Oh, Satanic Flyboys! This Way to the Islamic Revolutionary Uranium!

Signs are multiplying that Iran has a covert uranium processing network already.

Well, it was a good story while it lasted.  The Iranians have put their low-enriched uranium (LEU) stockpile back in underground storage, which should obviate further speculation, at least for now, that they transferred it to an above-ground processing facility in order to get Israel to attack it (the “Road Runner baiting Wyle E. Coyote” theory).

But as Emanuele Ottolenghi notes at Commentary’s “contentions” today, American think-tank experts who follow Iran’s nuclear program closely still considered the LEU move hard to explain.  They’ve started talking about the possibility that Iran is building a secret, covert processing network outside of IAEA supervision.

Since that’s what I’ve been thinking for a couple of months now (and wrote about here and here) – some thoughts.

There are indicators that the known stockpile at Natanz, the LEU accounted for by IAEA inspectors, isn’t all the uranium Iran has in a processing pipeline.  In other words, there could be other uranium being converted and enriched outside of the declared facilities visited by IAEA at Natanz and Esfahan.  If that conclusion is accurate, then putting the known LEU stockpile at Natanz in an above-ground facility doesn’t actually mean making all of Iran’s LEU vulnerable to an air strike.  But we would think it did, at least in terms of official estimates.

Before proceeding further, it’s important to establish that there’s a valid reason for putting any LEU in the above-ground facility in question:  that’s where Iran can enrich it to a higher level.  There’s a technical and logistic reason for moving LEU into the facility, the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant, or PFEP, at Natanz.  The Iranians didn’t just do it for kicks.  When they announced their intention to enrich uranium to 20%, that meant they would, for now at least, be processing LEU in the PFEP.

The unexpected action was moving all of their known LEU to the PFEP at once.  This means the Iranians seem to have made their whole LEU stockpile vulnerable unnecessarily.  The whole stockpile is also more than they need for the stated purpose of medical application.  Those factors are why the action raised eyebrows.

But there’s context for this development, and the most important aspect of that context is that it involves Iranian actions that are not under IAEA supervision.  See my links above for the extended case; I will reiterate it only briefly here.  It’s this:  Iran has for several years had the opportunity and means to mine and process its own uranium outside of IAEA supervision.  A documented drop in uranium conversion and enrichment at the supervised sites, in late 2008 and early 2009, may well have represented the point at which Iran transferred her emphasis from processing uranium at the supervised sites to processing it in undeclared, unsupervised facilities.  I called this the “Uranium jerk.”

If you can struggle through the techno-jargon and graphs at my earlier blog piece, I think you may find it convincing.  One of the key indicators is a dramatic increase in uranium mining and refining at a site in southern Iran, between late 2007 and late 2008.  The timing of this development would make it an unbelievable coincidence with the “Uranium jerk” – the drop in follow-on processing output – if the two developments were unrelated.

Iran has plenty of underground space now in which to convert and enrich uranium outside of the declared facilities.  The underground space we know about remains entirely uninspected since 2004, except for last fall’s visit to the suspect Fordo site near Qom.  (For documentation of all these assertions, see the link to my earlier piece.)  That leaves underground sites at Natanz and Esfahan, and two suspect sites outside Tehran, just to name the best-known and most likely.

It can’t be stressed enough that the IAEA has no charter to inspect and account for Iran’s indigenous mining activities, because Iran is not allowing IAEA to act on the provisions of what’s known as the “Additional Protocol” to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  So we have had no accountability on what happens to the uranium mined in Iran.  We know from satellite imagery that there was a huge increase in 2008 – two years ago – in mining and milling at the mine site in southern Iran.  But we can’t account for what has happened to all the uranium mined from that site, either before or after 2008.

Therefore, we simply don’t know if the LEU stockpile that was moved above-ground at Natanz represents all of Iran’s LEU.  But the Iranians’ willingness to accept risk for it may well be a fresh indicator that it doesn’t.  If there is conversion and enrichment going on elsewhere, outside of IAEA supervision, the movement of LEU to a vulnerable above-ground processing plant appears in a different light.

Ostentatiously placing all of the LEU, at once, in an unnecessarily vulnerable position, could look like setting up a decoy.  On the other hand – my assessment – it could just be that if the Iranians feel a separate LEU stash to be safe, they’ll accept the risk posed to the known LEU by moving it all at once.  They claim now to have extracted the amount they needed for higher-level enrichment, which is why they’re moving the rest back below ground.  Moving the LEU that way could very well have simply been the most technically efficient method for their capabilities.

There’s a growing list of developments that make the most sense if Iran has a separate, unsupervised uranium processing capacity going, and perhaps already a stockpile of undeclared LEU.  Again, the most important thing to know about any of this is that the official IAEA inspection process is not going to reveal the truth about that for us:  prove or disprove it one way or another.  There is no guaranteed way to “catch” Iran doing undeclared uranium processing with the inspection regime that’s in place.  To reveal what Iran doesn’t want us to know, we’d have to enforce a change of methodology – over Iran’s objections.  That’s where we stand.

