The lack of clear objectives and a corresponding strategy to deal with the larger Iran problem have, in part, driven the failure to roll back the Iranian nuclear threat. Iran is now approaching a point at which it will be able to rapidly build and deploy a sizable nuclear weapons arsenal at a time of its leadership’s choosing and potentially without being detected. Iran has flouted red line after red line in its pursuit of nuclear weapons capability. Did it cross another one without facing any consequences?
In late 2011, the Iranian regime began allocating a portion of its near-bomb grade (20%) enriched uranium gas into a powder, ostensibly for use in a research reactor. This led some (including Israel) to breathe a sigh of relief. Why? Because they believed that this process rendered the most imminently threatening material — convertible to nuclear weapons fuel in short order — permanently “safe” and unavailable for the development of a nuclear weapon. It did no such thing, as I pointed out last June.
Enriched uranium in oxide powder form can be reconverted to the gaseous form required for weapons-grade enrichment. The former head of Israeli military intelligence recently said that the reconversion would take about a week. A former senior International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) official has given a similar estimate. Only after the oxide powder is packaged into fuel plates, placed inside the reactor core, and irradiated can it be unusable for reconversion. Iran’s small annual fuel requirement for the reactor means that only a small fraction of its 20% enriched uranium will be expended in the foreseeable future.
Why do these technical details matter? Last September, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that his red line is Iran’s completion of the second stage of nuclear enrichment: The accumulation of a quantity of 20% enriched uranium that would put Iran “a few months away or a few weeks away” from having weapons-grade uranium for one bomb. He added that Iran would reach this threshold by spring 2013 (summer 2013 at the latest). The amount in question was later quantified as 250 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium gas (~169 kilograms uranium). PM Netanyahu confirmed this figure in a recent interview. Judging from the IAEA’s most recent report, which records Iran’s production of 20% enriched uranium gas as 280 kilograms, Iran likely approached and crossed the 250-kilogram threshold sometime in December 2012. That material is being stored in the form of gas and oxide powder (or an intermediary form). Only by accepting the assumption that material allocated for oxide powder production is permanently off the table — which as explained above is technically false — can it be argued that Iran has not breached this red line.