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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Challenge of the West’s Negotiations with Iran

Filed under: Iran, Nuclear Warfare

The problem with Iran’s enrichment facilities has become more acute in recent years. When the West refused to supply 20%-enriched uranium for the small Tehran Research Reactor, where the Iranians produce medical isotopes, Iranian nuclear experts went ahead in June 2010 and fed their 5%-enriched uranium into the centrifuges to produce 20%-enriched uranium, by themselves. With a stockpile of 20%-enriched uranium, the Iranians would cut by more than half the time they needed to take the next enrichment step to weapons-grade uranium. 

The total production of 20% enriched uranium according to the IAEA was about 95 kilograms this past February. It is projected by the Wisconsin Project that 120 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium is necessary in order to manufacture enough weapons grade uranium for one atomic bomb. Fereydoun Abbassi-Divani, the head Iran’s atomic energy organization, announced in June 2011 that Tehran was planning to triple its capacity to produce 20%-enriched uranium. There was no pressing civilian need, since the Iranians had more than their domestic requirements of 20% enriched uranium for their Tehran Research Reactor. The excess quantities that would come from tripled production would like go to Iran’s military program.

Unquestionably, in upcoming negotiations, the West must get Iran to halt enrichment. At this point, it appears that Washington is particularly focused on Iran’s production of 20% enriched uranium, which it views as an “urgent priority” for the upcoming talks. It is expected that the administration will seek to obtain a halt in production and to get Iran to give up its current 20% stockpile and perhaps send it out of the country. But it would be a cardinal error for Western diplomacy to focus only on the 20% stockpile while leaving the 5% stockpile intact and permitting this lower level of enrichment. 

For Iran could race to weapons-grade uranium with its low enriched uranium as well. There are two factors which would allow Iran to make a breakthrough to weapons-grade uranium, even if they use only 5% enriched uranium as a feedstock for their centrifuges and not their 20% uranium. First, the critical factor is the number of centrifuges Iran would utilize. By increasing the number of centrifuges, Iran can shorten the time it would take to reach high-enriched uranium.

The second factor is the speed of the centrifuges to be employed. The standard centrifuge that Iran used was known as the IR-1. The new generation of Iranian centrifuges, known by professionals as the IR-2m and IR-4, by some estimates would be able to increase the output of each machine by 600%. A more conservative estimate is that the output of the new centrifuges is 4 to 5 times greater than the older machines. By August 2011, Iran had already installed 136 IR-2m centrifuges and 27 IR-4 centrifuges at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) at Natanz.

The main problem with the proposed negotiations is that they are coming too late. If Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s assessments last December on Sixty Minutes about Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities are correct, and Iran can be expected to cross the nuclear threshold by the end of this year, then these talks are being held when Iran is only months away from becoming a nuclear power. Given the broad gaps between the parties, the prospects of bridging their difference are not very great. Moreover, on the basis of past practice, the Iranian leadership will be greatly tempted to engage in its traditional practice of diplomatic deception, by which it will offer new concessions, from which it will withdraw, in order to drag out the negotiations and  advance its real goal of completing its nuclear weapons program.

For the complete text of Dr. Gold’s analysis, see:”Delineating Western Goals during Nuclear Negotiations with Iran