by Mohammad Ali Shabani
Most headlines on Iran’s launch of uranium-related sites on April 9th — its National Day of Nuclear Technology — linked it to the diplomatic deadlock in Kazakhstan. Tehran was regarded as pursuing escalation, perhaps in frustration with the situation. But was this really the case?
To answer this question, one needs to consider what Iran has previously done on this anniversary, the significance of the Islamic Republic’s new sites and its escalatory options.
The government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad launched the National Day of Nuclear Technology in 2006. This was part of the push for a harder stance on the nuclear issue after the breakdown of talks with European powers, during which Iran voluntarily agreed to freeze enrichment-related activities.
As part of the first festivities in 2006, Iran announced that it would — in defiance of a UN Security Council warning — enrich uranium on an industrial scale. A total of 164 centrifuges at Natanz started to spin, churning out uranium enriched below 5%.
During the past seven years, the Islamic Republic has largely used its Nuclear Technology day to unveil new achievements, both for domestic and foreign audiences. As the occasion has repeatedly coincided with nuclear diplomatic developments, it has often been used to signal Iranian attitudes.
In 2007, Iran used the anniversary to announce that it had crossed the Western red line of 3,000 operational centrifuges. Back then, David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security, asserted that “Ahmadinejad is trying to demonstrate facts on the ground and negotiate from a stronger position.”
The year after, Iran used the occasion to announce that it would begin installing 6,000 centrifuges and alluded to the testing of a new generation of centrifuges. Then in 2009, Ahmadinejad inaugurated the country’s first Fuel Manufacturing Plant in the central city of Isfahan. The Islamic Republic also said its number of centrifuges had increased to 7,000.
In 2010, as the UN Security Council convened to discuss fresh sanctions, Iran unveiled new “third-generation” centrifuges, said to have separation power six times that of first-generation centrifuges. Iran also declared that “considerable” uranium reserves had been found in Yazd province. That year, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran had 8,610 centrifuges installed, of which 3,772 were operating.
In 2011, after dialogue over Iran’s production of 19.75%-enriched uranium had broken down, it opted to simply praise past achievements. Apart from this, it announced the resumption of fuel reloading at the Bushehr power plant. And last year, after the escalation of Western sanctions, Iran announced that local scientists had produced fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor containing uranium enriched to 19.75%.
This year, Iran announced on the anniversary that it had opened two uranium mines and a yellowcake processing plant named after an assassinated nuclear scientist. What’s the significance of these sites?
In terms of capacity, the yellowcake facility is insignificant. Its stated output of 60 tons a year is less than one third of what’s needed to fuel the Bushehr atomic power plant. Moreover, the discovery of the uranium deposits, which are now being extracted, was first announced years ago. Along the same line, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran had announced in February 2012 that the mines would be operational in about a year, that is, right around this time.
The most important fact to keep in mind, however, is that Iran has for a long time been projected to be close to exhausting its limited supply of yellowcake. Without feedstock to inject into its centrifuges at Natanz (in gaseous form), Iran’s uranium enrichment — at least to 3.5% — would grind to a halt.
In short, the new sites unveiled on April 9th are designed to ensure the status quo.
There are other factors which also signify Iran’s pursuit of the status quo rather than escalation. For example, considering the many powerful escalatory options in its possession — wider use of new-generation centrifuges, expansion of operations at Fordow, increases in enrichment levels and construction of long-promised, new enrichment sites — the announcements this year seem geared towards signaling restraint to a foreign audience without appearing empty-handed in front of a domestic public facing unprecedented sanctions.
Indeed, the Islamic Republic has little interest in escalating the situation at this point, especially as it faces its first presidential election since the disputed vote in 2009. The idea that Iran prefers to quietly kick the can down the road until it gets its house in order was also recently expressed by former top US non-proliferation official, Gary Samore.
Meanwhile, it could also be argued that the United States – or at least its Congress — is pursuing escalation.
Following the deadlock in Kazakhstan, US lawmakers have been pushing for fresh sanctions that would constitute something akin to an Oil-for-Food Program 2.0. The draft Senate bill states that the proposed embargo won’t be lifted until Iran releases political prisoners, respects the rights of women and minorities and moves toward “a free and democratically elected government.”
Moreover, last week, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) — a front for the until recently terror-listed Mujahideen-e-Khalq Organization (MEK) — opened an official office one block away from the White House. The group was put on the State Department’s terror list by the Clinton Administration. In the past, the MEK was behind a series of killings and bombings in Iran — one of which led to the permanent paralysis of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s right arm. The MEK, which sided with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, was also reportedly involved in the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. Among these men is Darioush Rezaeinejad, whom the new yellowcake facility is named after.
The signal that’s being sent to decision-makers in Tehran, regardless of whether the Obama Administration approves of the MEK’s new office, is that the sanctions have little to do with their nuclear program. Combined with the wording of the proposed embargo, the situation ominously fits into Ayatollah Khamenei’s narrative that even a nuclear deal won’t be enough to roll back American pressure.
All things considered, one should be careful about linking Iran’s latest announcements about its nuclear achievements to the continued deadlock in talks with the 6 world powers, or viewing Iran’s actions as deserving of the escalation pursued by at least one of these powers.
It is becoming ever clearer that both Iran and the United States need to get their houses in order before they can move in the right direction. More than ever, cool heads need to prevail.