Iran’s nuclear advance

Iran’s nuclear advance

The Obama administration’s Iran policy in recent weeks has had a certain schizophrenic quality to it.

On the one hand, President Obama has played the role of cajoler in chief, stating last week that the door remains open to a deal with Tehran. On the other hand, Secretary of State Clinton has emerged as the administration’s resident hardliner, calling the regime in Tehran a "military dictatorship" and throwing caution (and the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran) to the wind by referring to Iran’s "nuclear weapons military program,"as if such a program was still ongoing. These are the sort of statements that Bush administration officials would have been crucified for by the press (with assistance from the U.S. intelligence community) in the wake of Iraq and the 2007 NIE.

While it is infuriating that this administration is being held to a different standard than the last, Secretary Clinton’s statements have the added value of being correct. The latest evidence of this is the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report about Iran’s nuclear program, which was released on Thursday. It is the first report issued by Director General Yukiya Amano, who replaced Iran ally Mohamed ElBaradei late last year. The report, the strongest since the IAEA began issuing such reports about Iran’s program in 2003, is remarkably frank about Iran’s nuclear progress, a quality that observers could not easily find in the politicized reports issued by the IAEA during ElBaradei’s tenure.

The report raises several troubling questions. It makes clear that Iran has successfully enriched a small amount of its low enriched uranium (LEU) up to roughly 20%. Some experts will argue that Iran has only enriched a small amount of LEU to this level and that they are doing so slowly but, according to the IAEA, Iran is taking steps that will allow its scientists at Natanz to enrich most of their existing stockpile of LEU to this level, which will result in much more fuel than they will ever need to run the Tehran Research Reactor, their stated purpose for this bold move given the collapse of the fuel swap deal Tehran supposedly agreed to in Geneva last year.

Just as troubling is that, despite the Washington Post report last week about centrifuge problems at Natanz, Iran continues to enrich at a steady pace — the IAEA report shows that the total amount enriched to 3.5% was slightly higher than in previous reporting periods. They have installed a large number of centrifuges that have yet to be brought online, but while the Obama administration is trying to argue that this is a sign of potential problems, it also could be because the Iranians are likely beginning to run out of the feedstock for the centrifuges and they may want to stretch out their current supply, or they could intend to bring those centrifuges online at a key moment in the political dispute or they could intend to move the centrifuges to another facility, such as the one revealed last year that is still empty.

Perhaps most troubling of all is the IAEA’s statement that certain weaponization activities may have continued beyond 2004. The type of work specifically mentioned is directly related to "development of a nuclear payload for a missile." Various press reports in recent months have suggested that Western intelligence agencies are concerned that the military program may have resumed after a brief halt in 2003 — or may have never stopped. If this is true, the 2007 NIE will have been proven to be incorrect, capping an unfortunate decade for the U.S. intelligence community, a decade in which it struggled to strike a balance between jumping to conclusions based on single sources and being overly cautious in its assessments about covert WMD programs.

In sum, Iran is laying the groundwork required to eventually pursue a weapons capability on relatively short notice (the Institute for Science and International Security estimates that they would now only need six months using the LEU they have produced at Natanz) to produce enough HEU for a weapon. Thursday’s IAEA report implies that they may not require significant additional work to produce the warhead itself. This timeline, of course, assumes they are not already producing LEU or highly enriched uranium (HEU) at a covert facility. Although some experts may quibble with the terminology, it appears that an incremental breakout is underway. The Iranians are methodically preparing the capabilities needed to produce a weapon, all the while suffering few consequences.

Last week, Iranian President Ahmadinejad masterfully used the nuclear program to deflect international attention away from the regime’s own precarious situation. The limited international reaction to this serious Iranian act may send the message to Tehran that there redlines no longer exist.

Unless the Iranian regime is concerned that its actions will have repercussions, particularly those that threaten their grip on power, such as military action or greater Western support for the Green movement, they are likely to take additional steps to exploit this situation. The frightening takeaway from the IAEA report is that if Iran continues down this path, the international community will have very little time to stop them.