United States, EU3 in another spat with ElBaradei

SAMUEL KUBANI/AFP Last week, the New York Times reported that Iran “appears to have solved most of its technological problems and is now beginning to enrich uranium on a far larger scale than before.” The article now reads like a preview of what International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammed ElBaradei will likely tell the U.N. ...

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601746_070522_elbaradei_05.jpg

SAMUEL KUBANI/AFP

Last week, the New York Times reported that Iran "appears to have solved most of its technological problems and is now beginning to enrich uranium on a far larger scale than before." The article now reads like a preview of what International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammed ElBaradei will likely tell the U.N. Security Council tomorrow in New York: that Iran already possesses "the knowledge about how to enrich," and that therefore trying to convince Iran to comply with U.N. resolutions and suspend its enrichment program is pointless. ElBaradei's remarks quoted in the Times have provoked the ire of United States and the EU3, so the findings on which they are based bear close scrutiny. 

According to the Times, the IAEA found that the Natanz plant has "roughly 1,300" centrifuges, all of which "were producing fuel suitable for nuclear reactors." A few months ago, I noted that Iran was probably running fewer than 500 centrifuges, with perhaps another 300 installed, so 1,300 would represent a significant gain.

SAMUEL KUBANI/AFP

Last week, the New York Times reported that Iran “appears to have solved most of its technological problems and is now beginning to enrich uranium on a far larger scale than before.” The article now reads like a preview of what International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammed ElBaradei will likely tell the U.N. Security Council tomorrow in New York: that Iran already possesses “the knowledge about how to enrich,” and that therefore trying to convince Iran to comply with U.N. resolutions and suspend its enrichment program is pointless. ElBaradei’s remarks quoted in the Times have provoked the ire of United States and the EU3, so the findings on which they are based bear close scrutiny. 

According to the Times, the IAEA found that the Natanz plant has “roughly 1,300” centrifuges, all of which “were producing fuel suitable for nuclear reactors.” A few months ago, I noted that Iran was probably running fewer than 500 centrifuges, with perhaps another 300 installed, so 1,300 would represent a significant gain.

However, the Iranians failed to meet their goal of having 3,000 centrifuges installed by March. David Albright, of the Institute for Science and International Security, thinks they could achieve that number by the end of June, though at the rate they’ve been going the Iranians would not achieve it until September.

Also, the Times article says nothing about Iran’s ability to machine centrifuge parts, or about Iran’s ability to produce sufficiently pure gas to feed into the centrifuges, or about whether the existing centrifuge cascades are linked together—a necessary step to produce useful levels of enrichment—or about whether the cascades can operate continuously. (The inspection, while performed at very short notice, might have just caught the Iranians on a good day).

So, in short: Take reports about Iran’s capabilities with a grain of salt, and listen carefully to tomorrow’s report from ElBaradei. Iran still has a ways to go before it can produce significant quantities of its own nuclear weapons-grade uranium. As Jeffrey Lewis observed last week, there’s an important distinction between “knowing how to enrich and perfecting that knowledge,” and it’s over that ground that the next diplomatic battle will be waged.

Eric Hundman is a science fellow at the Center for Defense Information. His research focuses on emerging technology, terrorism and nuclear policy, including the conventionalization of nuclear forces. He contributes a series of posts for Passport on nuclear technology called “Nuke Notes.”

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