What are Iran's Real Nuclear Intentions?

The inflammatory declarations made by the Iranian leaders this week regarding the renewal of their centrifuge project reflect a considerable degree of ambiguity, but they also reflect frustration following Israel's recent accomplishments in the international arena

What are Iran's Real Nuclear Intentions?

Ayatollah Khamenei (Photo: AP)

The response of the Iranian “leader,” Ayatollah Khamenei, to the withdrawal of the USA from the nuclear agreement was not late in coming. During the ceremony commemorating the 29th anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the "leader" read out the following written declaration: "The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) has to make swift preparations within the framework of the JCPOA for now to achieve uranium enrichment capacity of 190,000 SWU." It is reasonable that the "leader" has not mastered the jargon of nuclear scientists, and considering his old age, he must have had his tongue twisted trying to utter the term SWU. The term "SWU" (Separative Work Unit) or "kg SWU" defines the work unit for the process of separating between the uranium isotopes that takes place during the enrichment process. In any case, Khamenei decided to lash out, in his address, not just at President Trump but also at several European countries, which he did not name. He said, "It seems from what they say that some European governments expect the Iranian nation to both put up with sanctions and give up its nuclear activities and continue to observe limitations (on its nuclear program). I tell those governments that this bad dream will never come true." He further stated, "Iran will never tolerate both suffering from sanctions and nuclear restrictions."

Pursuant to the statements made by the “leader,” in an interview to the Iranian news agency ISNA, Behrouz Kamalvandi, Spokesman for AEOI, said, "In a letter that will be handed over to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)… Iran will announce that the process of increasing the capacity to produce… UF6 (uranium hexafluoride)… will start on Tuesday." He also referred to Khamenei's address, saying, "The leader (Khamenei) meant that we should accelerate some processes… linked to our nuclear work capacity to move forward faster in case (it is) needed." Kamalvandi's statements indicated that the intention was, among other things, to accelerate the rate of centrifuge production.

Indeed, on the following day (June 6), according to the Iranian news agency FARS, Ali Akbar Salehi, the President of AEOI who also serves as the Vice President of Iran, announced that Iran notified IAEA that it had launched a plan to increase its uranium enrichment capacity. He claimed, "What we are doing does not violate the (2015 nuclear) agreement." He also stated, "If conditions allow, maybe tomorrow night at Natanz, we can announce the opening of the center for production of new centrifuges." (Natanz is where the Iranians have their major uranium enrichment facility). He stated further that this was only the beginning of the production process, and that "does not mean that we will start assembling the centrifuges." Apparently, the nuclear agreement of 2015 allows Iran to manufacture centrifuge components, on condition that during the first decade of the agreement, it will avoid assembling and activating those centrifuges. Finally, Salehi stressed that in his opinion, Iran's present moves do not indicate that Iran's contacts with the European Union have failed.

In any case, Khamenei's order to AEOI, to develop a uranium enrichment capacity on the scope of 190,000 SWU immediately, appears to be delusional. When JCPOA came into effect in January 2016, Iran had in its possession more than 18,000 type IR-1 centrifuges (the first centrifuge model Iran possessed), 2,700 of which were installed at the Fordow enrichment facility and the rest in Natanz, and about 1,000 type IR-2m centrifuges, also installed in Natanz. The enrichment yield of an IR-1 centrifuge is 0.8 to 1.0 kg SWU/year, while the yield of an IR-2m centrifuge, as estimated by the well-known Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), headed by David Albright, is 3 to 4 kg SWU/year. This means that Iran's uranium enrichment capacity in January 2016 was about 19,000 SWU. Accordingly, either Khamenei had been misled or became confused when he specified the figure of 190,000 SWU, or he was merely bragging. There is a third possibility, however, according to which Khamenei referred to a plan to swiftly manufacture advanced IR-8 type centrifuges, in view of the high yield of this centrifuge model. This possibility may be consistent with the declarations made by the heads of AEOI last year. On September 10, 2014, Salehi stated that the yield of the IR-8 type centrifuge was 24 kg SWU/year. Kamalvandi provided a more current description on February 14, 2017: "The enrichment capacity of (the) IR-8 centrifuge is 20 SWU per year and the (country's) enrichment capacity will increase 20 times after the mass production of this machine." Salehi also declared, in late January 2017, that the process of injecting UF6 into the IR-8 type centrifuge had begun, and that "The process has advanced more smoothly than expected." Additionally, in a television interview on April 8, 2017, he added that the testing of the injection process would take about two years to complete, and that after that Iran would begin to manufacture cascades for the IR-8 type centrifuges. Salehi noted that he considered that a milestone in the project involving the development of centrifuges by his country's specialists, and that the project did not contradict the nuclear agreement. He also reported that mass production of the advanced IR-2, IR-4, and IR-6 centrifuge models had begun. Kamalvandi also referred to this fact in his statement of February 14, 2017, adding that for the time being, the IR-8 type centrifuges were being tested by having them activated with UF6 gas. He said that after eight years have passed since the date when the nuclear agreement had come into effect (namely in January 2024), mass production of that centrifuge model would commence.

