Sanctions and the threat of military action may dissuade Iran from building a bombby Mark Fitzpatrick / March 19, 2012 / Leave a comment
A surface-to-surface missile is launched during a test in Iran, 20th August 2010
It is not inevitable that Iran will arm itself with nuclear weapons. Nor is a military strike by Israel or the United States the only alternative. Such worst-case assumptions could lead to another unnecessary war in the Middle East, this time possibly lasting a decade or more.
This is not to downplay Iran’s growing nuclear capabilities. It has developed more advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium—material that can power a reactor or produce an explosion. It has increased production of enriched uranium at a level that is close to the quality needed for a weapon. It has also begun carrying out enrichment at the deeply buried facility at Fordow (see map p28), beyond reach of Israeli conventional air strikes. Those steps all move Iran closer to the point of being able to produce a weapon.
Iran has also pursued the technology of making nuclear bombs, a further technical hurdle, and the ballistic missiles which could deliver them. But sanctions by the United Nations, the US and the European Union have impeded this progress. Any attempt by Iran to make a dash for nuclear weapons would be detected by international inspectors and western intelligence agencies at an early stage. Containment and deterrence policies can therefore prevent Iran from crossing the line to weapons production.
In seeking to dissuade Israel from launching a pre-emptive attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities, the Obama Administration argues that an airstrike would delay Iran’s programme by no more than three years. The White House also stresses that an attack would be destabilising to the global economy and to the region, setting back the struggle against global jihadism. It also argues that it is unnecessary because Iran is not on the verge of producing weapons, and sanctions are beginning to bite. Iran is feeling economic pain and has agreed to resume talks with the EU-led E3+3 (France, Germany, Britain and China, Russia and US). “There is still time and space to pursue diplomacy,” Jay Carney, a White House spokesman, said on 28th February.
So how much time is there? To answer, it is useful to assess the three things that are needed for a nuclear weapon. The first is to acquire enough fissile material for an instantaneous chain reaction, either uranium enriched to about 90 per cent concentration of the U-235 isotope, or plutonium that has been separated (or reprocessed) from the other byproducts in the spent fuel of a reactor. The second is a means of triggering an instantaneous chain reaction, that is, turning the fissile material into a weapon. The third is a means of delivering the weapon, with ballistic missiles being the preferred vehicle because of their speed and, until the advent of reliable missile defences, invulnerability. Iran has made impressive advances in all three areas.
Iran currently has enough low-enriched uranium (LEU) for three to four weapons, if further enriched. Most of the stockpile—4,565kg as of mid-February—is enriched to 3.5 per cent, the level needed for reactor fuel. Since Russia supplies all the fuel for Bushehr, Iran’s only nuclear power plant and the only one it will have for at least ten years, there is no civilian need for such enrichment. Iran’s excuse that it wants self-sufficiency in case Moscow cuts off supply is belied by the international mechanisms in place to guarantee supply.
Approximately 1,290kg of 3.5 per cent enriched uranium is needed to produce the amount of 90 per cent enriched product—25kg—that is assumed to be required for an implosion bomb, although about twice this amount is needed for the first bomb. The reason is that during the enrichment process, a large amount of material is kept in holding containers at each stage. The enriched product is siphoned off and fed into a higher stage of enrichment, while the less-enriched material—the “tails”—are collected in tanks and later re-fed into the process. These “tails” that accumulate during the production of the first bomb’s-worth of highly enriched uranium (HEU) are recaptured during the production of the second bomb’s-worth. Making the first bomb is also less efficient, as metal uranium is wasted during casting of the “pit” or core, but it can be recaptured for use in later ones.
As of mid-February, Iran also had a stockpile of 95kg of uranium enriched to 19.75 per cent, the level usually needed to fuel small reactors that are used for isotope production, including the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). The 20 per cent level is dangerous because it is on the cusp of being weapons-usable (20 per cent is the dividing line between LEU and HEU). While 20 per cent seems distant from the 90 per cent level that is ideal for weapons, the scaling is not arithmetic. Enriching to 20 per cent accomplishes the vast proportion of the effort needed for weapons-grade enrichment. About 185kg of 20 per cent is needed for an implosion weapon, although, again, the amount needs to be doubled for the first weapon.
