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.