Meanwhile on the Iranian Nuclear Front…

, July 22, 2011

Israel Hayom

 While the U.S. and its western allies have been focusing their energies on the revolutions spreading across the Arab world, Iran may be less in the spotlight, but it appears to have been accelerating certain aspects of its nuclear program.

On July 11, Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, wrote an op-ed in The Guardian entitled “Iran’s Nuclear Threat Is Escalating.” He pointed out that the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, Feredoun Abbasi- Davani, had announced that Tehran was planning to triple its capacity to produce 20 percent enriched uranium. He added that Iran was planning to shift the production of the 20% enriched uranium from an above-ground facility in Natanz to the new Fordow facility near Qom, that is deep underground, and had been kept secret until September 2009.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointed Abbassi-Divani on Feb. 13, 2011 to head Iran’s atomic energy program. His promotion to this sensitive position should have raised eyebrows in the West. In 2007, the U.N. Security Council included him in a list of Iranians suspected of involvement in “Iran’s nuclear or ballistic missile activities.” A report by ISIS, a Washington think tank that monitors nuclear proliferation, noted that before this appointment he headed the physics department at Imam Hossein University, which is linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. His proposal to massively increase Iran’s production of 20% enriched uranium has clear military implications.

Up until now, Iran was mainly producing 3.5% enriched uranium, also known as low-enriched uranium, that is suited to be a fuel for nuclear reactors for the production of electricity. To make atomic bombs, this low enriched uranium would have to undergo another step of enrichment to become weapons-grade fuel. Foreign Secretary Hague explained in his article that the leap from 20% enrichment to weapons grade fuel, which needs to be enriched to the 90% level, is much quicker than the leap from uranium enriched only at the 3.5% level. He estimated that it would only take two to three months of additional enrichment of the 20% stockpile to make weapons grade material.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna publishes data on the Iranian nuclear program collected by its inspectors during their visits to Iran. Its last report was released in May, 2011. It actually showed that the Iranian enrichment efforts were accelerating. Using IAEA data, ISIS produced a report showing that in May 2009, the Iranians were producing a little over 80 kilograms of low-enriched uranium every month. A year later in May 2010, the report continued, the rate of production increased to 120 kgs per month. And now, in May 2011, the monthly rate of production was nearly 160 kgs per month–almost double the rate in 2009. The most recent IAEA report stated that Iran had enriched a total of 4,105 kgs of low-enriched uranium.

The latest IAEA report indicates that Iran has already produced 56.7 kgs of 20% enriched uranium over 15 months. The Iranians argue that they need this level of enrichment for their research reactor in Tehran. But specialists in the West note that the Tehran reactor is small and all they need is six to 10 kgs per year of 20% enriched uranium. If Iran will now produce roughly 150 kgs per year of 20% enriched uranium, what will they do with the unused stockpile? That stockpile could be much bigger if the Iranians install faster centrifuges to enrich uranium at the Fordow facility. The main unanswered question is how many enrichment sites does Iran presently have? In August 2010, Iran announced that it was building 10 new enrichment sites. The IAEA admitted in its May report: “the Agency’s knowledge about Iran’s enrichment activities continues to diminish.”

So where does Iran stand with respect to an atomic bomb given both of their paths to weapons grade uranium: converting low-enriched uranium to weapons-grade fuel and the fast-track they are developing with 20% enriched uranium? Olli Heinomen, the former deputy director general of IAEA and one of its chief inspectors, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on June 23 that he expects Iran to have, by the end of 2012, the ability to produce up to 150 kgs of high-enriched uranium, using both tracks. Experts argue that Iran would need roughly 20-30 kgs of high-enriched uranium for each atomic bomb. In short, Iran would have enough uranium for five or six atomic bombs by the end of 2012.

The public data published by the IAEA clearly points to the fact that the Iranian nuclear program is advancing.There is a mistaken impression in the West that Iran’s ability to enrich uranium has been severely set back. The numbers do not indicate that such a conclusion is warranted. Hague’s warning in June about the Iranian nuclear program at least indicates that one of the main Western powers sitting in the U.N. Security Council is aware of the severity of the situation. But the chances that the West will significantly increase its pressures on Iran, in light of this newly emerging situation, is unfortunately very doubtful.

Given this problematic international environment, on June 23, AFP quoted Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boasting on Iranian state television “if we want to make a bomb we are not afraid of anyone and we are not afraid to announce it, no one can do a damn thing.” He then added for the record “we do not want to,” but his initial statement demonstrated how confident the Iranians have now become.

Amb. Dore Gold

Ambassador Dore Gold has served as President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs since 2000. From June 2015 until October 2016 he served as Director-General of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Previously he served as Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN (1997-1999), and as an advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.