Iran’s Path to the Bomb

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; drawing by John Springs

To Western officials who have spent months trying to slow down Iran’s nuclear program, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s announcement on November 29 of plans to build ten new uranium enrichment plants is deeply unsettling. But the real worry may be the nuclear facilities already in existence. In mid-November, Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko announced that, for “technical reasons,” the Russians would not finish in 2009 the reactor they are constructing for the Iranians at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf. Although Russia has since reaffirmed its commitment to completing the reactor, the specific reasons for the delay were not given, so one may speculate that, despite Russian denials, this was a message of displeasure sent to the Iranians.

There is much to be displeased about. After years of intransigence during the Bush administration, the Iranian government indicated to the UN Security Council in early October that it would open its nuclear program to international inspectors and would export 1,200 kilograms of its low-enriched uranium—the bulk of its current supply—to Russia for processing. But it has since failed to formalize the agreement, while expanding its enrichment activities inside Iran. On December 12, the Iranian government said it was prepared to send abroad four hundred kilograms of low-enriched uranium, a much smaller amount, in exchange for nuclear fuel, but the US dismissed the offer as inconsistent with the original UN deal. Meanwhile, reports have surfaced that—if accurate—suggest that Iran may be working on a neutron generator, or trigger, for use in a nuclear weapon; and Obama administration officials have been calling for strong new sanctions against Iran.

One can make the case that the Bushehr reactor will be used for generating electricity, but no such case can be made for the reactor located at Arak in central Iran. While the Arak reactor is not powerful enough to generate meaningful amounts of electricity, it is far more powerful than is necessary to simply make medical isotopes—which the Iranians claim is its intended purpose. In fact, this reactor is suited to manufacture plutonium; it is a type that has been used in weapons programs in countries such as India and Israel.

During an August, 2009, visit to Arak, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors were not able to verify whether the Iranian regime has the auxiliary equipment—for example, the so-called hot rooms—needed to separate plutonium from the reactor’s highly radioactive fuel elements. It is not certain when this reactor will go into operation but its existence raises questions that Iran has not satisfactorily answered.

Meanwhile, the centrifuge facility in Natanz is now operating with 3,936 P-1 centrifuges—the original type created with the help of A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani metallurgist and proliferator. There are, according to the IAEA, 4,456 additional centrifuges in the plant that are not yet operating for reasons unknown. Why is this worrisome?

So far, the Natanz facility has produced some 1,700 …

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