Iran's Shrewd Move
8:08 AM, Feb 22, 2013 • By MICHAEL MAKOVSKY AND BLAISE MISZTAL
With the next round of international talks on Iran’s nuclear program scheduled for February 26, the United States needs to understand Iran’s negotiating strategy. Recent Iranian tactics suggest a seemingly contradictory approach: simultaneously slowing down and speeding up their nuclear program. But by buying time now, Iran is shrewdly seeking to evade international pressure while hastening its advance to nuclear weapons capability. The United States should be clear that it sees through this ploy and remains determined to prevent a nuclear Iran.
On February 12, Iran announced, and Western diplomats later reportedly corroborated, that it has once again drawn from its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium to produce reactor fuel. Official confirmation came from the latest report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), released yesterday. This move, the third such in the last year, suggests that Iran is trying to decelerate its nuclear program.
Last May, and then again in November, the IAEA reported that Iran had removed 20 percent enriched uranium, 30 and 36 kilograms respectively, to be turned into fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor. Once the 20 percent enriched uranium is converted into fuel plates for use in a reactor, it becomes much harder – though not impossible – to return it to the form necessary for further enrichment. Thus, although Iran still possesses the removed 20 percent enriched uranium, it is effectively not available for use in any sprint for a nuclear weapon.
Without these past removals, Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium would have surpassed the critical threshold of 155 kilograms – the minimum amount of 20 percent enriched uranium needed to produce, with further enrichment, enough fissile material for a nuclear device – last November. But by removing 66 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium in 2012, Iran delayed the expected date for crossing the threshold of nuclear weapons capability into May 2013, buying about 7 months. That timeframe corresponds to the very clear red line that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew, literally, last year, implicitly threatening military action “before Iran completes the second stage of nuclear enrichment [amassing enough 20% enriched uranium] necessary to make a bomb.”
By removing yet more 20 percent enriched uranium, Iran pushes back the date for crossing Israel’s red line further yet. According to the latest IAEA report, Iran most recently removed a little more than 10 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium. Assuming that their rate of producing 20 percent enriched uranium remains constant going forward, Iran’s stockpile could surpass 155 kilograms in late June 2013, effectively buying an additional month.
Yet, on February 13, Tehran claimed to have begun installing next generation centrifuges at its Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant. And on February 14 it was revealed that Iran had attempted to buy specialized magnets to build even more centrifuges. The new IAEA report effectively confirms both these stories. It shows that since last November Iran has already installed 180 out of a planned 2,952 next generation centrifuges and added 2,255 current generation centrifuges. These developments suggest that Iran is seeking to speed up its nuclear work.
But why would Iran speed up its enrichment program at the same time it appears to be stalling for time?