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Centrifuges: Key to Final Nuclear Deal

David Albright and Andrea Stricker

            In any nuclear deal, Iran will have to limit the number of centrifuges it uses to enrich uranium, a process that produces fuel for both peaceful nuclear energy and the world’s deadliest weapon. But the exact number is likely to be one of the most contentious issues during the six-month negotiations that finally get into real substance when talks resume in mid-March. Past positions reflect the controversies in brokering a future accord that ensures Tehran does not produce a bomb.
      Iran currently has about 19,000 centrifuges installed at the two pivotal enrichments sites—Natanz, which is near Kashan, and Fordo, which is deep in the mountains near the religious center of Qom. The new cap in a deal with the world’s six major powers will almost surely have to be a small fraction of Iran’s current capability—probably somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 IR-1 centrifuges. IR-1 is the first generation of centrifuges.
      The most telling negotiations about centrifuges took place in 2005, as the international community tried to convert a temporary suspension of Iran’s enrichment program, which had begun in 2003, into a long-term deal. Iran proposed to the three European powers—Britain, France and Germany—an initial cap of 3,000 IR-1 centrifuges. But Tehran also insisted that it be allowed to continue increasing the number of its centrifuges after a relatively short time. Iran’s proposal called for stages:
  Stage 2 —3,000 centrifuges in operation, a cap that would only be in place temporarily.
  Stage 3 —installation of 50,000 centrifuges, the number envisioned for Natanz, then the only enrichment site.
  Stage 4 —operation of all 50,000, alongside the parliament’s approval of the Additional Protocol, which allows complementary inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency and makes hiding nuclear activities and facilities more difficult. 
            The Europeans rejected Iran’s proposal. The European Union had instead offered to supply a power reactor and all the enriched uranium fuel, which would nullify the need for any centrifuges at Natanz. In July 2005, Tehran indicated it might modify its offer, but it would not budge on the key issue of synchronizing the number of centrifuges at Natanz to the domestic production of enough enriched uranium for a large nuclear power reactor—another way of increasing the number of centrifuges to 50,000.
      The deadlock over numbers ultimately contributed to a breakdown in talks. When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in August 2005, Iran ended the suspension of its program. It then resumed centrifuge installation and operation. Tensions soon mounted with the international community, producing four U.N. resolutions and a host of other unilateral sanctions by the United States, the European Union and other Western governments.
            The danger today is déjà vu. The new talks center on the same issues explored nine years ago. Although Tehran has engaged in the most serious diplomacy to date, its rhetoric today mirrors its position in 2005. The chief negotiator in 2005 is today Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani.
            The talks today involve more players, including the United States, Russia and China, and tougher terms in light of Iran’s advances in the intervening decade. Washington, with European backing, not only wants a cap on the number of centrifuges. It also wants the cap to last far longer—more like 20 years. Their argument is that Iran has no need to produce any fuel. It already has produced enough for the small Tehran Research Reactor, which makes isotopes for cancer treatment and other medical uses.
     In other words, the world’s six major powers believe Iran’s ambitions far exceed its current needs. Iran only has one nuclear reactor for energy at Bushehr, which was built by Russia. The enriched uranium that fuels the Bushehr reactor also is provided by Russia. In general, any nuclear deal would also allow Iran to more economically and reliable obtain the fuel it might need from abroad for additional reactors.
            Any meaningful deal will almost certainly require that Iran accepts limits on its centrifuges—in terms of number and the quality of uranium they enrich—that will in turn increase the so-called break-out time. Break-out time is the timespan required to produce enough weapon-grade uranium to produce a weapon. Currently, the estimated breakout times are dangerously short.
            For negotiations to succeed, Tehran would probably have to accept a limited centrifuge program where the break-out time to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb would be in the range of six to 12 months. Another key condition would be capping at a relatively low level the amount of uranium enriched up to near 20 percent— the material that can most rapidly be further enriched to weapon-grade. In effect, these two conditions translate into a long-term cap on Iran’s centrifuges of no more than 4,000 IR-1 centrifuges. Both are central to achieving an irreversible long-term agreement.
David Albright is the president and Andrea Stricker a senior policy analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS).
Click here to read Albright and Stricker’s Iran Primer chapter on the nuclear program.
Photo credits: Catherine Ashton and Javad Zarif by Das österreichische Außenministerium via Flickr, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad via New York Times/President.ir, Bushehr via NuclearEnergy.ir


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Report: New Progress on Arak Reactor

            Iran’s heavy water reactor near the central city of Arak will likely begin operating in 2014, according to a new report by the Institute for Science and International Security. U.N. Security Council resolutions dating back to 2006 have urged Iran to stop construction on the Arak reactor because it could open another potential route to nuclear weapons aside from enriching uranium. David Albright and Christina Walrond warn that the reactor’s operation could “needlessly complicate negotiations and increase the risk of military strikes.”
            The reactor could produce enough weapons-grade plutonium for about two nuclear weapons a year. But the report also notes that Iran has no declared plans to build the necessary separation plant to process the plutonium.
Tehran has claimed its reactors are for generating electricity and medical research. The following are excerpts with a link to the full report at the end.  

