Iran’s Nuclear Moves Point to Increased Tensions

July 13, 2011

David Albright and Andrea Stricker

      The conflict over Iran’s nuclear program appears to be getting worse.  In June, Iran decided to relocate 20 percent enrichment at its fortified Fordow enrichment plant near Qom and install advanced centrifuges that would triple its enrichment output.  These steps will make it easier for Iran to quickly break out to nuclear weapons.  As British Foreign Secretary William Hague pointed out in a recent Guardian op-ed, moving enrichment to Fordow and tripling output makes little sense in terms of its civilian nuclear program, which Iran claims is the only purpose of its nuclear program. 
 
       Iran’s appointment of Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani as the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) has increased the crisis atmosphere. Abbasi-Davani is a physicist widely suspected of having background in Iran’s nuclear weapon research programs.  He has regularly been linked to Iran’s efforts to actually craft a nuclear weapon, a process called weaponization.  Abbasi-Davani was a key scientist in the Iranian covert nuclear weapons program headed by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a strong supporter of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, according to an expert close to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). 
 
       Abbasi-Davani personally directed work to calculate the yield of a nuclear weapon; he also worked on high energy neutron sources, the expert said.  Iran’s continued work on nuclear capable ballistic missiles and failure to announce these launches adds further to this growing list of suspicions.
 
        Iran’s decision to move 20 percent enrichment to Fordow could be aimed at acclimatizing the international community to conditions that would make a breakout to nuclear weapons more feasible.  By increasing the enrichment level and its stock of 20 percent low-enriched uranium, Iran could reach a so-called “break out” capability that would enable it to make enough weapon-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon in a few months.  Iran already has the knowledge to build a crude nuclear weapon, according to the IAEA. 
 
        Iran is likely to continue to expand its enrichment capability until it needs less time to make the requisite amount of weapon-grade uranium for one explosive device.  Once Iran reaches a certain capability, it could decide to take that step to make nuclear weapons.  Having a device sufficient for testing may be all Iran wants.  North Korea settled for that scenario, while it improved its ability to make deliverable nuclear weapons.
 
        Enrichment at Fordow also offers Iran the benefit of protection from air strikes, since the facility is located 90 meters underneath a mountain.  If Iran were to restrict IAEA inspectors from having access to the plant, little could be done aside from bombing the facility’s tunnel entrances or introducing ground troops, which could trigger a full-scale war. 
 

        In the absence of a negotiated settlement, Iran appears to be steadily moving to a status as a virtual nuclear weapons state in which it could build nuclear weapons quickly and easily.  Once it reaches this capability, what will the Iranian regime decide?  Will the temptation be too great to resist?  In order to bridge the gulf and prevent Iran’s slow slide to nuclear weapons, the most viable option for the international community is an intensified dual track approach of both pressure and negotiations.

 
David Albright, a physicist and former U.N. weapons inspector, is the president and founder of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington, D.C. Andrea Stricker is a research analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS).
 
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