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Iran's Shrewd Move

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The most immediate answer is that Iran has not slowed its program all that much. The 10 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium it recently removed is a much smaller quantity than it had previously removed and only delays its arrival at Israel’s red line by a month. This removal appears directly geared toward the upcoming negotiations: to provide breathing room for talks to proceed – whether because Iran is interested in a negotiated solution or merely because it sees diplomacy as yet another stalling tactic – but not much more. 

The more complicated answer involves an understanding of Iran’s growing nuclear infrastructure. It produces 20 percent enriched uranium at two facilities: the above ground Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant and the underground Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant. But the new centrifuges are being installed at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant, which only produces, so far, 3.5 percent enriched uranium. Thus, these advanced centrifuges will not directly affect the growth of Iran’s 20 percent enriched uranium stockpile, nor the date when it crosses Israel’s red line. They will, however, hasten Iran’s breakout window, because if Iran ever attempts to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a nuclear weapon, it will likely do so at Natanz, its largest enrichment facility.

The centrifuge model currently deployed across Iran’s nuclear plants, the IR-1, based on a Pakistani design sold to Tehran by A.Q. Khan, has underperformed. Iran has steadily increased the productivity of its centrifuges—measured per machine in Separative Work Units per year, or SWU/yr--from 0.08 when Iran first began enriching in 2007 to 0.76 - 0.9 SWU/yr more recently. But that still falls far short of the 2.5 SWU/yr that the IR-1 should optimally be able to produce, according to its known design specifications. Nevertheless, the 2,255 additional IR-1 centrifuges Iran recently installed could, once operational, increase Natanz’s output of 3.5 percent enriched uranium by 25 percent.

More disturbing are the IR-2m centrifuges that Iran has begun installing, which have a nominal productivity of 5 SWU/yr. But even if Iran is unable to unlock the full potential of these centrifuges, it is still reasonable to assume they will be able to enrich uranium twice as fast as they currently have with the IR-1. If we assume that despite its technical limitations Iran is able to squeeze 1.8 SWU/yr out of each IR-2m centrifuge and it installs all 2,952 of these machines at Natanz, as the IAEA expects, the facility’s total SWU output will increase by more than 75 percent. Together, the new IR-1 and IR-2m centrifuges would more than double the current output of the Natanz facility. This would translate into a nearly 50 percent reduction – from 99 days to 52 – in the time it would take Iran to produce 20 kilograms of HEU, the minimum for a nuclear weapon.

Thus, Iran might be delaying the day when it is ready to make the dash to a nuclear weapon, but is ensuring that the dash will be as short as possible. In effect, Iran is shrewdly sidestepping Israel’s red line while raising the stakes for the next round of international negotiations.

Iran is exploiting the explicitness of Israel’s red line. Quantities of 20 percent enriched uranium are just one measure of nuclear weapons capability. But, since Israel has publicly committed itself to this measure, Iran has found a way to speed its work in other ways. It is delaying crossing Netanyahu’s red line but shrinking the distance between that threshold and nuclear weapons capability. Indeed, by the time Iran has sufficient 20 percent enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon, it might also have the capability to produce HEU in days – complicating an effective preemptive military strike.

Simultaneously, Iran is turning the tables on its international interlocutors, the P5+1. President Obama has sought to pressure Iran through sanctions and, more recently, raise the stakes by declaring in his State of the Union Address that “now is the time for a diplomatic solution.”

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