Cross-posted at Hot Air’s Greenroom.

6 thoughts on “Oh, Satanic Flyboys! This Way to the Islamic Revolutionary Uranium!”

  1. J.E.,

    If we could absolutely prove, beyond any doubt whatsoever, that the Iranians were but one month away from nuclear capability…hell, even if they admitted it and freely stated that to be their full intention and that it to be a non-negotiable national aspiration…

    Would it really make any difference?

    Would Russia change their ‘policies’ even one iota?

    Would China agree to impose severe economic and political sanctions upon Iran?

    Would Obama agree that immediate military force was the only solution? Would the Democrats and Pelosi and Reid?

    All these questions are of course, rhetorical.

    We both know the answers to be in the negative.

    Are Obama, the CIA, Jones, and Brennan and Napolitano of Homeland Security and the Senate Intelligence committee and the Joint Chiefs of Staff aware of all this? Of course they are and yet nothing, absolutely nothing will be done.

    Liberal appeasement-minded ideology and denial won’t allow for any other response to the situation.

    Until there’s sufficient provocation, namely the loss of an American city to a nuclear terrorist attack, the provocation will remain insufficient.

    And even then, there will be Americans claiming that we brought it on ourselves and ‘violence never solved anything’…

    Every generation and nation has its appeasers and collaborators, those who place self-preservation above all else and we are no different in that regard than any other country or time.

  2. GB — I know I’m preaching to the choir with you. But failing to point these things out as they emerge would be like assuming OJ’s guilty but not presenting the evidence.

    The West will have zero grounds on which to say that it didn’t know, realize, recognize, or understand where Iran was with this, on the day the mullahs “surprise the world” with the bomb. You and I know time is short, but not everyone understands how short.

    There seems to be a reflexive assumption among Westerners that Iranians are stupid and/or just insane. They’re not. I don’t know where this comes from; their Persian forebears invented chess, for crying out loud. The Iranians aren’t so dumb they would just barely get one bomb built and then caper about and crow over it like kids on a playground. If they can manage it, their objective will be to have a deeply buried stockpile of enriched uranium and bomb and missile parts stashed about the country before their first detonation. They know we can’t miss the detonation, even an underground one. If any action is taken, that would be, however UNlikely, the most likely time.

    So I think they’ll be prepared for it as much as they can. People need to understand the reasons why the IAEA process is ineffective for preventing this — so they’ll believe it. I don’t think even the people who agree that Iran can’t be trusted really understand how irrelevant the IAEA inspection regime is.

  3. J.E.

    All valid points and I even recognize the value in your incredible patience in building an airtight case for discrediting the inevitable claims that will surface of, “had we but known, we could have done something!”

    I too think it likely that Iran will wait until it has assembled enough materials to create more than one bomb, as you say, they’re far from stupid.

    When they do demonstrate their arrival as the newest member of the nuclear club, the next stage of the path we are all on, will unfold.

    Once they reach a tipping point of multiple warheads, the question will be, do they seize the Strait? I’m beginning to think that may actually be more probable than I had previously thought.

    Besides the natural reluctance to engage that Iranian nukes will provide in restraining US military responses to a seizing of the Strait, Iran will be able to credibly threaten the Saudi oil fields. And, their religious fanaticism will have to be considered in Washington’s consideration of any such threat. The global economic effects of such a move would be of course, severe.

    Then their would be consequence and precedent set, should their seizure hold and they start charging a fee for transit and even bar passage to anyone they don’t like. Freedom of the seas as a working concept would be fatally undermined.

    Even should the Iranians leave the Strait alone, nuclear proliferation is sure to increase and that of course is the greatest long-term threat to our national security.

    In my estimation, the Saudi’s will never allow Iran uncontested leadership of the Islamic world, nukes will bring Iran great status and the Saudi’s egotistical arrogance will not allow acquiescence.

    You’ve pointed out in past comments that unexpected events can suddenly emerge that can completely change the ‘playing field’. That’s certainly true and its beginning to look like we’ll need such an event(s) to derail what otherwise appears to be quite predictable circumstances from eventuating.

  4. “I don’t think even the people who agree that Iran can’t be trusted really understand how irrelevant the IAEA inspection regime is.”

    It’s worse than irrelevant if you ask me. I don’t know for sure how much information the IAEA has provided us over the years that we wouldn’t have otherwise known, but we may well have been better off without it. How much time has Iran gained by going along with IAEA “inspections?” How much legitimacy have the mullahs gotten by seeming to go along with the charade of “inspections?”

    Ultimately, the only benefit of the IAEA in regards to Iran for the US and the West will be to say that we tried the inspections route and Iran got the bomb anyway, which might reveal the uselessness of the IAEA – and perhaps wake us up that endless negotiations, inspections and appeasement are failing strategies in instances like this. But that’s a small benefit, as Iran will have gotten the bomb.

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