Iran’s Chief nuclear negotiator gave an interview to Inter France Radio (in French) that was little noticed until the Iranian Embassy released his remarks.
Here is how IRNA reported his comments:
Larijani said that the best guarantee for peacefulness of the nuclear program of the Islamic Republic of Iran could include the following measures:
- “Accepting the current IAEA monitoring and verification systems,
- Use of modern centrifuges, proposed by some American and British scientists, which permit only limited enrichment,
- participation of interested countries in Iran’s peaceful nuclear activities in the form of a consortium.”
What struck me was the phrase:
Use of modern centrifuges, proposed by some American and British scientists, which permit only limited enrichment,
My initial reaction was “huh?” So I e-mailed a half dozen of the most technically astute folks. Their collective reaction, with somewhat more erudition, was also “huh?”
There is no such thing, boys and girls, as a centrifuge that permits only limited enrichment—file it in the same category as the perpetual watermill (left) and French bands that play rock-and-roll: Total Fantasy.
The general consensus is that Larijani means a deal to allow Iran to keep an enrichment facility that is limited in scale, under IAEA monitoring. The International Crisis Group has just released a report suggesting that Iran be allowed a “delayed limited enrichment” under which the international community recongizes Iran’s “right to enrich” domestically in exchange for agreeing to “a several-year delay in the commencement of its enrichment program, major limitations on its initial size and scope, and a highly intrusive inspections regime.”
The ICG proposal was subjected to a withering assault by David Albright and Corey Hinderstein at ISIS (full text at the bottom), the gist of which is that IGC has dramatically overestimated how close Iran is to enriching uranium:
Under the ICG plan, the time-frame of 5-7 years before Iran could possibly deploy large scale enrichment is roughly the same amount of time Iran would need to reach that capability if it continued on the current path. Therefore, this option could put an international stamp of approval on a path to enrichment that is essentially the same as the one that Iran is already pursuing.
A better, though not perfect, solution was suggested by Geoff Forden and John Thomson in an op-ed in the Financial Times (subscription required). Forden and Thomson propse a multinational consortium that would lease Iran’s nuclear facilities:
We suggest operations owned and controlled by a holding company with governments as shareholders. Initially, these might be Iran and Britain, Germany and France the EU3 with Russia as one possible addition. The shareholders would jointly meet costs and share profits. The holding company would lease all Iranian facilities connected with enrichment, including their existing centrifuges. Similarly, it would lease the latest model of centrifuge from Urenco, the European enrichment group. The plant containing all these centrifuges would be at Iran’s Natanz facility. The product of the operation, low-enriched uranium, would be the property of the holding company and be sold at market rates to any customer observing full IAEA safeguards, including Iran. While the holding company would determine policy, an international management group would run the facilities. All shareholders would have personnel in this group.
Forden and Thoms have a longer article in a forthcoming issue of Jane’s Intelligence Review.
The main problem with this scenario is that Iran could nationalize the facility, throw out the inspectors, and start churning out HEU. (Admittedly, I think such a brazen action is unlikely, but needs to be taken seriously.)
Forden and Thomson propose “built-in self-destructive mechanisms” which strikes me as too clever by half. I would be interested in real-life examples of a large-scale industrial facility that has such mechanisms.
(I presume we are not talking about stacking explosives around with a big red button—Can you imagine the liability waiver for foreign workers enriching uranium in an underground facility wired to blow at a moment’s notice? And, also, I am pretty sure that “I will not include a self-destruct mechanism unless absolutely necessary” is on the The Top 100 Things I’d Do If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord?)
Anyway, one “mechanism” might simply be removing some of the earth above Natanz to make it more vulnerable to an airstrike. (I haven’t really thought about the engineering associated with that, so grain of salt and all …)
ISIS reaction to ICG Report on Iran
February 23, 2006
The report, Iran: Is there a way out of the nuclear impasse? issued today by the International Crisis Group, contains errors of both facts and judgments, some of which result from an apparent lack of understanding of centrifuges and safeguards. This e-mail is not meant as a comprehensive critique, but rather a quick reaction to a couple of the most concerning assertions of the report.
