- By William TobeyWilliam Tobey is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs was most recently deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration.
What does last Friday’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran’s nuclear program tell us? The inescapable conclusion is: international efforts to prevent Tehran from drawing closer to a nuclear weapons capability are failing. Iran has shortened considerably the distance it must travel to construct a nuclear weapon, and the pace of its program is accelerating.
First, the facts according to the IAEA: Iran continues to build both stocks of low-enriched uranium, and new production capacity. Moreover, Iran is producing uranium enriched to about 3.5 percent, which it has been doing since 2006, and to almost 20 percent, which it has done for about a year. Stocks of the former stand at almost six tons; and of the latter, at about 220 lbs. (after subtracting a small amount reportedly fabricated into research reactor fuel), both in the form of UF6. Monthly outputs of both enrichment levels are at all time highs, and Iranian engineers are apparently adding new production capacity to Natanz and the newer deep underground facility at Fordow.
If further enriched to weapons grade, depending on the amount of processing waste, the material Iran now has on hand could be enough for several nuclear weapons. The move to enrichment at almost 20 percent U-235 is particularly troubling. Graham Allison has likened it to moving from the 30 to the 10-yard line in a football game-and, of course, the 10-yard line is inside what gridiron experts call the red zone, because it is so hard to prevent a team from scoring once there. Should Iran decide to break out or sneak out of its treaty obligations and build a nuclear weapon, the timelines would be shortened accordingly. Under present trends, by the end of the year, Iran will amass 5-600 lbs. of material enriched to almost 20 percent — more than enough for a nuclear weapon if further enriched to weapons grade. Estimates of how long it would take Iran to do so are hotly contested, but range from 2-6 months (NPEC and ISIS).
The IAEA also reported that its latest efforts to resolve issues with Iran, including two recent trips to Tehran, met with no joy. Iran continued to refuse inspectors access to Parchin, a military complex suspected of nuclear activities. The Agency and Iranian officials failed to reach agreement on procedures to resolve outstanding discrepancies and issues that raise the possibility of "a military dimension" to Iran’s nuclear programs. Iranian negotiators simply dismissed the Agency’s detailed November 2011 report on indicators of a nuclear explosive program, including specific allegations regarding program management, procurement activities, material acquisition, components for an explosive device, detonator development, experiments, tests, and modeling, and work to integrate a device into a missile delivery vehicle, including on fuzing, arming, and firing. In short, the inspectors concluded that their efforts to seek cooperation from Iran had failed.
If these are the facts, what then are their implications?
First, Iran’s attempts to cloak its nuclear program in the mantle of peaceful activities are daily growing more threadbare. Abraded by facts and logic, large holes are opening in Iran’s case that it is merely pursuing legitimate programs. Tehran is willing to suffer potentially devastating economic sanctions and to risk a military confrontation for an enrichment program of marginal economic value and that violates repeated United Nations Security Council resolutions. Iran contends that it needs to enrich to 3.5 percent to fuel the Bushehr power reactor and to almost 20 percent to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes. However, alternative sources of fuel are available for both reactors. Russia has pledged a ten year supply of fuel for Bushehr and in 2009 negotiators reached what they thought was a deal to fuel the research reactor, only to have it scuttled in Tehran. Iran also contends that it is enriching uranium to fuel future planned-but un-built-power reactors; risible this, no one buys gasoline before buying a car, or coal for a power plant before constructing it. Furthermore, Iran’s stock of 20 percent enriched uranium is growing disproportionate to any plausible peaceful purpose; it is already about equal to the amount of research reactor fuel Iran consumed over the past two decades.
Second, Tehran’s response to stepped-up sanctions and other pressure has been to accelerate the pace of its nuclear activities. Sanctions may have cut Iran’s GDP, unleashed inflation, and created friction on trade with Iran, but they are failing miserably at slowing uranium enrichment.
Third, Tehran’s stonewalling of the latest IAEA efforts to resolve outstanding issues offers little reason to believe that a negotiated solution may be possible. Some contend that Western negotiators merely need to cut through confusion, internal Iranian divisions, or suspicions in Tehran but, repeated attempts to negotiate by very different diplomats and governments, extending back nearly a decade, have done little or nothing to halt Iran’s steady progress toward the ability to construct a nuclear weapon.
Iran’s nuclear program presents an immense challenge with no obvious solution. Iranian intentions-if not their progress on uranium enrichment-remain unclear to the West. The only certainties are that the problem will grow a great deal more difficult and dangerous should Tehran obtain a nuclear weapon, and it is making steady progress toward that point.