Politics & Policy

Why Is Iran Enriching Uranium?

Iran’s Natanz enrichment facility in 2008. (Getty Images)
That Iranian demand should have been a deal breaker for the United States and its European allies.

It is now clear from the framework nuclear deal with Iran announced last week that the final nuclear agreement will permit Tehran to continue to enrich uranium. Although U.S. and Iranian officials disagree on specifics, Iran also will be allowed to develop advanced uranium-enrichment centrifuges while a for the duration of a final agreement.

According to a French fact sheet on the framework, Iran will be permitted to install advanced centrifuges between the tenth and 13th years of a final agreement, a detail left out of the Obama administration’s account of the framework deal. President Obama inadvertently confirmed the consequences of this concession when he told NPR on April 7 that Iran’s breakout time to a nuclear bomb will shrink “almost down to zero” in 13 to 15 years because of a final deal based on the framework.

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According to the Times of Israel, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and its atomic-energy chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, take a different view. They reportedly told the Iranian parliament that their country will be begin using its most advanced uranium-enrichment centrifuge design, which is 20 times faster than the primitive model Iran is currently using, as soon as a final nuclear deal takes effect.

Uranium enrichment is the process of separating out the uranium isotope uranium-235 for nuclear fuel. Although Iran claims it wants to enrich for peaceful purposes, it is very easy to use this process to produce nuclear-weapons fuel, which is why, until 2012, the United States called on Tehran to halt all uranium enrichment. However, because Iran refused to cease uranium enrichment, the Obama administration made a major policy change in 2012 by proposing to allow it to continue to enrich with some restrictions as part of a future agreement to reduce the threat from its nuclear program.

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The United States has long opposed other states’ enriching uranium as part of peaceful nuclear programs. For example, in 2009 Washington signed a peaceful-nuclear-cooperation agreement with the United Arab Emirates that specifically barred uranium enrichment.

Given the significant nuclear-proliferation risk posed by uranium enrichment, one has to ask how the Obama administration could agree to let Iran enrich uranium in a deal that was intended to reduce or at least significantly delay the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

The Iranian government claims it needs to enrich uranium to produce nuclear fuel rods for its Bushehr power reactor and for other power reactors it hopes to construct. This explanation doesn’t add up, for two reasons.

First, Iran would need many more centrifuges — about 200,000 (it currently has 19,000, of which 9,000 are operational) — to produce enough fuel for this reactor.

Second, it does not make economic sense for Iran to construct fuel rods domestically when it can buy them at much lower cost from several countries.

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Iranian officials also have claimed their uranium-enrichment program is to produce medical isotopes, and fuel plates for a small research reactor in Tehran. These explanations are dubious, since Iran’s existing centrifuge program produces far more enriched uranium than the country needs for these purposes. Iran can also purchase medical isotopes and nuclear fuel plates from other countries for far less than it would cost to produce them domestically.

Foreign Minister Zarif recently said that a final nuclear agreement will allow Iran to sell enriched uranium in the international marketplace and will be “hopefully making some money” from it. Let’s hope he was joking. The proliferation concerns that would be raised if a state that had developed a secret uranium-enrichment program in violation of U.N. resolutions started selling enriched uranium to other states are hard to contemplate.

None of the explanations Iran has given account for why it is enriching uranium. However, the size of its centrifuge program strongly points to a weapons program. Former CIA deputy director Michael Morell expressed this view when he told Charlie Rose in February, “If you are going to have a nuclear weapons program, 5,000 [centrifuges] is pretty much the number you need.” Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a similar statement last September when he told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that Iran’s centrifuges “are only good for one thing: to make bomb-grade material.”

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Iran’s pursuit of uranium enrichment in secret and with the assistance of Dr. A. Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons program, raise more questions about the peaceful intent of this program.

#related#Obama officials contend they had no choice but to agree to let Iran enrich uranium because Iranian leaders refused to give up enrichment in a nuclear deal. This begs the question of what good is an agreement that permits Tehran to continue to pursue nuclear weapons.

Iran’s demand to enrich uranium should have been a deal breaker for the United States and its European allies. By allowing Iran to enrich with thousands of centrifuges and to develop advanced centrifuges, this deal will significantly shorten Iran’s timeline for producing weapons-grade fuel.

The Obama administration probably decided to concede uranium enrichment because of President Obama’s desperation to get a legacy nuclear agreement with Iran. Although there are many reasons for Congress to reject this deeply flawed agreement, the most important is the administration’s irresponsible concession of uranium enrichment: a program that is central to Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.

Fred Fleitz, president of the Center for Security Policy, served in 2018 as deputy assistant to the president and to the chief of staff of the National Security Council. He previously held national-security jobs with the CIA, the DIA, the Department of State, and the House Intelligence Committee staff. He is the editor of the 2020 book Defending against Biothreats.

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