The quarterly reports issued by IAEA as of January 2016 and to this day have stated repeatedly, "…The Agency has verified and monitored Iran's implementation of its nuclear-related commitments in accordance with the modalities set out in JCPOA." In any case, these reports contained no reference to the question of whether Iran fully complied with its commitments, and in particular, they lacked any reference to the Iranian effort to develop advanced centrifuges during that period. Admittedly, the contents of the letter Iran sent to IAEA this week may be interesting, but the recent developments following President Trump's decision to withdraw the USA from the JCPOA have further enhanced the non-relevance of IAEA regarding the Iranian nuclear issue.

The inflammatory declarations made by the Iranian leaders last week reflect a considerable degree of ambiguity: on the one hand, they called for the renewal and acceleration of the project involving the uranium enrichment centrifuges. On the other hand, they stressed that the nuclear activities of their country will conform to the JCPOA – allegedly, an oxymoron. Apparently, this has been an Iranian attempt at brinkmanship: an attempt to avoid pushing the western European countries into the arms of the USA, but also a display of the known tactic of the unfortunate who, in fear and desperation, shouts out "restrain me!", as Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kupperwasser explained last Tuesday. The aggressive attitude of the Iranian leadership may be the result of their frustration pursuant to the recent accomplishments of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the international arena. The results of Netanyahu's success included the unreserved support of the USA; the close working relations established between Netanyahu and Putin, as reflected in the Russians' demand to pull the Iranian forces out of Syria, and the understandings of sorts on the Iranian issue Netanyahu reached last week with the leaders of France, Germany, and Britain.

However, one cannot rule out a scenario where Iran, in line with a decision made by the "leader" and with the backing provided by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), will soon break out of the nuclear agreement to manufacture a nuclear weapon. The core of a nuclear weapon will require some 20 kg of uranium enriched to 90%. The enrichment process should consist of four phases: enrichment from natural uranium to 3.5%; enrichment from 3.5% to 20%; enrichment from 20% to 60, and finally – enrichment to 90%. In the context of the enrichment to 60%, Mansour Haqiqatpour had threatened, on October 2 2012, while he was serving as Deputy Chairman of the Iranian Parliamentary Committee for Foreign Policy and National Security that if the negotiations Iran was conducting in those days with the superpowers should fail, Iran would start enriching uranium to 60%. Additionally, the Times of London reported this week that Israel provided Britain with information obtained from the Iranian nuclear archives, which included a document dated 2001, according to which the Iranian Army assumed responsibility for the nuclear program, including the task of enriching uranium from 3.5% to 90%.

The amount of UF6 enriched to 3.5% Iran was allowed to stockpile according to the nuclear agreement was restricted to 300 kg (in which the actual uranium content is 200 kg). Accordingly, Iran must start enriching natural uranium immediately in order to obtain the additional 700 kg of uranium enriched to 3.5%. This will require enrichment work of 1680 kg SWU. Since January 2016, only 5,060 IR-1 type centrifuges have been operating at Natanz (the other centrifuges installed in Natanz in the past were disconnected from the UF6 supply piping and placed in storage). These centrifuges can complete the task within four months. Based on experience, it is reasonable to assume that the enrichment to 20% will take place at the Fordow facility, where some 700 IR-1 type centrifuges are currently in operation – even though these centrifuges are not connected to the UF6 supply piping. According to the statements made by Salehi and Kamalvandi in the last year, these centrifuges may be activated within a few days. To enrich the current stock of 200 kg uranium previously enriched to 3.5% to 20% will require enrichment work of 210 kg SWU. It may be accomplished by operating the 700 available centrifuges for about three and a half months. To complement the additional 700 kg of uranium enriched to 3.5% required in order to make the weapon, additional centrifuge work of about 950 kg SWU will be required. This may be accomplished by installing 1,000 IR-2m type centrifuges, capable of executing enrichment work of 1,000 kg SWU within three months. To enrich the 120 kg of uranium previously enriched to 20% in order to obtain 35 kg of uranium enriched to 60% will require enrichment work of about 225 kg SWU, which may be accomplished at the same time as the aforementioned enrichment processes by using an additional 700 IR-1 type centrifuges. Finally, to enrich 35 kg uranium previously enriched to 60% to obtain 20 kg uranium enriched to 90% will require enrichment work of about 45 kg SWU, and this may be accomplished concurrently by using a cascade of IR-1 type centrifuges over a period of about three months.

The above leads to the conclusion that Iran could break out toward a nuclear weapon and produce the enriched uranium required for the core of such a weapon within about six months. Admittedly, this is an extreme and possibly theoretical scenario, but in view of the past conduct of the Ayatollah regime and the IRGC, it should be taken into consideration.


Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Rafael Ofek is an expert in the physics and technology of nuclear power. He served in the Israeli intelligence community as a senior researcher and analyst

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