Last week, my organization received a call from a staff member on Capitol Hill who had an interesting question: how much nuclear energy could Iran produce with its current stockpile of enriched uranium? The staff member, like most journalists and even the public, was under the impression that Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium might be sufficient for the generation of nuclear power. That is not surprising; we have heard it said in many places that Iran could have a small enrichment program sufficient for nuclear power but not big enough to pose a weapon threat.
Unfortunately, that is not true. It is impossible to have an enrichment program for power that is smaller than an enrichment program for bombs.
Let’s consider what Iran has done. Over the eight years that Iran has been enriching uranium, it has accumulated only enough to fuel a standard-size nuclear reactor for less than three months. That is inconsequential from a nuclear energy perspective. But that same stockpile could fuel seven nuclear weapons. The truth is, Iran’s enrichment program today is far too small to be part of an energy program, but is perfectly adequate for making bombs.
To repeat: you can’t have a small enrichment program for nuclear energy. Such a thing does not exist. An enrichment program for power is by its nature many times bigger than an enrichment program for bombs. I will explain why in more detail in just a moment.
But first, what is the status of Iran’s nuclear program under the interim deal made last November?
Iran has enough low-enriched uranium now to fuel 7 bombs, assuming the uranium is enriched the rest of the way to weapon-grade. It is already two thirds of the way. Iran will keep this material under the deal. It would probably take Iran at least 3 months to prepare a first bomb’s worth of enriched uranium using this material, plus additional time to process it for placement in a weapon. Of course, these numbers are only estimates.
Iran is still enriching uranium by operating approximately 9,000 first-generation centrifuges under the interim accord. It has installed some 18,000, including about 1,000 advanced centrifuges that are probably two to three times more powerful than its first-generation machines.
Although Iran has agreed not to manufacture, install, or operate any new centrifuges – including its more advanced models – as long as the interim deal remains in effect, it continues to research and develop improved machines.
Iran also has a stockpile of higher-enriched uranium, which is already about nine-tenths of the way to weapons-grade. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has confirmed that Iran has ceased production of this material and is converting its existing stocks to an oxide form that is difficult, but not impossible, to quickly prepare for use in a nuclear weapon. Iran’s suspension of higher-enriched uranium production represents the only real roll-back achieved by the interim deal.
Besides enriched uranium, the other fissile material that can be used in a nuclear weapon is plutonium. Iran could eventually produce plutonium by extracting it from the spent fuel of its Arak heavy water reactor, which is still under construction. However, the interim nuclear deal bars Iran from installing any additional major components at the Arak site.
Under the interim accord, IAEA inspectors have gained access to some additional facilities, such as centrifuge workshops, and continue to visit Iran’s other declared nuclear sites.
So, overall, we can see that the interim deal largely maintains the status quo. It is not a roll-back.
Second, how likely are we to strike a final deal with Iran during this interim period?
The current talks are premised on the notion of “putting more time on the clock” – scaling back Iran’s enrichment program so Iran would need 6 months or a year to make a dash for a bomb, rather than 3 months or less. This would give the United States and its allies more time to act if Iran is discovered to be “breaking out” toward nuclear weapons.
But achieving this objective requires Iran to give up not only the further expansion of its nuclear program, but to leave idle or dismantle much of what it has already built.
What are the options?
A first option would be to require Iran to eliminate its entire enriched uranium stockpile. This would force Tehran to use natural uranium if it decided to break out, which would take more than twice as long to fuel one bomb as starting with enriched material. Iran could keep running its 9,000 centrifuges, but would have to dismantle or keep dormant an additional 9,000 machines it has installed. Any enriched uranium product would need to be shipped out of the country.
A second option would allow Iran to retain its enriched uranium stockpile, but would cut the number of its operating centrifuges to about 3,000 in order to maintain adequate break out time. In this scenario, even more centrifuges – 15,000 or so – would have to be dismantled or kept dormant.
Either option would require Iran to permanently halt its development of advanced centrifuges and give up plans for additional nuclear sites. The Arak heavy water reactor would need to be modified or dismantled, and Iran would have to agree to intrusive inspections both to ensure compliance with these restrictions and to guard against secret sites.
