When a new round of talks with Iran open this Wednesday in Geneva, the United States and its European allies appear prepared to demand only a partial ban on uranium enrichment and to essentially accept Tehran’s claim that it has a “right” to enrich uranium.
The Western offer to Iran reportedly will include the stipulation that Iran cease uranium enrichment at the 20 percent U-235 level, at which uranium can be quickly enriched to weapons grade (90 percent U-235), and that it “cap” enrichment at reactor grade (3.5 to 5 percent U-235). The Obama administration, assuming that uranium enriched to this level is not a serious threat, contends it takes much longer to convert reactor-grade uranium into weapons-grade fuel.
Uranium enrichment is a process to separate out the fissile uranium isotope U-235, which accounts for 0.7 percent of natural uranium. Iran enriches uranium by spinning a gaseous uranium compound, uranium hexafluoride (UF6), at high speeds in centrifuge machines.
The most difficult and time-consuming step in uranium enrichment is from natural uranium to reactor-grade uranium. From reactor grade, the jump to weapons-grade uranium is much shorter.
Iran will probably need about 25 kg of 90 percent U-235 to fuel a nuclear weapon. A study by the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project estimates that Iran could produce this using its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium at its Fordow enrichment plant in 1.9 to 3.6 months. ISIS estimates about 1.0 to 1.6 months.
These short timelines have been cited by the Obama administration to justify halting Iran’s 20 percent enriched-uranium production, noting the risk of a “breakout” scenario under which Iran could make a dash toward producing enough nuclear fuel for one bomb. Making matters worse, Fordow is a hardened facility built inside a mountain, difficult to destroy with airstrikes.
The problem with the administration’s reasoning is that it generally takes only a few weeks longer to convert reactor-grade uranium into weapons-grade nuclear fuel than it does to convert 20 percent enriched uranium. Iran could use the Natanz enrichment plant, where it is mostly enriching uranium to reactor grade, and a reactor-grade stockpile at this facility to produce weapons-grade uranium at about the same rate as it could using 20 percent enriched uranium stored at Fordow.
Both the AEI and ISIS agree that Iran could rapidly produce weapons-grade uranium from its reactor-grade stockpile at Natanz. The AEI study says Iran could do this in four to ten weeks. ISIS estimates at least 1.9 to 2.2 months.
Both organizations estimate that Iran would probably need additional time to build its first nuclear device even after it produced enough weapons-grade nuclear fuel and that the above timelines could be shorter if it has undeclared (covert) enrichment facilities.
The AEI study says that Iran has produced enough reactor-grade uranium since 2009 “to fuel a small arsenal of nuclear weapons after conversion to weapons grade.” The Langley Intelligence Group Network agrees with this assessment and estimates that, from its 20 percent enriched uranium, Iran can make enough nuclear fuel for one bomb and that it can make another seven from its reactor-grade uranium if it is further enriched to weapons grade. The obvious risk from Iran’s reactor-grade uranium is the reason that, until last year, the U.S. and its allies had long called for an end to all Iranian uranium enrichment.
So how did we get to this point? If reactor-grade uranium is such a serious nuclear-proliferation threat, why are the U.S. and its European allies proposing to allow Iran to continue to produce it? The reason appears to be that the Obama administration is desperate to get a deal — any deal — with Iran.
Defying years of Western demands and six U.N. Security Council resolutions calling on it to halt uranium enrichment, Iran has constructed thousands of centrifuges and produced over 11 tons of enriched uranium. This defiance of the international community has created facts on the ground that make the negotiation of an agreement with Tehran on its nuclear program extremely difficult.
To move past this impasse, during multilateral talks in Baghdad with Iran in May 2012, the U.S. led its Western allies in announcing a stunning flip-flop: The West proposed that Iran halt production only of 20 percent enriched uranium, that it ship all of its 20 percent stockpile out of the country, and that it close the Fordow facility.