In the past couple of months Iran has tripled the number of centrifuges used for production of 20 per cent enriched product. Its stated purpose is to produce fuel for the TRR, which is running out of the fuel it last obtained from Argentina in 1993. In addition to the 328 centrifuges that have been used for 20 per cent enrichment at the pilot plant at Natanz since 2010, Iran now has about 700 machines in use for this purpose at Fordow. Assuming the efficiency of the machines there is the same as at the pilot plant at Natanz, the total monthly production is now 13kg/month. Iran is preparing to install 2,300 more IR-1 centrifuges at Fordow, and as of mid-February had already placed the outer casings in position. It has not clarified how many of the additional machines it intends to use for 3.5 per cent enrichment and how many for 20 per cent.
On 15th February, Iran announced that it had for the first time produced by itself a fuel plate for the TRR, which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was filmed inserting into the reactor core. Despite the James Bond-like setting, this news was benign. The TRR had been used in the past for unreported plutonium separation experiments (worrisome because plutonium is one path to a nuclear weapon, the kind that was used over Nagasaki), but today it is used for production of medical isotopes for cancer patients.
Iran announced that the fuel plate was being used to run the reactor, but it was actually inserted as part of a safety check. If Iran were to attempt to run the reactor with domestically produced fuel plates before they have been sufficiently tested, it would be criminally dangerous to residents living in the vicinity. Iran’s ability to test those fuel rods is in doubt because of a shortage of certified fuel to power up the reactor to full capacity. Even if Iran could safely produce and test fuel plates for the TRR, it already has enough 20 per cent enriched product to fuel the reactor for more than eight years. There is no need to make more now. It would be much safer and economical for Iran to acquire foreign fuel that has been thoroughly tested and certified.
In autumn 2009, Obama offered to arrange for provision of that fuel in exchange for 75 per cent of the LEU that Iran had been stockpiling. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tentatively agreed to the fuel swap at the time, but he was boxed in by political rivals who did not want him to gain the glory of reaching a deal with the superpower. He was then overruled by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who views any compromise with the Great Satan as a slippery slope. Turkey and Brazil later attempted to revive the deal and persuaded Iran to agree to a key provision about exporting LEU. The latter deal was inadequate in several respects, and this time the US and its partners rejected it. A variation of the fuel swap deal is still on offer, however, as a confidence building measure.
A year ago the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) estimated that using declared facilities it would take Iran at least 19 months to produce the HEU required for the first weapon. Since the IISS made that estimate, Iran began 20 per cent enrichment and doubled the number of centrifuges used for this process. When the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visited Natanz in mid-February Iran claimed that 9,000 centrifuges were so employed. The sabotage operations by outside powers that appeared to be having some effect a few years ago are not having any visible impact today. Stuxnet was a cyber worm that attacked Iran’s enrichment infrastructure. (Its source has not been confirmed, but Israel and the US are cited as its originators.) The “malware” put 1,000 centrifuges out of commission at the end of 2009—but those machines were quickly replaced and Iran was soon producing more enriched uranium per month than before the computer attack. Whether the “son of Stuxnet” operations that are undoubtedly being readied will fare any better is anyone’s guess.
All 9,000 centrifuges in the underground facility at Natanz are the first-generation design that Iran acquired from the Pakistani nuclear engineer AQ Khan. A former employee of a subsidiary of Urenco, a uranium enrichment consortium, Khan stole plans from his workplace in the Netherlands in the 1970s. The plans he took underpinned the nuclear programmes of nations including Pakistan and also Iran. These first-generation machines function poorly at the outset, and their efficiency has dropped as they have become worn out. Taking these factors into account, the time it would take Iran to produce just one weapon’s worth of HEU at its known facilities is now probably under a year. IAEA inspectors, who visit the sites on average twice a month, would be tipped off early. Iran therefore would most likely not try to make a dash for the bomb using the declared sites.
In any case, one weapon is not a deterrent. It would take Iran two to three years to produce the handful of weapons it would want. North Korea, for example, was able to separate enough plutonium for about six weapons after it expelled inspectors and left the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in winter 2002-03.
If an attempt were made to produce HEU and nuclear weapons in clandestine facilities, it would be a huge gamble for Iran to believe that the secret could be kept under cover. Both Natanz and Fordow were discovered by western intelligence agencies long before they became operational. Their revelation, in 2002 and 2009 respectively, brought Tehran no end of embarrassment. Discovery of a clandestine HEU operation would bring a penalty far worse than shame; and any such effort probably would be discovered. Among other ways of watching for clandestine plants, Western intelligence agencies probably keep track of the tunnelling equipment Iran has imported and the firms that use them.
