have been nice if Western governments could have come up with a more clever reaction to the IR2m declaration than to don their global policeman’s caps and issue a stern reprimand to a sovereign counterpart. If they are really alarmed that after 17 years Iran is at last installing a more advanced design of centrifuge, why not make the few, simple policy adjustments that are needed to draw Iran into a serious negotiation?

The rational response to the introduction of more efficient centrifuge machines is to seek to increase the timeliness of the IAEA’s detection capabilities. This can be achieved by persuading Iran to re-apply the Additional Protocol. Western negotiators will find their Iranian counterparts open to persuasion provided Iranian concerns are also addressed.

After all, one does not need to be a genius to surmise that Iran’s cautious expansion of its nuclear program aims in part at bringing the West to the negotiating table — just as Western governments aim at “bringing Iran to the table” by piling on sanctions. This would be an amusing irony were the mutual incomprehension not potentially so dangerous.

Photo: Ali Akbar Salehi, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, meets IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano at the IAEA’s headquarters in Vienna, Austria on 12 July 2011.

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.