Michael Spies

There is renewed buzz and fear-mongering relating to Iranian president Mahmoud Amadinejad’s latest nuclear boasts. According to the New York Times, days after Amadinejad announced Iran has succeeded in enriching uranium to a level suitable for a reactor, he casually dropped that Iran has begun work on the more advanced P2 centrifuge design. To the NYT, reminiscent of the role it played in the lead up to the Iraq war, these statements mean Iran “is pursuing a far more sophisticated way of making atomic fuel that American officials and inspectors say could speed Iran’s path to developing a nuclear weapon.” Taking their cue, U.S. officials expressed the usual scripted shock and dismay meant to convey the sense of hysterical urgency that the Bush Administration associates with every step the Iranians take in their fledgling nuclear development program.

While the P2 program serves as the central plotline in Iran’s ongoing drama with the IAEA inspectors exploring Iran’s past concealment, it is a stretch to see how the announcement to pursue work on the design changes the bigger picture in any meaningful way. After more than 18 years of work to develop the P1, Iran has only recently succeeded in reportedly producing a minute amount of reactor grade plutonium in a 164 machine cascade. This is far short of the 3000 machines Iran would need to operate continuously for a full year in order to produce sufficient material for a single weapon, and shorter still from the 50,000 Iran needs to fuel its present nuclear energy program.

The announcement is notable in light of the fact that the largest remaining issue in the IAEA’s investigation into Iran’s past nuclear program involves the major gap in the history of its work on the P2 design. While the Iranians acquired the design from the Khan network in 1995, they claim they had not worked on them in the period leading up to the revelation of the Natanz facility in 2002. Naturally this raised suspicion with the IAEA, which has been insistently pressing Iran for documentary evidence to prove it did not work on the designs during that time. Iran claims it lacked the resources to carry out R&D on both designs, so it stuck to the easier model.

The IAEA recently confronted Iran with documents related to work allegedly carried out by a contracting company between 2002 and 2003, and the import of centrifuges components. The IAEA inquired about the alleged import to a contracting company of 900 magnets from a foreign entity in mid-2003. Iran replied that only a limited number of magnets were delivered. It should be noted that Iran is not required to report the import of such components under either its Safeguards Agreement (INFCIRC/214) or the Additional Protocol, but it is obligated under the Additional Protocol to provide the IAEA with such information upon the request of the Agency (see: INFCIRC/540, Article 2.a.ix.b; and IAEA, Report on the Implementation of Safeguards in the Islamic Republic of Iran, para. 19, February 2006).

Without knowing more about the extent and nature of Iran’s P2 work, it’s impossible to say what impact it will have on the timeline of its nuclear development. Unfortunately this question falls squarely in the gray area of the IAEA’s authority. IAEA safeguards, as mandated by the NPT, are tailored to follow nuclear material; thus work on various components and equipment can happen entirely out of sight. This is especially true for states not implementing the Additional Protocol. The IAEA has two legal hooks on this matter though. First, the Agency has repeatedly asked for information on Iran’s work, triggering Iran’s obligation under the Additional Protocol. Second, ElBaradei has stated that, in light of the impossibility of tracing decades old LEU contamination to its original source, he needs to understand the full nature and scope of Iran’s centrifuge development program in order to be in a position to determine the absence of undeclared nuclear activity.

Iran’s enrichment program had previously only utilized a first generation Pakistani design (which in turn was based on a Dutch design) known as the P1. Depending on its configuration the P1 has a capacity between 1-3 SWU/year; Jeffrey Lewis makes the argument for 2. One significant quantity of HEU (25kg enriched to 90%), the amount roughly required for an atomic bomb, requires a capacity of 5000 SWU/yr. The P2 has a capacity of 5 SWU/year, so while the design is definitely an improvement, on paper it doesn’t seem as significant as it is being spun (there may be an unintentional pun in there). For comparison, URENCO centrifuges have a capacity of 40 SWU/yr. Russia uses centrifuges with a more modest capacity of 10 SWU/yr. U.S. R&D models can reportedly crank out a whopping 300 SWU/yr. (see: Marvin Miller, “The Gas Centrifuge and Nuclear Proliferation“, Appendix 1 in: Victor Gilinsky, Marvin Miller, Harmon Hubbard, A Fresh Examination of the Proliferation Dangers of Light Water Reactors, Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, March 22, 2004.)

Sober facts about Iran’s present capabilities has not stopped the Administration from over-hyping every uncertainty as evidence of Iranian duplicity, thus necessitating the strongest possible response. Regarding Iran’s progress in its enrichment development program, former weapons inspector David Albright recently commented on the U.S. spin on Iran’s nuclear program:

“Anonymous US officials quickly started to distort what the IAEA had said. These officials told journalists on a not for attribution basis that this action by Iran represented a significant acceleration of its enrichment program. US officials called several journalists to tell them that in the briefing IAEA officials were ’shocked,’ ‘astonished,’ ‘blown-away’ by Iran’s progress on gas centrifuges, leading the United States to revise its own timeline for Iran to get the bomb. In fact, IAEA officials have said they were not surprised by Iran’s actions. Although Iran’s pace is troubling and requires concerted diplomatic effort to reverse, it was also anticipated by other experts, including those at ISIS. A senior IAEA official told the Associated Press that these US statements came ‘from people who are seeking a crisis, not a solution.’”

Albright concludes that:

“Estimates of Iran’s nuclear capabilities, accomplishments, and timelines need far greater public and Congressional scrutiny than they are currently receiving. This scrutiny becomes even more important as those in the Bush Administration who favor confronting Iran and pressing for regime change may be hyping up Iran’s nuclear threat and trying to undermine intelligence assessments that Iran is several years from having nuclear weapons.”

From what is released in the IAEA Board reports, it is certainly difficult to get a full picture on the full scope of the Iranian program, much less their ultimate intentions. Iran could be deliberately hiding its past work on the P2, for unknown reasons, not all of which involve a drive toward acquiring nuclear weapons. Iran could be mostly telling the truth and an explanation could be that its leadership has conducted very little oversight on various aspects of the nuclear program (the Atomic Energy Agency functions fairly autonomously and has been subject to spotty management). Coming at it from the other end, if Iran were conducting a clandestine P2 program for the purpose of producing weapons, why didn’t it devote more resources to the design starting in 1995? While it was Western intelligence agencies that gave the IAEA information regarding the import of alleged P2 magnets in 2003, there have been no accusations of P2 imports before that.

Ultimately, it difficult to draw any conclusions from this. ElBaradei has warned that all these uncertainties are dangerous because when some people see these unknowns, their imaginations and their suspicions light up. Thus far the Administration is sticking closely to the template set for Iraq. It first turns uncertainty into suspicion and then in into rumor, which, when fanned by the media, becomes an allegation that will be repeated over and over again until it is accepted as unquestionable fact. By the time that happens this over-hyped dilemma will have mushroomed into a real crisis. Hopefully for most, once will be more than enough. Congressmen from both sides of the aisle have begun to speak out. As John noted, it is time for the Administration to put down its nuclear sticks and its bullhorn diplomacy and enter into credible negotiations in order to defuse the dilemma before it becomes a real crisis.