Despite the gains in quantity in Iran’s enrichment program, the quality of its equipment has been less than impressive. Given the inefficiency of the first-generation (IR-1) centrifuges, Iran has been working for over ten years on variations of a second-generation model it also acquired from AQ Khan in 1996. About 250 centrifuges of two different second-generation models (IR-2m, and IR-4) are being tested in an above-ground plant at Natanz. Last month, Ahmadinejad said Iran would introduce a fourth-generation model, skipping over the third generation it unveiled two years ago but never tested, at least to the inspectors’ knowledge. In fact, Iran told the IAEA in February that it would install three new types of centrifuge, all of which are variations of the designs acquired from Khan. In theory, they would be able to enrich uranium three to four times faster than the IR-1s.
One reason Iran bases its programme on IR-1s is that it cannot make or acquire enough hardened steel for the rotors of the faster-spinning newer models. Pakistan uses maraging steel, which Iran cannot make. Iran imported some in the 1990s before foreign export controls were tightened, and used it for components of the IR-1s. Lacking a dependable source of maraging steel for second-generation models, Iran used carbon fibre instead, which apparently is not working out so well. This may also be due to the limitations that concerned countries have put on doing business with Iran.
After sufficient HEU of the proper enrichment level is produced, the second step is to make it into a weapon. This involves converting the gaseous HEU into metal, casting and shaping the metal into hemispheres, surrounding the pit with a tamper/reflector and a spherical arrangement of shaped high explosives known as a lens, and adding a neutron generator or initiator to trigger a chain reaction initiating supercriticality. These weaponisation steps can add six months or more to the timeline, although some steps might be accomplished in parallel with the HEU production. As reported in detail by the IAEA in November 2011, there is credible evidence that Iran has pursued all the technologies necessary for weaponisation. That report did not say how far Iran advanced in its suspected weapons development work. An unreleased 2009 IAEA working paper concluded that Iran had all the information it needed to design and produce an HEU weapon. Because that report was not released, however, it cannot be said to have been fully vetted. And others beg to differ. In commenting on the November IAEA report, a US government official said it cannot be concluded that Iran has mastered all the required steps to produce a nuclear weapon.
Most of the weapons work detailed in the November IAEA report took place before 2004. The report included an annex with 65 paragraphs about explosives development work, only four of which described activity that continued after 2003, some of which the IAEA said may still be ongoing. The IAEA’s reporting is not inconsistent with the conclusions of the US intelligence community, which in 2007 concluded “with high confidence” that Iran had suspended the dedicated work on nuclear weapons in late 2003, while continuing the accumulation of LEU and work on ballistic missiles. The manner in which that National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) was declassified undercut the Bush Administration’s push for tough sanctions and created a lasting controversy. A 2011 update of the 2007 Iran NIE has not been declassified, but all indications are that the US intelligence community still holds to the 2007 assessment. The way the IAEA puts it is that prior to the end of 2003, the activities with “possible military dimensions” took place “under a structured programme.” The IAEA’s implication is that more recent and possibly ongoing activities have been less systematic.
Explosives testing at the Parchin military site was regarded with suspicion, but when IAEA inspectors visited the base in 2005 they found nothing incriminating. Since then, the agency obtained information about an explosives chamber at Parchin where hydrodynamic experiments (explosions with surrogate material replacing fissile and nuclear components) were allegedly conducted. The IAEA reports have not suggested that such work is ongoing; the evidence all stems from before 2004, although more recent overhead imagery reinforces IAEA suspicions about the explosives chamber. When senior IAEA officials visited Iran in late January, they were given reason to believe that they would be able to visit Parchin during a follow-up meeting three weeks later. But hardliners in Tehran prevailed and the IAEA team was sent home empty-handed for a second time. The IAEA also did not receive answers to any of its other questions about the alleged weapons development work. Claiming that all the IAEA’s evidence was forged, Iran instead focused discussion on a plan for “modalities” for addressing IAEA questions. Iran cannot answer all the questions honestly, because to do so would be to admit complicity in nuclear weapons development work. This would elicit further penalties, unless the admissions came as part of a negotiation process that granted Iran immunity for admissions of past guilt. Still, Iran is usually cleverer about giving the IAEA half answers than it was during the last two visits.