The ICG’s fallback proposal of limited enrichment is not realistically assessed and represents a fundamentally flawed and dangerous recommendation. In particular, this recommendation would not actually significantly delay Iran’s centrifuge development. Under the ICG plan, the time-frame of 5-7 years before Iran could possibly deploy large scale enrichment is roughly the same amount of time Iran would need to reach that capability if it continued on the current path. Therefore, this option could put an international stamp of approval on a path to enrichment that is essentially the same as the one that Iran is already pursuing.
Many of the key claims made by the ICG report to support this recommendation are misleading or wrong, including:
1) Contrary to the ICG claim or implied claim, Iran has not obtained all the information it needs to operate centrifuges or build a centrifuge plant. ICG is speculating, largely based on general media accounts, that Iran has acquired the necessary information to do so. In fact, Iran requires several more years to master the operation of centrifuge cascades and the construction of a centrifuge plant.
2) Iran has spun or enriched uranium in many centrifuges, as ICG reports, but it has done so only as single machines or in small cascades comprising no more than 10-20 machines. Iran still needs to repair and operate its first 164 machine test cascade at the Natanz pilot plant. One of the reasons Iran spun many centrifuges is that they broke or did not work as expected.
3) ICG makes a claim that if Iran operated 500 centrifuges, it would be at least 5-6 years from obtaining enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in a break-out strategy.This type of simplistic analysis is wrong, and other than quoting additional non-technical analysis, ICG offers no technical analysis of its own to support its claim.To understand the fallacy of this claim, consider a hypothetical case where Iran operated 500 P1 machines to produce weapon grade uranium (WGU) (90 percent uranium 235) and used a high tails assay consistent with that used initially by most other nuclear weapons programs, i.e. 0.5 percent uranium 235.In this scenario, Iran could produce about 9 kilograms of WGU per year, and have enough for a nuclear weapon (15-20 kilograms) in about two years. If Iran used a previously produced stock of low enriched uranium (5 percent uranium 235), roughly an amount that could be produced in a year or two in the enrichment plant and
realistically may not have been sent overseas or loaded into a reactor, Iran could produce enough WGU for a nuclear weapon in roughly six months. In actual practice, Iran may find it difficult to accomplish such feats, but this hypothetical case highlights the technical flaws that lay at the basis of ICG’s analysis of the limited enrichment option.
4) ICG overestimates the type and capability of safeguards measures that would be deployed by the IAEA to detect undeclared nuclear facilities or materials. ICG appears to believe the IAEA would deploy some type of wide area monitoring plan to detect clandestine production of enriched uranium. Such a scheme has never been discussed for deployment in Iran, has never before been deployed anywhere else in the world, would be unreasonably expensive to deploy effectively. In addition, it would be highly unlikely that Iran would accept such a unique safeguards burden. Finally, such a system may be unable to detect an undeclared Iranian gas centrifuge plant, particularly if the Iranians are experienced at operating such plants, including knowing how to reduce the number of accidents and leaks of uranium hexafluoride from a plant.Given that the limited enrichment option would provide Iran with just that experience at a declared gas centrifuge plant, detection of an undeclared
plant may prove impossible, even in the unlikely case that wide area monitoring could be deployed.
The ICG report is helpful in pointing out that military strikes are unlikely to be effective in resolving the current nuclear crisis with Iran.
The international community needs to be committed to a diplomatic solution that results in an agreement whereby Iran voluntarily forswears having any deployed enrichment capability. This option is stated in the ICG report as preferred, but then the ICG seems to dismiss it as an unreachable goal. It is too soon to reach such a pessimistic opinion.In any case, its limited enrichment offer would neither adequately constrain Iran’s nuclear program nor be effectively verifiable.