There can be little doubt that there has been an escalation in tension between Iran and the United States. This escalation has been accompanied by an intensified debate within America about the wisdom of launching a military campaign against Iran, which seems to be mirroring an internal debate on the matter within the Obama administration given that two former government planners, on opposing sides, have been leading the renewed debate.
The escalation, it must be stressed, is accompanied by measures that appear to be directed toward diffusing tension. These diffusing elements would tend to indicate that currently those expressing caution have, tenuously, the upper hand in both Washington and Tehran.
It is often stated by bombing enthusiasts that the escalating tension follows Iran's nuclear activities and the security concerns that others have about them. Two recent developments in particular are cited in this regard, those being the November 2011 IAEA nuclear safeguards implementation report and Iran's announcement that it is now enriching uranium to 20% U-235 at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) near the city of Qom.
The first, it is argued, shows that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. The second, that Iran shall very soon reach a "break out" capability to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon. Putting the two together demonstrates that now is the time to attack Iran before it is too late, advocates of military strikes implore.
Both claims need to be carefully assessed.
The November 2011 safeguards report is often misrepresented, especially by policy hardliners and journalists not prepared to engage in some old fashioned home work. It is taken to demonstrate that the IAEA has concluded that Iran has reconstituted a nuclear weapons programme after having halted one in 2003 according to US intelligence estimates. Those estimates have not changed.
Yet the wording in the report is not so unequivocal. A key passage states that, "the information indicates that prior to the end of 2003 the above activities took place under a structured programme. There are also indications that some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device continued after 2003, and that some may be still ongoing."
This distinction between these two sentences is critical.
Prior to 2003 there appears to have been a structurally connected dual track approach to weapons development, one involving weaponisation activities and the other a militarised parallel nuclear fuel cycle devoted to the development of weapons grade fissile material. In the detailed annex to the November report there appears no evidence suggesting that Iran has reconstituted a parallel nuclear fuel cycle. Furthermore, Iran would need to secure alternative uranium mining sites to those currently known to the international community for a clandestine parallel fuel cycle. Lastly, that "some" weaponisation activities "may" be ongoing does not mean "all" are with "certainty."
This suggests to us that the post 2003 activities are consistent with the notion that Iran is attempting to develop a latent nuclear weapons capability, in accord with its deterrence oriented, rather than expansionist, strategic doctrine. That is not a bomb programme per se. The difference is indeed subtle though important for all that, for it undermines the key assumption made by supporters of escalation. Namely, that Iran is unambiguously pursuing a nuclear weapons programme for an aggressive foreign policy.
The IAEA has confirmed that Iran has started to enrich uranium to 20% U-235 at Fordow, which is under IAEA safeguards. Uranium enriched to 20% and above is classed as Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU). Weapons grade uranium is enriched to greater than or equal to 90% U-235. It is much easier to enrich from 20% to 90% than it is to enrich from 0.7 to 3-5%, with the latter being required to fuel a light water moderated reactor.
At current production rates it is estimated that Iran will be able to produce 250kg of HEU by the end of 2012. This assumption is based on 20% enrichment being conducted at both Fordow, using four cascades, and Natanz, using two cascades. From there it is further estimated that 250kg of HEU could be used as feed to produce enough weapons grade uranium for one bomb in a month. Such a bomb would need to be tested and further work beyond enrichment would realistically need to be conducted to manufacture it. That is not an imminent break out capacity.
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