            Despite the delays and problems in procuring essential equipment abroad and making fuel domestically, Iran is currently expected to finish the Arak reactor. However, additional delays in commissioning are expected. In any case, the reactor is widely viewed as unnecessary. Sufficient medical isotopes—Iran’s stated justification for the reactor— can be produced in the Tehran Research Reactor or obtained via international commercial markets. Iran has also recently announced its siting of a second research reactor, which would also produce medical isotopes. More importantly, the Arak reactor’s operation would open a second potential route to nuclear weapons for Iran, in this case via plutonium. The first route is its centrifuge program that could make highly enriched uranium. Operating the Arak reactor would heighten concerns that Iran aims to build nuclear weapons. Its operation would needlessly complicate negotiations and increase the risk of military strikes.
            Iran has stated that its IR-40 heavy water reactor, located near the city of Arak, will begin operating in 2014. This reactor has been under construction since June 2004 and development work goes back at least another decade. The IR-40 reactor is designed to produce 40 megawatts thermal (MWth) of power and use natural uranium oxide fuel that Iran is producing at the Esfahan conversion and fuel fabrication facilities.
            United Nations Security Council resolutions, the first of which dates to 2006, have called for Iran to halt construction of this reactor. The reactor poses a notable proliferation threat because it can produce significant amounts of weapons-grade plutonium –about 9-10 kilograms annually or enough for about two nuclear weapons each year. Before it could use any of this plutonium in a nuclear weapon, however, Iran would first have to separate it from the irradiated fuel. Iran has no declared plans to separate plutonium from the irradiated Arak fuel, although it has not agreed to forgo separating plutonium. If it decided to create a secret plutonium separation program, it would also need to divert the irradiated fuel, which would be detected relatively quickly by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Nonetheless, suspicions remain that after the reactor operates, Iran will overtly or covertly build a plant to separate plutonium produced in this reactor. Although the reactor still will require significant work before it operates, Iran reported to the IAEA during the last Design Inventory Verification (DIV) visit in May 2013 that pre-commissioning of the reactor using dummy fuel assemblies and light water will begin in the fourth quarter of 2013 and commissioning using real fuel assemblies and heavy water would begin in the first quarter of 2014, with the start-up planned for the third quarter of 2014…

NAM Countries Hypocritical on Iran

David Albright and Andrea Stricker

            The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit ended on August 31 in Tehran with the adoption of a communiqué that is troubling and even hypocritical in its support for Iran’s nuclear program.   The final NAM document—in addition to the “Tehran Declaration,” a separate paper written by Iran—also criticized unilateral sanctions against Iran, including penalties by the United States and European Union. 
            The core issue is that the NAM statement misinterprets the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Contrary to widespread perception, the international treaty signed by 190 nations does not guarantee a signatory country access to the nuclear fuel cycle if that state is under investigation for not complying. The 120 NAM states appear unwilling to join the world’s six major powers in pressing Iran to abide by successive U.N. resolutions.  They basically do not want to acknowledge Iran’s intransigence—even though many members are U.S. or European allies and claim to oppose Tehran’s nuclear policies. 
            The final statement could embolden Iran’s efforts and, in turn, undermine nonproliferation and international security—which the NAM states claim to uphold.
            The NAM communiqué supports Iran’s “nuclear energy rights,” specifically the right to develop all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, including enrichment. This position misconstrues the NPT. Under Article IV, Iran cannot claim the right to nuclear energy production—or a right to enrich at all—while under investigation for possible non-peaceful uses of these capabilities. 
            Iran’s right to nuclear energy is qualified—as long as there are no major lapses in its Article II obligations. The NPT specifically requires a pledge
            ·“not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive             devices”
            ·and “not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons
            or other nuclear explosive devices.”
            These commitments are now being challenged by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
            U.N. resolutions also require Iran to suspend uranium enrichment until it has cleared up questions about its activities with the IAEA.  Most of the NAM members are signatories to the NPT. They are also U.N. members, and therefore aware of U.N. resolutions on Iran and of their legal obligations to enforce and fully comply with them.
            So the NAM communiqué failed to acknowledge the need for Iran to fully comply with the international treaty on nuclear weapons. Iran tried to portray that the final communiqué represented a diplomatic victory for Tehran and its controversial nuclear program. But the summit’s resolution instead undermined the Non-Aligned Movement’s credibility, since it demonstrated that developing nations cannot be counted on to deal seriously with nuclear nonproliferation issues.
*ISIS Interning Research Associate Andrew Ortendahl contributed to this report.


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Iran’s Nuclear Moves Point to Increased Tensions

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).
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website (www.iranprimer.com) in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org


Iran’s Nuclear Program in 2011: Key Findings and Resources

David Albright and Andrea Stricker 

Throughout 2011, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) has closely followed the Iranian nuclear crisis, including Iran’s technical advancements, setbacks, controversy over possible military dimensions to its nuclear program, and internal politics that may make any diplomatic deal weakened or unlikely. Below is a “reader’s digest” of key developments and findings with links to resources for more information for the interested reader:
  • Iran has largely recovered from the 2009/2010 Stuxnet cyber attack which likely destroyed 1,000 centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment plant. Iran has taken steps to maintain and increase its low enriched uranium production. Nevertheless, the attack may have delayed Natanz’s expansion and the deployment of more advanced centrifuges. Meanwhile, the United States released its international cyber security strategy, which underscores that the United States finds itself vulnerable to similar attacks.
  • Iran may continue a “slow-motion breakout” with its decision to move 20 percent enrichment to its once-secret Fordow enrichment facility at Qom. Iran’s aim may be to slowly acclimatize the international community to conditions that would make a breakout to nuclear weapons more feasible.
  • Iran continues to refuse to answer the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) questions about military dimensions of its nuclear program, including work with high explosives, advanced neutron initiators, and detonators. In its May 2011 safeguards report on Iran, the IAEA highlighted that “there are indications that certain of these activities may have continued beyond 2004.” ISIS continues to assert that any diplomatic deal that accepts Iran not coming clean about its military nuclear-related work and allows for continued enrichment may be, in the long run, a fruitless policy.
  • Internal Iranian politics may prevent any substantive movement on negotiations over the nuclear issue. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Majles’ attempts to rein in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could signify chances for only a weakened nuclear deal or make any deal at all unlikely. 
Katherine Tajer, an intern at ISIS, contributed to this report.


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