Is Iran’s Offer to Limit its Nuclear Program a Deception?

Several news sources are reporting that Iran is preparing to make an unprecedented offer to the West, in exchange for an easing of sanctions:

Iran will reportedly offer to stop enriching uranium to levels of 20% purity in upcoming talks with world powers in Geneva, as well as offer to open the country’s nuclear facilities to more intrusive international inspections, The Wall Street Journal cited officials as saying on Tuesday.

The Islamic Republic is also considering offering to close the underground uranium-enrichment facility near Qom, according to the report. (Jerusalem Post)

Currently, Iran purifies uranium to 3.5% U-235 (the isotope used in nukes) and to nearly 20% U-235. In order to make weapon-grade uranium (WGU), suitable for use in a nuclear bomb, the uranium hexafluoride gas is enriched from 20% to 60%, and then to over 90% purity (or, in some scenarios, directly to 90%). Next, the gas is turned into uranium metal. A total of 25 kg of uranium metal is considered one SQ (significant quantity), enough fissile material for one medium yield bomb, or a few low-yield bombs.

Essentially, what Iran is (reportedly) offering is to cease making more 20% U-235 gas, to close the facility at Fordow (near Quom) that currently makes only 20% U-235 gas, and to allow more thorough verifications.

Formerly, the typical analysis and commentary on Iran’s nuclear program considered a “red line” to be when Iran obtains enough 20% U-235 to make one SQ of weapon-grade uranium metal. A year ago (in Oct 2012), the process of converting about 200 to 240 kg of 20% U-235 to one SQ was estimated to take a month or two. (ISIS report 10-2012). So it might seem as if ceasing to make 20% gas would keep them from breaking out (a rush to make WGU).

However, the recent rapid increase in the number of gas centrifuges installed by Iran at Natanz, and the installation of new next-gen centrifuges (3 to 5 times more efficient) have created a new problem. Iran is now capable of breaking out using only its supply of 3.5% uranium gas, or a combination of 3.5% gas and its current stockpile of 20% gas. According to ISIS founder David Albright’s Senate Testimony (2 Oct 2013) Iran could make one SQ (25 kg) of WGU in about 2 months using only 3.5% U-235 gas, and Iran has enough 3.5% gas to make 4 SQ (100 kg) of WGU.

So the offer to limit production to 3.5% U-235 gas does not stop Iran from making nuclear bombs.

But if sanctions are lifted, the production of new gas centrifuges, especially the more advanced carbon-fiber based models (IR-2m), will become much easier and less expensive. Sanctions currently prevent the import of carbon fiber and other materials essential to make centrifuge components. These centrifuges are very expensive and difficult to make, mainly due to sanctions. The more centrifuges Iran has, the faster it can rush to make WGU and a few nuclear bombs. Once Iran has a few nukes, they can prevent any military attack on their nuclear program by the threat of their use, and then openly make more nuclear bombs, more quickly.

Iran will (reportedly) offer to close the uranium enrichment facility at Fordow (near Qom). However, this could be a deception. Once the facility is closed, it could be reopened covertly. Iran could deny IAEA inspectors access to the supposedly closed facility, on the grounds that it is closed. If the West objects, Iran could delay an inspection long enough to make more 20% U-235, or some amount of WGU.

But a more serious possibility must be considered. If Iran currently has a third uranium enrichment facility, one that is covert, the increased inspection of the facilities at Fordow and Natanz and other facilities (ones that don’t enrich) would have no effect on the covert facility. Is Iran building a secret gas centrifuge plant? My view is that, in all likelihood, Iran already has a third covert facility. The evidence is found in the installation of over 1,000 next-generation IR-2m carbon-fiber centrifuges at Natanz. Iran would not openly install these advanced centrifuges in a known facility, which is vulnerable to a military strike, until and unless a covert facility was already fully-stocked with them. The advanced centrifuges are perfect for a small covert facility, since they are 3 to 5 times more efficient at enriching uranium.

My view is that Iran is currently in the midst of a covert nuclear breakout. They will play the diplomatic game described in the above “offer” in order to buy enough time to make a few low-yield nuclear bombs. While sanctions are eased, they will import enough material for many thousands more centrifuges. They will continue to increase the total number of centrifuges at Natanz. Once they have a few nuclear bombs, they can announce that fact to the world, perhaps by a test explosion. Then they can shed all pretense of adhering to the NPT or cooperating with the IAEA. They can continue their nuclear breakout openly, without fear of a military strike. They can reopen Fordow and further expand Natanz. They would then quickly become a nuclear power and a grave threat to Israel, the U.S. and Europe.

— Ronald L. Conte Jr.

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