Every three to six months the International Atomic Energy Agency publishes a report on the current state of the Iranian nuclear program. The latest IAEA report, dated May 25, is striking in light of the tense negotiations that have been underway between the P5+1 and the Iranians. What helped these talks get started in the first place has been the escalation of Western economic sanctions since the end of 2011, especially the unprecedented European economic sanctions that are about to begin, on July 1. There were also increasing references to the possibility of military operations against Iran that appeared in the international press. Given Iran’s situation, it might have been expected that Tehran would be extremely careful about how it proceeded with its nuclear program in the months leading up to July 1. Certainly, it would not take measures that might antagonize its negotiating partners.
The last time Iran faced similar pressures was in 2003, after the fall of Baghdad, when the Iranian leadership was convinced that President Bush was going to order US forces to attack Iran after he dealt with Saddam Hussein. Tehran also feared that its nuclear file at the IAEA, which detailed its violations of its past agreements, was going to be reported to the U.N. Security Council and new sanctions were on the way. Iran lowered its nuclear profile as a result: at that time it closed down its weaponization facility, which it eventually re-opened two years later at a different location, when the American military threat appeared to have diminished as the Iranian-backed Iraqi insurgency raged on. But still when Iran feared Western measures, it clearly scaled back its nuclear activity in the past.
According to the May 2012 IAEA report, this was not the pattern that Iran decided to adopt this time. Surprisingly, Tehran significantly increased its production of low enriched uranium at its Natanz facility in the last few months. If in the last IAEA report in February, Iran had produced a total of 5,451 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, now in the latest May report, the total Iranian production reached 6,197 kilograms. Moreover, to reach this quantity of uranium, the Iranians went from enriching an average 150 kilograms per month to nearly 250 kilograms — roughly a 60 percent increase! The report covers a period that coincides with the announcement of the nuclear negotiations in March 2012 and the convening of the first round of talks in Istanbul that were held in April. The Iranians did not just exploit the talks with the West in order to increase their uranium stockpiles, but they even used this time to boost the rate at which they are enriching uranium.
What did these numbers mean? If Iran needed to put roughly 900 kilograms of low enriched uranium through a process of a further stage of enrichment in order to reach enough weapons-grade uranium for one atomic bomb, then it now appeared that Iran had enough material for five to six bombs and it was determined to manufacture enough for even more nuclear weapons in the future. Iran also continued to produce uranium enriched to the 20% level, at both its Natanz and Fordow facilities. But with 145.6 kilograms, it barely had enough of this material for one bomb. Unlike the situation with its low-enriched uranium, Tehran also expanded its stock of the 20% material.
Because, Iran could enrich its 20% uranium to the level needed for an atomic bomb in half the time required to enrich low-enriched uranium to the same level, it is considered in the West as Iran’s fast-track to weapons grade uranium. The P5+1 have focused their efforts for now on halting its production, in particular. The Iranian press is arguing that the West may recognize Iran’s right to produce low-enriched uranium, if Tehran halts its production of 20% uranium. If the West agreed to this formula, it would be freezing a program that at this stage might not even lead to one atomic bomb, while allowing a program that had already enriched enough uranium for six bombs. This sort of concession by the P5+1 should not be ruled out, if the Western powers are determined to reach an agreement this summer at all costs. For Israel, this diplomatic outcome would be regarded as nothing less than a Western sell-out to Iran.
It should be remembered that 20% enriched uranium is not the only shortcut available to Tehran for getting to a bomb. Indeed, Iran could make its stock of low-enriched uranium as dangerous as 20% uranium by simply installing faster centrifuges, which it is currently designing. In short, drawing a distinction between low enriched uranium and 20%enrichment, by which the West permits the former but prohibits only the latter, is a huge mistake. All levels of uranium enrichment should be halted as called for by five resolutions of the U.N. Security Council that were even backed at the time by the Russians and the Chinese. Allowing enrichment of any sort today would entail throwing out these resolutions and all the hard diplomatic work done since 2007 in building the basis of an international consensus against Iran.
There remains the question of why Tehran allowed itself to dramatically increase its production of low-enriched uranium at this sensitive time. The most likely explanation is that by increasing their enrichment rate during the negotiations, the Iranians are testing the reaction of Catherine Ashton, the EU Foreign Policy chief, and her negotiating team.
There is some degree of contemptuousness towards the West that stands behind this behavior. It is also possible that the Iranians calculated that with its focus on 20%enrichment, the Western powers would not see this as a provocation. But the Iranians’ behavior most of all indicates that they truly believe they can get away with this acceleration of their enrichment activity and no one will take any measures against them, as they pick up the pace of their race to the nuclear finishing line.