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?
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.”
Iran is upping the ante further by signaling that, if no deal is struck soon, Tehran will be poised on the brink of nuclear weapons capability. This unspoken ultimatum is designed to compel the P5+1 to accept a deal on terms favorable to Iran—such as perhaps acknowledging the non-existent “right to enrich”—rather than force a confrontation. Iran’s leaders are gambling that the P5+1 puts more value on coming to some sort of diplomatic arrangement than on ensuring Tehran cannot attain nuclear weapons.
In response, the United States should make abundantly clear, in both word and deed, that it remains committed to using all means of power to prevent a nuclear Iran. This could pressure Iran to negotiate in good faith. President Obama should return to the red line he drew during the third presidential debate last year, “nuclear weapons capability,” because it is a more prudent, provable and preventable threshold than “nuclear weapons.” Meanwhile, Congress should act to avoid the looming sequester, which would seriously constrain U.S. military resources needed in the Persian Gulf and signal weakness at a crucial time.
Iran is slowing down its nuclear program in order to speed up its march toward nuclear weapons capability. The United States should not be afraid to show its strength in order to secure peace.
Michael Makovsky, a Pentagon official during the George W. Bush administration, directs the Bipartisan Policy Center's Foreign Policy Project, including its Iran Initiative. Blaise Misztal is associate director of BPC’s Foreign Policy Project.