Either option would also mean that Iran would never be able to fuel a power reactor. Its enrichment program would be only a token, a face-saver.
Why? The answer is simple – a small enrichment program for nuclear power doesn’t exist, as I stated above. Let’s look a little deeper to see why. At its present capacity, it would take Iran more than a decade to accumulate enough uranium to fuel its Bushehr reactor for one year. Or, put another way, to have enough enrichment power to fuel its power reactor, Iran would have to increase its enrichment capacity by a factor of ten. The United States could never agree to this. If Iran had such enrichment power, it could fuel 25 nuclear weapons per year. “Small” enrichment programs such as Iran’s are not built by countries that seek nuclear energy; they are built by countries that aspire to nuclear weapons. If Iran’s enrichment program were truly large enough to supply a nuclear energy program, we would be looking at a tremendous bomb potential.
It is thus no surprise that Iran appears committed to retaining its enrichment capacity under any final accord, not to winding it down. As Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif recently commented, “Iran’s nuclear program will remain intact. We will not close any program.”
Iran’s apparent unwillingness to accept limits on its enrichment program does not bode well for a final agreement. The two sides are simply too far apart. Neither side wants a confrontation, so both Iran and the P5+1 will likely extend the interim period for another six months in July. The end of the year will be “crunch time” as both parties try to salvage something. But if present conditions hold, it is difficult to see the path forward to a final settlement.
Where will that leave Iran’s program in January 2015, after the negotiating period ends?
Iran will have amassed enough low-enriched uranium during the negotiating period to fuel an additional two nuclear weapons. Iran is supposed to convert this extra product into oxide form, yet it is unclear when this process will begin; Iran must first build a suitable conversion plant. Thus, if there is no long-term deal, Iran could be left with two more bombs’ worth of low-enriched uranium.
Although Iran’s higher-enriched uranium will have been diluted or converted to a form more difficult to process for use in weapons, all of this material will remain in Iran and can be reconverted. Iran’s approximately 18,000 installed first-generation centrifuges, plus advanced models, will remain intact, and additional components for the Arak heavy water reactor – which Iran is not prohibited from manufacturing under the interim accord – could be ready to install. The Natanz and Fordow enrichment plants will remain open, and Tehran’s research and development of next-generation centrifuges could position it to resume enrichment at an unprecedented pace.
Finally, what does all of this mean for our goal of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran?
Iran could be in a good position if the P5+1 fails to reach a long-term deal by the end of the interim period. Iran will have suffered some delays in its nuclear progress, but there will be no serious roadblocks to expanding its program. Its uranium enrichment activities will have gained a degree of legitimacy that will undo years of work at the United Nations and contradict a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to immediately suspend its enrichment effort. The text of the current interim agreement already concedes that Iran’s enrichment effort is a legitimate part of a peaceful nuclear program.
Meanwhile, the relaxation of sanctions may have provided much-needed relief to the Iranian economy and will reduce pressure on the leadership in Tehran. It took ten years to bring international sanctions to the point where they are now affecting the regime, and it may be difficult to regain the global consensus required to enforce these measures should they prove necessary again. The Islamic Republic will also have shed its status an economic pariah as the international business community eagerly pursues new trade and investment opportunities.
In sum, the Iranian regime could emerge from the talks with its nuclear program intact, an economy spurred on by sanctions relief, a weakened international consensus on future restrictions, and reduced pressure on the Iranian leadership to negotiate for fear of domestic unrest.
How can we avoid such an outcome? Iran must be convinced that the cost of failing to reach a final deal that includes restrictions on its enrichment program would be high. “Zero enrichment” isn’t necessary; Iran can retain a token enrichment capability, but nothing more. We must also break the association between Iran’s enrichment program and nuclear energy, because any program large enough to fuel nuclear reactors would also give Iran an unacceptable nuclear break out capability. Until we achieve these goals, we won’t have removed the threat of an Iranian bomb.