Iran made a sophisticated move in its nuclear program between mid-December and mid-August. It converted almost half its stock of its most dangerous 20 percent enriched uranium into a “peaceful” form that cannot be used for a nuclear weapon.
At the same time, however, it sharply increased its manufacturing capability to produce more rapidly the same 20 percent enriched uranium or to go even higher to 90 percent weapons-grade uranium should Tehran decide to take that step.
In a close reading of the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report, it’s clear that what is so sophisticated is that Iran — though still in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions — can keep claiming that its enrichment program is not for weapons. It can claim instead that the program is meant to provide fuel for the 45-year-old Tehran Research Reactor, future research or energy-producing reactors.
Of the 437.4 pounds of 20 percent enriched uranium produced through mid-August at Natanz, Iran’s primary enrichment facility, and Fordow, the newer plant under a mountain near Qom, the IAEA reported that 212.3 pounds had been sent for conversion to fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor.
Simultaneously, Iran added 1,076 centrifuges to the Fordow facility, which already had 1,064. Through Aug. 18, however, none of the newly installed centrifuges were connected to pipes, which meant that the IAEA had to guess whether they eventually will produce 20 percent enriched uranium or 3.5 percent. That’s according to the Institute for Science and International Security, a nonprofit group that has studied the Iran program.
One major demand of the United States and its allies is that Iran halt its uranium-enriching program and particularly the 20 percent element. They also want Iran to export the already produced 20 percent enriched uranium. This is all in hopes of preventing Tehran from getting a nuclear weapon.
Irony alert: It was the United States that in 1967 supplied Iran with the Tehran reactor under the Atoms for Peace program. At the time, the fuel, also U.S. supplied, was 93 percent enriched uranium, which could have been used for weapons.
After the 1979 Iranian revolution, when American Embassy employees were taken hostage, the United States stopped supplying fuel, and the reactor was closed. In 1988, Argentina agreed to provide fuel for the reactor, but only after it was converted for enriched uranium at the 20 percent level. The fuel arrived in 1993 and was expected to last through 2010.
Beginning in 2003, the possibility that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons capability led to linking Tehran’s acquisition of replacement 20 percent enriched uranium to the country dropping its enrichment capability. Negotiations failed; economic sanctions were applied; but Iran continues enriching uranium.
In February, Iran said it had placed new fuel rods made from its own 20 percent enriched uranium into the Tehran reactor, and two months later it claimed the reactor was working.
April was important for another reason. It marked the restart of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, plus the United States. Both sides laid out step-by-step processes that eventually would lead to a final agreement. So far, after two more meetings, little progress has been reported.
Meanwhile, though less-formal talks are underway preparing for the next P5+1 session with Iran, both Tehran and Washington have been publicly pressing their views.
The Iran-hosted Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) meeting in August ended with a statement supporting Tehran’s uranium-enrichment programs for peaceful electric power purposes and criticizing sanctions.
The NAM attendees, however, listened to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon lecture the Iranians, with President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad present, about obeying U.N. Security Council resolutions. That has had some effect. For example, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while supporting the Iranian right to enrichment, said that Tehran, as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, should not develop nuclear weapons.
With the U.S. presidential campaign underway, it’s clear that the White House could not offer any concession toward Iran — short of a full regime change in Tehran, that is — before November. A senior Obama official said last week that Iran using the 20 percent enriched uranium for fuel fabrication “will help justify its claim that it needs to produce even larger quantities in the future for its planned construction of four or five light-water research reactors.
“One day, they will make up an excuse to produce 90 percent for sub[marine propulsion] reactor fuel or isotope production,” he said.
I would not be surprised if congressional Republicans try to take advantage of the negotiation pause and, taking a cue from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, introduce a resolution authorizing President Obama to use force if Iran does not halt its uranium enrichment.
In early October 2002, a month before that year’s congressional elections, there was a Republican-drafted resolution in the GOP-controlled House that authorized the use of U.S. armed forces to enforce “all relevant Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.”
After it passed the House and before the Democratic-led Senate voted, President George W. Bush made supporting the resolution an election issue, and a modified version passed. That paved the way for the March 2003 attack on Iraq.
Will history repeat itself before Nov. 6?
For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.