Finally, a warhead is not a weapon unless it is mated with a delivery system. Nuclear terrorists might use a truck or boat. Some nations employ bomber aircraft. Iran has no nuclear-capable aircraft or submarines, but it has developed two ballistic missile systems that can reach Israel as well as potential targets in Gulf neighbours (see map p29). The liquid-fuelled Ghadr-1, which is a modification of the Shahab-3, can fly 1,600km with a 750kg warhead. The 2,000km–2,400km-range, solid-fuelled Sajjil-2 is better suited for an Israel mission, because it can be launched at short notice from deep within Iranian territory. The Sajjil-2 is still under development, but a year ago its sixth test launch flew 1,900km into the Indian Ocean. Iran’s delayed announcement about that test indicated that it had a sea-based tracking capability to monitor the splashdown, which itself is impressive.
The missile program suffered a setback in November when a testing centre was levelled by explosions that killed the head of its programme and 16 others. Although Iran declared it an accident, post-incident imagery suggested foul play. Whether or not it was an attack, those deaths are unlikely to have significantly slowed the work, which is well-advanced and not dependent on the contributions of any single individual. Iran has now distributed and institutionalised its missile development knowledge and skills throughout the programme. The assassination of Iranian nuclear specialists —four have been killed in the past two years—is similarly unlikely to have much effect, except to stir up nationalist outrage. A decapitation strategy might work for a programme in its infancy, but not one that is as advanced as Iran’s is now.
Given the advances Iran has made in its enrichment programme and the nationalist pride that is accorded these achievements, it is unrealistic to expect it to give up enrichment completely. The question is whether it would accept limits on production tight enough to give concerned nations confidence that it would not be able to make a quick dash to produce weapons. No enrichment remains Israel’s position and America’s opening negotiation position as well. But the Obama Administration appears willing to make a deal that would recognise Iran’s right to enrichment under controlled conditions including intrusive inspections and limits on enrichment levels and stockpiles. It is not hard to conceive of a deal under which Iran kept its enrichment to below 5 per cent and exported the product for fuel fabrication abroad. However, the politics in both Tehran and Washington today probably make it impossible to strike any such agreement.
Just getting negotiations started has proven to be nigh on impossible. When Iran last met with the E3+3 in Istanbul in January 2011 and in Geneva a month before that, it refused to discuss confidence-building measures or even to engage bilaterally with the US. Fortunately, Iran on 14th February said it is ready to resume talks, and this time it has posed no preconditions of a lifting of sanctions and recognition of its right to enrichment. On 6th March EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, representing the E3+3, proposed that deputies meet in the near future to prepare for the first round of the talks. Obama’s critics in America and Israel charge that Iran would use talks as a delaying tactic while it continues to stockpile enriched uranium. Certainly that is Iran’s negotiating style. But since it is already adding to its enriched uranium stockpile on a daily basis, entering into talks will not affect this accumulation except to slow it down if negotiations proceed successfully. If entering into talks is an Iranian tactic to delay the initiation of an unnecessary war, that is not a bad thing.
Iran should not be allowed to avoid sanctions by simply showing up at the negotiating table. Partial lifting of sanctions can be part of the negotiating process, so long as they are tied to reciprocal steps by Iran to limit enrichment. If talks fail, sanctions will be part of a long-term strategy to prevent and deter Iran from producing nuclear weapons. In a 4th March message aimed at Israel even more than Iran, President Obama said “all elements of American power” remain an option to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. But will such statements be heeded in Tehran? The US intelligence community judges that Iran is a “rational actor” in that its leaders weigh the costs and benefits of strategic decisions. Iran is not ruled by a single mad mullah who wants to bring about the return of the Twelfth Imam by initiating destruction of the world beginning with his own nation.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may be suspicious to the point of paranoia, but he is rational and rules using a collective decision-making process among the key members of the elite. If these decision-makers can be persuaded to believe—as this author believes—that Obama is not bluffing, then a nuclear-armed Iran is not at all inevitable. The Iranians can be deterred because they must know that a sustained American military campaign would not just setback the nuclear programme. It would destroy much of Iran’s military power and leave the regime in a much weaker position.