Thomas Erdbrink reported in the New York Times on May 27, 2012, that Iranian negotiators “were under the impression that the Obama administration and its allies, in return, were willing to allow Iran to continue to enrich up to a lower percentage. But during the Baghdad meeting it became clear that such an offer was not on the table, at least for now.”
By the fall of 2012, however, it was clear that allowing Iran to enrich to a lower percentage — to reactor grade — was exactly what the U.S was offering. The U.S. stopped calling for a halt to all Iranian enrichment. Administration officials began to claim that only Iran’s 20 percent enrichment was a serious threat.
The U.S. and its allies further watered down their demands during talks with Iran last April when they called for Iran’s production of 20 percent enriched uranium to be suspended for only six months, for its Fordow operations to be suspended, and for part of Iran’s enriched uranium to be shipped out of the country.
The most recent offer to Iran by Western states was even weaker. It reportedly calls for a six-month suspension of operations at Fordow and of Iranian enrichment at the 20 percent level in exchange for $50 billion in sanctions relief. Iran also would be required not to “activate” the Arak heavy-water reactor for six months.
The Arak reactor is another serious problem with the proposed agreement with Iran and was one reason France demurred, leading the last round of talks to end without an agreement. Any pact with Iran on its nuclear program must require that work on this reactor be halted permanently.
Defenders of the Western offer to cap Iranian uranium enrichment at reactor grade contend that Tehran will be left with only a “residual” enrichment capability that it will not be able to use for weapons purposes because aggressive international inspections and the threat of new sanctions if Iran cheats on the agreement. U.S. and European diplomats are claiming that the current offer is only a first step and that they will press Iran for a more substantial agreement in future talks. However, there have been no indications that Tehran will be asked either to disassemble centrifuges being used to enrich uranium to reactor grade or to give up its large and growing stockpile of existing reactor-grade uranium. Iranian officials have been emphatic that they will not agree to either idea.
Obama officials and their supporters argue that, while the deal with Iran under discussion is not perfect, it is better than no deal.
It’s clear why the idea of an enrichment cap that allows Iran to continue to produce reactor-grade uranium and retain its large reactor-grade stockpile has been angrily rejected by Israeli prime minister Netanyahu and led to a rupture in U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia. Both states realize the threat from Tehran’s reactor-grade uranium and distrust Tehran after years of Iran’s covert nuclear activities and cheating on nuclear agreements. Israel and Saudi Arabia also probably worry that the offer under discussion with Iran would frontload benefits to Tehran, such as the lifting of sanctions before Iran’s compliance with a deal can be verified. Once U.S. and EU sanctions are lifted, they would be difficult to reinstate.
But there is another fundamental problem with the proposal for a cap on reactor-grade uranium. It represents a steady deterioration in U.S. resolve. After abandoning years of U.S. policy and Security Council resolutions calling for Iran to halt all uranium enrichment, the Obama administration no longer has a firm position on this issue and has been offering Tehran better and better terms each time multilateral talks are held. It has essentially been negotiating with itself. Iranian diplomats need only sit back and wait for the U.S. and its allies to offer more concessions.
As the Obama administration is determined to get a deal with Iran to distract from the Obamacare fiasco, it probably cannot be persuaded to back away from its disastrous uranium-enrichment-cap proposal. Unless France, Germany, or the U.K. demand that this proposal be amended to include halting all Iranian uranium enrichment and removing all reactor-grade and 20 percent uranium stockpiles from Iran, we may be on the verge of one of the worst diplomatic agreements of all time, one that would not just fail to halt Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons but would also encourage Saudi Arabia to start a nuclear-weapons program and could lead to Israeli airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.
In this case, no deal is better than a bad deal.
— Fred Fleitz analyzed WMD proliferation for the CIA, the State Department, and the House Intelligence Committee. He is now chief analyst with LIGNET.com, a global intelligence and forecasting service.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.