A widely referenced Washington Post story from Monday has got folks feeling complacent about the parlous state of Iran’s nuclear program. The WaPo piece, crediting Stuxnet and sanctions, speaks of a “sharp decline” in the output of low-enriched uranium (LEU) at the Natanz enrichment facility, along with the aging and low-performing condition of Iran’s original Pakistani-design centrifuge cascades. Meanwhile, sanctions have apparently made it impossible for Iran to import high-strength maraging steel, forcing the Iranians to manufacture their newest centrifuges from less reliable carbon fiber.
Sounds like cause for celebration, right? Between Stuxnet and the sanctions, Iran’s nuclear butt is being kicked around Southwest Asia.
But there is more to the story, and a serious danger of succumbing to a Hockey Stick effect if we don’t look at all of it. One of the most important facts is that, according to the September 2011 IAEA report, Iran had – as of mid-August 2011 – piled up a total of 4543kg of LEU. By Western intelligence estimates, that is enough for 4 nuclear warheads. LEU production began in February 2007, and the rate of production can be crudely gauged by noting that (again, according to IAEA reporting) Iran had 630kg of LEU in November 2008, 1763kg in October 2009, and 3135kg in October 2010.
Let’s go to the graphs produced by the analysts of ISIS (Institute for Science and International Security) at their Iran Nuclear website.* (See the complete set of graphs on pp. 6-9 of the ISIS analysis of the September 2011 IAEA report.) Iran’s rate of LEU production ticked down between May and August 2011, as it had also done between May and August 2010 and between November 2008 and February 2009. After each of the previous down-ticks, the rate of production increased again. To date, the overall trend continues strongly positive, even in the 2-plus years following the probable introduction of the Stuxnet worm (sometime in late spring/early summer of 2009).
One of the strongest points made by ISIS about Iran’s current status is that the efficiency of production has declined. The Iranians are now using more centrifuges to produce the same amount of LEU. This accords with the ISIS analysts’ point that the original IR-1 centrifuges are getting old, and, with known design flaws, were never that well-made or efficient in the first place. The history of Iran’s centrifuge arrangements has something of the air of experiment: at first using fewer to enrich more uranium; experiencing problems under that cascade configuration; and deciding to process less uranium with more centrifuges.
What the history does not have is evidence of a process grinding to a halt. Even with the down-tick in efficiency of production between May and August 2011, Iran still produced enough LEU on an annualized basis for a nuclear warhead per year. And again, the overall trend in the LEU production rate remains positive. ISIS has suggested solid reasons why it may level off, at least in the Natanz facility, but it is far from clear that the process is headed for a train wreck.
All the same issues still exist. Iran is producing LEU at the rate of at least a warhead’s worth per year. As ISIS and others point out, the rate of LEU production is insufficient to support the reactor at Bushehr – but one has to take Iran’s word for the program’s purpose, to believe that this is a problem for program performance.
Iran is still producing “medium-enriched” uranium at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) at Natanz, and has so far produced a little over 70kg, according to the IAEA report. The 19.75% pure uranium is the intermediate step to producing high-enriched, or weapons-grade uranium. As of the latest IAEA report, Iran has installed more than 150 new-design centrifuges at the PFEP. The Iranians have also installed a cascade of (old-design) IR-1 centrifuges at the once-secret Fordow site in Qom. (The one Obama trumped Iran by announcing our knowledge of in September 2009 – which has since been accepted by IAEA and added to its inspection list.)
Beyond these activities, however, Iran has also indirectly confirmed that indigenous production of uranium is ongoing (something presaged by previous analysis, based on information available as early as November-December 2008). The “Bandar Abbas facility” referred to on p. 4 of the ISIS report is a production installation for uranium mined in Iran. The more indigenous uranium Iran produces, the less of a handle IAEA will have on the total amount being processed.
Not that the handle it has today can be confirmed as good. IAEA is still prohibited from visiting key sites like the underground complexes at Natanz and Esfahan. It has not established any regime of visiting the uranium production facilities near Bandar Abbas. It relies on the Iranians’ own reporting for a picture of what is going on at these sites. IAEA has been unable to verify anything related to other Iranian announcements, regarding laser enrichment and the construction of additional enrichment sites.
And, of course, all of Iran’s enrichment activities are prohibited by UN resolutions, as is the construction of the heavy-water plutonium reactor at Arak (similar to the North Korean reactor and the one the Israelis struck in Syria in 2007) – construction that continues uninterrupted. The Iranians have given IAEA a timeframe of late 2013 for the commencement of operations by the Arak reactor.
The knowledge level by which the Iranian program is assessed has big gaps in it. ISIS issued this plea to IAEA in September:
One special note: The IAEA continues to release less information about the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant’s operation, making it more difficult to evaluate the plant’s performance. The IAEA should again release a more complete set of data.
Meanwhile, IAEA summed up the situation as follows in its September 2011 report (emphasis added):
50. While the Agency continues to conduct verification activities under Iran’s Safeguards Agreement, Iran is not implementing a number of its obligations, including: implementation of the provisions of its Additional Protocol; implementation of the modified Code 3.1 of the subsidiary Arrangements General Part to its Safeguards Agreement; suspension of enrichment related activities; suspension of heavy water related activities; and addressing the Agency’s concerns about possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.
51. While the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at the nuclear facilities and LOFs declared by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement, as Iran is not providing the necessary cooperation, including by not implementing its Additional Protocol, the Agency is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.
* Important note: ISIS analysts make their assessments with more care and balance than are evident in the tone of the WaPo article. Critiquing WaPo’s use of their information is not a critique of the ISIS product.