BY YOUSAF BUTT
In January of this year, Olli Heinonen declared that "it would take half a year [for Iran] to go from 3.5 percent enriched uranium to weapons-grade material for the first nuclear device." Well let's sound the all-clear: there is no hint whatsoever that Iran will have a nuclear device this summer, and its enriched uranium stockpile continues to be under the watchful eye of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
In a new but equally breathless and alarmist account, Heinonen parades a litany of technical facts about Iran's uranium enrichment to 20 percent that worries him. Oddly, he then goes on to characterize Iran's offer to suspend enrichment to this allegedly highly dangerous level as Iran only offering a "pawn ... in exchange for the queen -- the lifting of oil sanctions."
Which is it? Is 20 percent enrichment merely a "pawn," or is it the imminent and mortal threat that Heinonen describes?
If it is merely a pawn, why bother negotiating about it?
If, however, Iranian enrichment is seen as a serious issue -- a "queen," say, in chess parlance -- then it requires serious reciprocity such as some significant relief on sanctions, perhaps even involving the EU oil embargo that is set to begin in July.
Heinonen makes a big deal about the IAEA's recent detection of uranium particles enriched to 27 percent at the Fordow underground enrichment plant in Iran. While this is well above the declared 20 percent enrichment level at the facility, the discovery is, in all likelihood, a technical glitch and not indicative of any sinister ploy. Indeed, the very detection of these particles is heartening in a way; that the IAEA could pick up "trace" amounts of such material should lend great credence to the IAEA's role as the "tripwire" for any serious diversion or over-enrichment of nuclear materials in Iran. As Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies recently stated, "There are good reasons to worry about Iran's enrichment work but this probably isn't one of them."
But how could such a technical glitch have happened? There are several possibilities. When a cascade of centrifuges is started up, only a small amount of uranium hexafluoride gas is fed through the system at first. Because the system is only doing work on a small amount of gas, this material gets over-enriched, but only temporarily. When the remainder of the gas is added, the overall enrichment level gets blended down to the target figure -- in this case 20 percent (19.75 percent, to be technically precise).
Importantly, this issue has cropped up before in Iran, and also wasn't a big deal then. In 2010, the IAEA detected "a small number of particles" at Iran's Natanz facility enriched as high as 7.1 percent when the target level there was 5 percent. At that time, the IAEA noted that the detected over-enrichment refers to "a known technical phenomenon associated with the start-up of centrifuge cascades."
Of course, such transient anomalies need not occur only when firing up centrifuges. In fact, the possibility of over-enrichment exists any time the uranium hexafluoride gas feed is reduced, or any time centrifuge speeds are increased beyond normal levels. This latter scenario, of course, is exactly what the Stuxnet virus is reported to have brought about in the hopes of destroying the centrifuges. Just recently, a new and powerful virus called Flame was detected in the Middle East. While it's unlikely, we can't rule out the rather ironic possibility that viruses that alter centrifuge speeds may also play a role in producing such over-enrichments.
Heinonen is also, evidently, very concerned about the possibility of conventional high-explosives testing at Iran's Parchin military facility, which may have taken place ten years ago and may have had nuclear weapons applications. The Iran-IAEA Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, however, only qualifies the diversion of nuclear material from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons as being a legal breach of agreement. Conventional explosive testing in Iran ten years ago, however worrying, was not restricted by law. Unfortunately, there is a great gulf between the non-proliferation ideal and what is legal.
If such conventional explosives testing took place with nuclear weapons applications in mind -- a matter on which there is much serious dispute -- it would most certainly be against the spirit of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But getting into perceived violations of the spirit of the NPT is a lengthy and convoluted subject that implicates all nuclear-weapon states -- which were required to get going on nuclear disarmament at an "early date" back in the 1970s -- as well as some non-nuclear-weapon states.
Returning to the chess game: During the recent talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany), Iran indicated that it was willing to suspend enrichment to 20 percent in exchange for some significant sanctions relief. But by refusing to ease sanctions on Iran in any meaningful way, the P5+1 offered no serious reciprocity in return for Iranian compliance. By not striking a deal, these global powers are, in effect, helping Iran stockpile even more enriched uranium.
One gets the feeling that keeping sanctions and pressure on Iran is more important to the West than resolving the nuclear issue.
Heinonen seems to want to raise the negotiating stakes beyond just the 20 percent issue and settle for nothing less than a "more intrusive and timely inspection system, as well as Iran's agreement to follow the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty" (the Additional Protocol allows the IAEA to conduct more intrusive inspections than are normally permitted). While that would be an ideal outcome, the adoption of the Additional Protocol is a voluntary step for signatory states of the NPT -- not something that is forced upon them under threat of force or sanctions. Importantly, both Argentina and Brazil enrich uranium but also have not adopted the Additional Protocol, and both pursued clandestine nuclear weapons programs in the past.
The successful implementation of the Additional Protocol requires great cooperation and goodwill between the IAEA and signatory nations, and the protocol is unlikely to be effective when threats of force are on the table. The recent assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and the apparently ongoing cyberattacks against Iran's nuclear facilities further poison the atmosphere. The possibility that IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano has been less than apolitical in dealing with Iran is also likely to hurt chances that Iran easily accepts the protocol. Robert Kelley, an ex-IAEA inspector and nuclear engineer, went so far as to characterize parts of Amano's November 2011 report on Iran as trying to misdirect opinion "towards their desired outcome," adding, "that is unprofessional."
Indeed, since the Additional Protocol would grant the IAEA free rein to carry out inspections in Iran, there may be a legitimate fear among Iranian officials that the IAEA could pass on a list of targets for a future military campaign to the United States or its allies. After all, close cooperation between the IAEA and Western intelligence has existed in the past. If the Additional Protocol is ever broached as a subject of future negotiations, as Heinonen suggests, it should be tied to the firm and permanent removal of military threats against Iran. In any case, such threats of force are against the U.N. Charter and specifically contravene U.N. Security Council Resolution 487, which "[c]alls upon Israel to refrain in the future from any such acts [of force] or threats thereof" (emphasis added).
U.S. sanctions, it seems, will be enforced no matter what Iran does with its nuclear program. By designing the sanctions in this way, the U.S. Congress is playing the role of spoiler in the talks between Iran and the P5+1 nations. They may as well kick the chess board.
By contrast, the removal of the EU oil embargo -- enacted but not yet implemented -- could be a useful quid pro quo for the suspension of Iranian 20 percent enrichment: a queen for a queen.
However one characterizes the chess pieces, let's not forget that chess originated in Persia.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 05/06/2012
-Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist, serves as a scientific consultant for the Federation of American Scientists