Iran’s Nuclear Setbacks: A key for U.S. diplomacy

David Albright and Andrea Stricker

      Iran’s nuclear program is suffering mounting setbacks, which in turn will provide more time for diplomacy and reduce the imminence of military strikes. The problems fall into three broad categories :
  • increased difficulty of obtaining essential parts on the international market,
  • trouble operating large numbers of centrifuges,
  • and apparent covert actions by foreign intelligence agencies.
      Foreign intelligence agencies now appear to be targeting Iran’s nuclear activities with a variety of methods. They include:
  • cyber attacks,
  • sabotaging key equipment Iran seeks abroad,
  • infiltration and disruption of Iran’s smuggling networks,
  • and the assassination of nuclear experts.
      There are no first-hand accounts, but the biggest problems appear to have been caused by the Stuxnet malware, which started to impact the gas centrifuges at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant in 2009.
       Iran has made some progress. It has increased its monthly production of low enriched uranium.  By late 2010, it had also bolstered from 4,000 to 5,000 the number of IR-1 centrifuges used to enrich uranium, surprising most foreign analysts. 
       But Iran’s problems with the IR-1 centrifuges may be more telling. Production of enriched uranium at the Natanz enrichment facility is significantly lower than expected by now.  Only about 60 percent of the installed centrifuges are actually enriching uranium.  And operations of the centrifuges are often disrupted. The most noticeable was a still-unexplained and rare halt to all enrichment in mid-November 2010 at Natanz, which was confirmed by the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency. 
       Iran’s IR-1 centrifuge has faced a relatively high failure rate of about 10 percent per year.  The plant also experienced an unexplained breakage of about 1,000 centrifuges in late 2009 or early 2010.  In total, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) estimates that about 2,000 IR-1 centrifuges have broken at the centrifuge plant since it started in 2007.
       The Stuxnet malware may be a big part of the sudden spike in centrifuge breakage at Natanz.  Yet Stuxnet is not the only candidate for explaining breakage and other problems.  Iran may also have significant centrifuge manufacturing and assembly problems, including shortages of domestically-produced, high quality centrifuge parts.  The enrichment plant has an elaborate computer control system which may have caused other problems. 
       Iran has also had more trouble obtaining material, which has limited production of IR-1 centrifuges. (The IR-1 is Iran’s copy of a Pakistani centrifuge known as P-1; it is two meters long with four short aluminum tubes connected by three maraging steel “bellows,” and nominally rotates at about 330 meters per second).  Iran depends on smuggling for key items. It accelerated efforts to reverse-engineer equipment, but has failed so far to do so successfully. Sanctions and trade controls have also hindered procurement of centrifuge material, such as maraging steel tubes necessary to make bellows; vacuum measuring equipment; and possibly vacuum pumps. 
       Iran has a maximum production capability of between 12,000 to 15,000 IR-1 centrifuges, ISIS now estimates.  With about 9,000 already in place and another 2,000 broken, Iran may be close to a limit on the number of IR-1 centrifuges it can build, unless it manages to obtain more raw materials overseas.
       With so many problems in the first generation of centrifuges, Iran has said its future depends on the advanced centrifuges now under development at Natanz and elsewhere. But their large-scale use may be delayed.  The United States estimates that Iran again faces raw material shortages, specifically of high-quality carbon fiber. Iran may have enough components to build about 1,000 advanced centrifuges. Some of these centrifuges are five times more powerful than the IR-1 centrifuge, so 1,000 advanced centrifuges would have the same output as 5,000 IR-1s –and be far easier to hide in a secret site.
       Iran announced plans to build 10 new enrichment plants shortly after revelations about the secret Fordow enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom in 2009. Construction of the first plant is scheduled for March 2011; it could be ready for centrifuges next year.
       Tehran says it will not notify the International Atomic Energy Agency about these new sites until they are essentially finished. The danger is that Iran will build a secret site and, if discovered, merely claim it was among the 10 planned facilities. And one site is enough for international alarm. Iran could make enough for a bomb in little more than six months using 1,000 advanced centrifuges if it decided to divert its stock of U.N. safeguarded low enriched uranium in a dash for a weapon.
       But predicting when Iran might obtain nuclear weapons is highly uncertain.  Most international analysts believe Iran has not yet made the critical decision about whether to build nuclear weapons. Yet Tehran’s actions increasingly appear to be working toward that capability.
       Israel’s recently retired Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, shifted the debate by claiming in January that Iran was still far from being capable of producing nuclear weapons.  He reportedly said a series of malfunctions had delayed its nuclear program and estimated Iran could not produce a bomb before 2015.
       Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted differing opinions within the Israeli security establishment. Dagan subsequently backtracked, adding that that some scenarios could shorten the timeframe.
       Technically, Iran could decide to build a nuclear weapon now using the Natanz enrichment plant. The United States has estimated that Iran could produce enough weapon-grade uranium for a bomb in about one year.  ISIS estimates Iran could halve that time to six months with advance preparation, and with somewhat better operation of the IR-1 centrifuges. U.N. experts say Iran knows enough now to build a crude weapon but faces problems in missile delivery. 
       At the same time, there is wide international consensus behind the U.S. estimate that Iran is unlikely to use the Natanz plant to dash to weapons in 2011 or 2012.  It would have to divert a stock of low-enriched uranium under safeguards.  Iran could try to delay inspectors’ access to the enrichment plant, but the inspectors are highly likely to detect this diversion within two months, long before Iran could produce enough weapon-grade uranium for a bomb.  The resulting international condemnation, and possible military strikes, would likely deter Iran from even trying to use Natanz.
       In the longer term, thwarting Iran’s growing options to develop a nuclear weapon remains a major challenge. If Iran built a secret site using more advanced centrifuges, it could be ready to build a bomb as soon as 2012 or 2013. 

Read David Albright and Andrea Stricker's chapter on Iran's nuclear program in “The Iran Primer” 

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).