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Iran’s Nuclear Program: Diplomatic Options

by Gary Samore, Vice President and Director of Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
October 20, 2008

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.

2 Comments

  • Posted by cferguson

    Gary Samore’s analysis of the nuclear breakout timeline appears sound to me. For my first comment, I want to step back and have us think about the challenges posed by Iran’s nuclear program. I think that the challenges are in two major issue areas: (1) the overall vitality of the nuclear nonproliferation regime and (2) the security of the Persian Gulf region and the larger Middle Eastern region.

    Concerning the first area, the United States and all states that support the objective of stopping nuclear proliferation have a responsibility to enforce compliance with safeguards agreements. Iran has been found by the IAEA Board of Governors to be in noncompliance with its safeguards agreement on its nuclear program. Iran has yet to provide needed assurances to clear up compliance problems. While Tehran asserts that it has done so on past safeguards problems (this is debatable), it still has a requirement to clearly indicate what are its intentions about its program especially in light of the facts that it does not have a fuel fabrication facility for Bushehr, it has an agreement with Russia for fuel for that reactor, and it does not have an adequate supply of indigenous uranium for making sufficient fuel for even a modestly sized nuclear power program. Perhaps Iran would purchase natural uranium from other states and add value by enriching this material. But the economic justification for this enrichment service by Iran is weak (for example, see the report by Wood et al. in the Nonproliferation Review, http://cns.miis.edu/npr/pdfs/141wood.pdf).

    What types of enforcement of safeguards are justified? The United States faces the dilemma that application of enforcement via sanctions, threats of military force, or actually use of military force can play into the hands of Iranian hardliners who thrive on the confrontation with the United States but lack of enforcement can signal loss of U.S. resolve to deal with the challenge to the nonproliferation regime. This dilemma is connected to the second issue area of the security of the Middle East. Growing Iranian nuclear capability can increase Iranian confidence in projecting its power. This increasing Iranian influence will likely drive other states in the region to counter this power through developing their own nuclear as well as asymmetric capabilities. Should the United States offer security assurances to Iran depending on Iran’s curtailing its nuclear program? It is far from clear whether Iran is interested in these assurances or would believe them to be credible. Should the United States also consider security assurances to Arab Gulf states?

    Charles Ferguson

  • Posted by George Perkovich

    A first task in assessing where we are and might go in a diplomatic strategy toward Iran is to realize that Iran has not been negotiating since 2005. Candid participants in the EU-3 and EU-3-plus-U.S- Russia-China talks acknowledge that Iranian counterparts have not negotiated. They have not indicated that there is anything that the world could offer that would induce Iran to suspend fuel-cycle activities as required under UN SC resolutions. The talks are posturing events.

    The dynamic could change, and Iran could show hints of being willing to negotiate price, if the counterparts conceded away the suspension demand and instead accepted some level of enrichment in Iran and sought to negotiate over the conditions under which enrichment would occur and the level of pay-off Iran would demand for various conditions. Thus far the Europeans (supported by the U.S.) have refused to concede this point and negotiate over conditions of enrichment. I support this resistance not because I think Iran will agree to a long-term suspension, but because I think the demand is reasonable as long as Iran has not resolved all outstanding issues with the IAEA, built international confidence in the peacefulness of its nuclear activities, and demonstrated an actual need for indigenously produced reactor fuel. Once Iran has mastered the enrichment process, I don’t see the value in paying Iran large inducements to keep enriching but at limited volumes or under exceptionally close supervision (which I don’t think Iran will agree to anyway). The pay offs have been offered because suspending enrichment is worth quite a lot. Legitimating Iran’s violation of IAEA requirements and resolutions, and binding UNSC resolutions, and its economically unjustifiable enrichment activities would be unhelpful. Paying big inducements in the process makes even less sense. Moreover, many discussions of deals allowing Iranian enrichment do not require Iran to take steps to alleviate the security threats which Israel, Arab states and others perceive in the combination of Iran’s nuclear capabilities and foreign policies. How would it improve international security to accept Iranian enrichment with no moves by Iran to reassure the world that its aims are defensive, that it would not use additional power to facilitate or encourage increased violence in the region?

    If Iran is determined to continue enrichment and not to negotiate over even short-term suspension, then its negotiating counterparts, including the U.S., should recognize THIS reality and stop negotiating with themselves. They should concentrate on imposing costs for defying reasonable IAEA and UNSC demands, and withdraw incentives on offer. They should hold Iran to its insistence that it has no interest in acquiring nuclear weapons, and agree amongst themselves on steps they would take if Iran did withdraw from the NPT or otherwise took new steps to weaponize.

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