WASHINGTON: Iran is at a crucial point in its nuclear negotiations with the United States and five other world powers.
What it does on the diplomatic front and what it does with its disputed nuclear program are vacillating between the hardline and the conciliatory. This comes as the United States looks post-election for a fresh start in talks with Iran on its alleged pursuit of the bomb. Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States are the six nations negotiating as the so-called P5-plus-1 with Iran.
On the technical front, Iran could go in one of two directions. It could stand pat with the capabilities it has built or it could increase enrichment, the process that can create fuel with which to make nuclear bombs. At the same time Iran is at a key point in diplomacy, as moves towards talks resume now that the US presidential election is over. With the American elections over, Iran no longer has a reason to put off negotiations. So there is hope that there is a new window for diplomacy.
Iran has completed installing a full complement of centrifuges, almost 2,800, at the nearly impregnable underground site of Fordow, the UN nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, reported last week. This leaves Iran able to radically increase the medium-grade uranium it is producing there, an enrichment level a step closer to weapon-level. It has stockpiled some 135 kilograms of this medium-grade, or 20 percent, enriched uranium. It would need about 230 kilograms of this uranium to refine as fuel for an atomic bomb.
Israel has said it is reassured that Iran was turning this 20-percent enriched uranium into fuel for a research reactor, thus keeping its stockpile from building too quickly. That would not be the case if Iran ramped up production, as it could now do. Uranium is enriched for normal power reactor fuel (up to 5 percent), for research reactor fuel (at Fordow up to 20 percent) and also for weapons (over 90 percent). Iran says its nuclear program is a peaceful, civilian effort but the United States fears Iran is developing atomic weapons.
The progress at Fordow, putting in the last 644 centrifuges for a full complement of 2,784 centrifuges, is thus a key development. Fordow is built under a mountain and its entrances and air vents are all carefully built for protection against attack. Israel saw Iran moving towards a “zone of immunity” because of the work at Fordow. But the zone of immunity, like so many other red lines, has faded as a tripwire for military action with the United States convincing Israel to follow it in a drive for diplomacy for now.
But this pause has allowed Iran again able to manage, despite the diplomatic and sanctions offensive against it, to create facts on the ground that will make reining in its nuclear work all the more difficult. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report also said that Iran continues to stonewall on answering questions about the possible military dimensions of its nuclear work. It continues to refuse access to one key site, Parchin, where Iran may have carried out explosives tests. Satellite imagery shows that Iran is cleaning up this site, said the IAEA, so that “when the Agency gains access to the location, its ability to conduct effective verification will have been seriously undermined.”
However, the IAEA reported that Iran has not increased the enrichment it is doing in Fordow. The same number of centrifuges, only 696 out of the 2,784, are enriching as were at the time of the previous report, last August. The other centrifuges are either spinning empty or sitting idle. Iran has not told the IAEA what it plans to do with them. The report thus presents an added element of uncertainty in Iran’s confrontation with the international community. Iran is clearly adding to its nuclear capabilities but is also holding new capability in reserve rather than moving closer to the ability to make a weapon.
This is why last week’s IAEA report is more interesting for what it does not tell us than what it does. The technical and political timelines seem to be in sync at this point. For instance, what Iran does with the nuclear capacity it has assembled and has not yet used will affect the diplomatic process. This is not to say that Iran is not struggling with technical problems which could affect its progress more than political considerations.
It looks as if Iran is continuing to have trouble getting advanced centrifuges to work on an industrial scale. These machines would significantly increase the speed at which Iran could churn out enriched uranium. None of the advanced centrifuges, the so-called IR-2m and IR-4 machines, are those installed in Fordow. Iran also looks to be having problems at Bushehr, its only operating nuclear power plant. The 1,000 megawatt reactor was built by the Russians and was plugged into the national electricity grid in September 2011. It was to be handed over to Iran next year for normal power generation use and has been running at 75 percent of nominal power. But there has been a problem with fuel assemblies, which had to be transferred from the reactor core to a spent fuel pond, the IAEA reported. This meant that the plant was shut down, something one diplomat described as “certainly not forseen, that’s for sure.”
In such a confusing situation, all manner of speculation can have value. The Federation of American Scientists last week released a report on “the potential effects on the global economy of U.S. actions against Iran.” It posited six scenarios, including increasing sanctions against Iran, isolating Iran by imposing a Persian Gulf blockade, carrying out surgical military strikes against Iran, waging a comprehensive bombing campaign, mounting a full-scale invasion and finally the option of de-escalation of the conflict with the United States “willing to make concessions.” The cost estimate for these different outcomes ranged from costs of 1.7 trillion dollars to the world economy from an invasion to a benefit windfall of 60 billion dollars from de-escalation. As to the validity of such estimates: who knows? The variables and the scenarios that will actually unfold are unknown at this point and almost certain to be otherwise than today’s predictions.
The main conclusion to be drawn from reports such as that by FAS is that the future in this crisis may turn out to be impossible to predict.