In the days preceding the thirty first anniversary of Iran’s Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khamenei threatened that Iran would deliver a “punch” to the West. Most observers assumed that this meant that Iran would launch several missiles, perhaps photoshopping in a few more for added effect, and call it a day. But February 11, 2010 may go down in history as the day Iran made its real intentions for its nuclear program known publicly, while the rest of the world exerted a collective yawn.
Speaking to thousands of regime supporters in downtown Tehran, President Ahmadinejad did not mince words, repeating an assertion that Iran was a “nuclear state,” and stating, "I want to announce with a loud voice here that the first package of 20 percent fuel was produced and provided to the scientists."
The Obama administration's reaction was oddly defiant. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs called Ahmadinejad’s statement “based on politics, not on phsysics” and flatly stated, “We do not believe they have the capability to enrich to the degree to which they now say they are enriching.” The Washington Post reported the same day, “Iran is experiencing surprising setbacks in its efforts to enrich uranium,” further strengthening the narrative that Iran was somehow bragging about capabilities that it did not possess.
All of this happened the same day that the Iranian regime went to great lengths to suppress protests by the opposition Green movement. The effect: Ahmadinejad’s announcement masterfully diverted international attention from the internal turmoil back to the international community’s primary concern – Iran’s growing nuclear capability.
A week later, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its most recent report on Iran’s nuclear activities. It is the first report issued by IAEA director general Yukiya Amano, who replaced Mohammed El Baradei, always a friend to the Iranians. The report, quickly leaked to the press, is perhaps the strongest indictment of Iran issued by a normally staid technical agency that is more often accused of understatement than alarmist rhetoric. The report raises troubling questions about Iran’s nuclear intentions and the Obama administration’s strategy for preventing a nuclear Iran.
Iran currently has thousands of centrifuges used to enrich uranium installed at its Natanz facility. Despite multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding that Iran halt enrichment, Iran continues to feed uranium hexafluoride gas into the centrifuges, enriching the gas to roughly 3.5 percent, the level required to fuel nuclear power plants.
The IAEA report makes clear that although Iran has only one cascade of centrifuges configured to enrich its small stockpile of LEU up to 20 percent, it successfully enriched a small quantity of uranium hexafluoride gas to the 20 percent level by the time Ahmadinejad delivered his speech on February 11. Why, then, did the Obama administration decide to question Ahmadinejad’s assertions from the White House briefing room? And why did the administration continue to play down Iran’s technical capabilities even after the IAEA report was released?
The answer lies not at the White House or at Foggy Bottom but with the U.S. intelligence community. Ever since the December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran stated, “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program,” the intelligence community has faithfully stood by what most observers consider a flawed assessment, even as senior U.S. officials have come to a different conclusion.
The IAEA report released on February 18 directly contradicts the 2007 NIE, outlining a series of weapons-applicable work “which seem to have continued beyond 2003.” A report released by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 2009 warned that some foreign nuclear experts and intelligence officials believed that “Iran has produced a suitable design, manufactured some components and conducted enough successful explosive tests to put the project on the shelf until it manufactured the fissile material required for several weapons.”
If this assessment that Iran completed most of the key work required on weaponization prior to its supposed halt in 2003 is correct, the key to whether Iran gets a nuke lies at Natanz and other (possibly unknown) enrichment facilities.
Most analysts have argued that the international community would have plenty of time to prevent a breakout scenario – where Iran kicks out international inspectors and makes a mad dash to produce fissile material for a weapon at Natanz or at a covert facility -- because, as a declared facility, IAEA inspectors visit and monitor the site on a regular basis – indeed, they even witnessed part of Iran’s enrichment activities last week.
However, the IAEA report and the White House reaction to Ahmadinejad last week seem to indicate that Iran’s actions may have caught the IAEA and the United States off guard, raising serious questions about our ability to monitor operations at Natanz. If Iran could quickly reconfigure one cascade to enrich to 20 percent, they can certainly reconfigure more, and it appears they can do so in a rather short period of time.
The IAEA report notes that the Iranians have also transferred the bulk of the LEU they have produced to the facility where they are now enriching up to 20 percent. This is much more LEU than they would actually need to produce to run the Tehran Research Reactor. This leaves the respected Institute for Science and International Security to note in their analysis of the IAEA report that “Natanz could currently produce enough weapon-grade uranium for a weapon in six months or less.”
With the Iranian regime still in a precarious position and President Ahmadinejad successfully using advancements in the nuclear program to divert attention from internal politics, there is a real risk that the weak U.S. and international response to last week’s announcement could lead the hardliners now in control in Tehran – the “military dictatorship” referenced by Secretary Clinton on February 15 -- to feel that they can take another step toward a nuclear weapon without repercussions. In essence, Iran may be implementing an incremental breakout strategy as the world watches and does nothing.
The Obama administration only furthers this by stating that it has no intention of taking military action against Iran. “We are not planning anything other than going for sanctions,” Clinton told Al-Arabiya television on February 17. The administration is correct to focus on sanctions, but with the president’s comment that the “door is still open” to a solution obtained through negotiation, and with anonymous administration officials hinting that they intend to use sanctions only as a way to force the Iranians back to negotiations, the regime in Tehran realizes it doesn’t have much to worry about in the near future, as long as it can maintain its grip on power.
The last thing the administration should be doing is playing down Iran’s clearly expanding nuclear capabilities. If the administration insists on denying the facts about Iran’s nuclear progress, the Iranians may compensate by making their intentions all too clear. But by then it will be much too late.
Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative. He served in the Bush administration from 2005 to 2009.