Welcome to the Iran nuclear forum. We’ve convened some of the world’s best experts to discuss the Iranian nuclear issue, which is certain to be one of the most important and most difficult security challenges facing the next U.S. President.
I’d like to start by setting the technical baseline. Since January 2006, when Iran resumed enrichment activities at Natanz, Iran has made significant progress towards mastering P-1 centrifuge technology and is proceeding with plans to install and operate a substantial number of P-1 centrifuge machines at the Natanz enrichment plant. Iran plans to install a total of 16 units at the Natanz plant, with each unit containing approximately 3,000 centrifuges (18 cascades of 164 machines each) for a total of approximately 48,000 centrifuges for the entire plant. According to the most recent IAEA report of 15 September 2008, a single unit of 3,000 centrifuges has been fully operational since November 2007, a second unit is about one-third completed (i.e., around 1,000 machines operating), and “installation work” is proceeding on three additional units of 3,000 machines each. Thus, when the current phase of construction is complete, Iran will have five units or approximately 15,000 P-1 centrifuges in operation at the Natanz enrichment plant. In addition to the centrifuge machines at the Natanz enrichment plant, Iran is operating a much smaller number of P-1 machines – as well as research and development on more advanced centrifuge designs – at the Natanz pilot enrichment facility.
Based on an analysis of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) feed rates as reported by the IAEA, David Albright (who is participating in this forum) estimates that Iran is now operating the P-1 machines at the Natanz enrichment plant at about 85 percent of their design capacity, which is a significant improvement over previous performance. Thus, it appears that Iran has overcome many of the technical problems that it experienced in the early stage of operating the P-1 machines, when performance was less than 50 percent of design capacity. According to the IAEA’s September report, the Natanz enrichment plant is producing about 2-3 kilograms of low enriched UF6 (i.e., less than 5.0% U-235) per day, for a total stock of about 480 kilograms of low enriched UF6.
Estimating Iran’s ability to use the Natanz facility for nuclear breakout – i.e. to produce sufficient amounts of highly enriched or weapons grade uranium (around 90.0% U-235) to support a military program – is an inexact science. In terms of fissile material requirements, the estimate depends upon both the size of Iran’s stockpile of low enriched UF6 and on how quickly Iran can enrich this stockpile to produce significant quantities of highly enriched UF6. Under ideal conditions, approximately 700-900 kilograms of low enriched UF6 can produce 20-25 kilograms of HEU metal, a reasonable assumption of the amount of HEU required for a single “simple” nuclear weapon. Under this assumption, Iran has already accumulated about half the low enriched UF6 required for a single weapon. In reality, however, the amount of low enriched UF6 required for a single weapon is likely to be considerably greater, given inefficiencies in the production process, especially because the cascades at Natanz are designed for low rather than high enrichment. How much greater we don’t know.
Nuclear breakout is also a matter of speed. Speed means the number of centrifuge machines. Assuming sufficient low enriched UF6, for example, a unit of 3,000 P-1 centrifuge machines is likely to take at least a few months to produce enough HEU for a single bomb, during which time the facility would be vulnerable to military attack. Presumably, if Iran intends to use Natanz for military production, it might choose to wait until it has installed enough machines to breakout in a much shorter period of time. Estimating how quickly Iran can expand its centrifuge capacity, however, is no easy matter. Take as a baseline the initial 3,000-machine unit at Natanz. According to the IAEA, the first two cascades of the unit (each cascade containing 164 machines) began to process UF6 in February 2007, and the unit was completed with a total of 18 cascades in November 2007. Work on the second unit seems to be taking place at a similar pace. The first two cascades began to process UF6 in May 2008, and the IAEA reported that a total of five cascades were processing UF6 in August, suggesting that the unit is likely to be completed (18 cascades) in early 2009. Assuming that the pace of construction remains the same (perhaps a rash assumption!), this means that Iran’s current plan to complete five units of 3,000 machines each for a total of 15,000 P-1 machines would be completed sometime in mid-2011. In theory, such a facility would represent a much more credible nuclear break out capability.
In conclusion, Iran has made significant progress to master P-1 centrifuge technology, in terms of getting the machines to operate efficiently, but still appears to be a few years away from building a safeguarded centrifuge facility large enough to produce enough HEU for a few nuclear weapons in a relatively short time. This assessment does not, of course, take into consideration the possibility (some would say the probability) that Iran will attempt to “sneak out” rather than “break out” by building a secret enrichment facility. Under one such scenario, Iran could quickly move its stocks of safeguarded low enriched UF6 to secret locations, and the world would be left to wonder whether Iran has the bomb or not.
Against this technical background (you are welcome to comment on and challenge my technical analysis), I’d like to ask the group to address the policy options facing the next U.S. administration.
First and foremost, do we have a credible diplomatic option to halt, delay, or limit Iran’s enrichment program? As you all know, the current diplomatic strategy – which combines sanctions to pressure Iran to suspend its enrichment program as a condition for nuclear negotiations with the EU3 plus 3 (the U.K., France, Germany, United States, Russia, and China) with offers of assistance to Iran’s civil nuclear power program if Iran accepts a ten-year moratorium on its enrichment program – has failed. Are there sweeter carrots and thornier sticks we can deploy to change the calculation of Iran’s leaders that they can continue on their current course? Can we convince Russia and China to apply serious pressure? How likely are direct and unconditional talks between the United States and Iran to make a difference? Is there a grand bargain? If we cannot obtain a total moratorium on Iran’s enrichment program (i.e. the zero option), should we be prepared to accept arrangements that allow Iran to maintain a limited enrichment program under enhanced international monitoring? Should we negotiate on the basis of Iran’s proposal for a “multilateral enrichment consortium” on Iranian soil?
I hope these questions will kick off a lively discussion for our Iran forum.