What Iran’s nuclear milestone means

Iran‘s nuclear program is cause for concern, but not for the reasons you think. By Jacqueline Shire There are plenty of reasons to pay close attention to Iran’s nuclear progress, but the new International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report showing that the country has accumulated 1010 kg of low-enriched uranium is not at the top ...

588344_090220_ahmadinejad2.jpg
588344_090220_ahmadinejad2.jpg
NATANZ, IRAN - APRIL 9: Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at a ceremony at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, on April 9, 2007, 180 miles south of Tehran, Iran. Ahmadinejad announced yesterday, April 9, that Iran has stepped up their Uranium enrichment programme, with up to 3,000 isotope separating centrifuges now in operation. The news has brought condemnation from the International Community and the UN. Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani confirmed the scaling-up of activity but declined to elaborate on the subject. (Photo by Majid Saeedi/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Iran's nuclear program is cause for concern, but not for the reasons you think.

Iran‘s nuclear program is cause for concern, but not for the reasons you think.

By Jacqueline Shire

There are plenty of reasons to pay close attention to Iran’s nuclear progress, but the new International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report showing that the country has accumulated 1010 kg of low-enriched uranium is not at the top of my list.

That’s not to say that this milestone is insignificant. We now know that Iran has accumulated enough low-enriched uranium (LEU) to yield sufficient high-enriched uranium for a single nuclear weapon should Iran decide to seize the material, which is under IAEA safeguards, further enrich it, and in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, use the material in a nuclear warhead. Luckily, given the international crisis this action would certainly provoke, Iran is unlikely to attempt the feat.

We’ve also learned that Iran has achieved its objective of successfully operating several thousand centrifuges. This has been a gradual process that began in earnest two years ago.

The report generated further concern because of a discrepancy in the accounting of Iran’s uranium. According to senior U.N. officials, the discrepancy, which resulted in the underreporting of LEU in the November 2008 report by 209 kg, was an engineering miscalculation on Iran’s part and not a deliberate attempt to mislead the IAEA. The net effect is that Iran crossed the so-called breakout threshold a few months earlier than expected. 

While legitimate cause for worry, these headlines obscure other equally important developments. One is that although Iran has installed upwards of 5,400 centrifuges, it continues to operate just under 4,000 of them, bringing into operation only one additional cascade of centrifuges since November. Is Iran suddenly more attuned to the optics of its nuclear program? Hard to say, especially given that it continues to stonewall the IAEA on access to a heavy water reactor under construction at Arak, and refuses to even discuss a set of documents that allegedly show research into nuclear warhead design.

Potentially more troubling is Iran’s refusal to allow IAEA inspection of nuclear facilities not covered under traditional safeguards, in particular places where centrifuges are manufactured and stored. The consequence is that the IAEA has little knowledge of how many centrifuges Iran is manufacturing and where they are. It is conceivable therefore that Iran could make centrifuges that are not destined for the inspected site at Natanz, but for a clandestine facility. Because of another change that Iran unilaterally made to its safeguards relationship with the IAEA, it has declared that it will only inform the IAEA of new nuclear facilities six months before they become operational.

These are the fine-print details of Iran’s relationship with Vienna that don’t garner flashy headlines, but are the real reason to keep a close eye on Iran’s actions. 

Jacqueline Shire is a senior analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security and a widely cited expert on Iran’s nuclear program.

Photo: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.