Iran’s Enrichment R&D is for Peaceful Purposes
last week that it would start feeding its first IR-8 centrifuges with uranium
hexafluoride gas (UF6). The 2015 Iran nuclear deal states that Tehran’s
breakout time (the time needed to enrich uranium enough for a nuclear bomb) is
one year, but that is based on Iran only using the first-generation,
less-efficient IR-1 centrifuges. With more powerful IR-8s and other advanced
centrifuges, Iran could enrich uranium for a weapon much faster. In three to
four years, the country could be able to deploy large numbers of advanced
centrifuges – if it can convince the international community that its nuclear
program is peaceful and that it should be treated like any other nation, without
restriction on its nuclear and enrichment activities.
The nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA),
adopted by the P5+1 negotiators allows testing of more advanced centrifuges
under the rubric of enrichment research and development. However, while Iran
submitted its uranium enrichment R&D plan to the IAEA, and the P5+1 endorsed
the plan, the information has not been made public. As a result, independent
experts cannot evaluate the implications of Iran’s uranium enrichment R&D
program, nor estimate if (and when) Iran would be in a better position to break
out from its nuclear commitments. Such a plan should be compatible with Iran's
future needs of enriched uranium for its civilian nuclear power program.
Using past cases as a guide, if Iran continues its current rate of
testing, the country will be able to field a demonstration plant in three or
four years that will have triple the capacity of its currently installed IR-1
centrifuges. With this plant,
Iran’s breakout time would drop to three or four months.
Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of
that it is Tehran’s intent to build up enrichment capacity: “We can very
easily snap back and go back … not only to where we were, but a much higher
position technologically speaking.” In another interview, he stated
that Iran can, in a single year, install a capacity of 100,000 SWU – 20 times
its current capacity.
As Iran tests IR-8s, the nuclear deal also permits it to test IR-2m
centrifuges. Tehran is already technically able to deploy IR-2ms in large
numbers but is prevented from so doing by the deal’s terms. In three to four
years, Iran will have two potential paths to greatly enhance its enrichment
capabilities: with IR-2m centrifuges that have already been tested, and, if
successful, with an IR-8 demonstration plant.
In December 2015, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board
of Governors closed the investigation into the Possible Military Dimensions
(PMDs) of Iran’s nuclear program. PMD investigations and establishing a
credible baseline of past nuclear activities are important in understanding the
full scope of Iran’s nuclear program. In prematurely closing the PMD file, the
IAEA might verify the correctness and completeness of Iran’s nuclear
declarations under its safeguards agreement and reach a so-called “broader
conclusion” – certifying that Iran’s nuclear program is
entirely peaceful – within four years. That would be half the number of years
anticipated by the JCPOA. Such an early conclusion has been something Tehran has
This would be a game changer not only in Iran, but also for the
region, as all United Nations non-nuclear sanctions will be lifted, including
the ban on ballistic
missile testing and conventional
arms embargo. Additionally, exporters will no longer be required
to receive advanced approval to deliver nuclear single- and dual-use items to
JCPOA restrictions do not permit the Islamic Republic to start
larger-scale manufacture of centrifuges at the time of the broader conclusion.
Nonetheless, Iran will be in strong position to argue that it should be
permitted to do so.
that it intends to build six to eight nuclear power reactors in 15 years. Even
with that number of reactors, the kind of enriched uranium production output
Tehran aims to have is both unwarranted and excessive. The fact also remains
that the international market has an oversupply of both uranium and enrichment
services – meaning that Iran could purchase enriched uranium more cheaply than
it can produce it domestically.
It appears that alongside achieving technical industrial capacity
with a short breakout time, Iran is planning to use its uranium enrichment
capacity as a strategic tool to achieve political goals. Its proclamations
about plans to develop nuclear propulsion in retaliation for Washington’s
extension of existing sanctions were a demonstration
of this intent.
The P5+1 should provide Tehran assurances on supply of fuel for all
power and research reactors – eliminating any need for Iran to produce fuel
domestically – and require that all spent fuel be returned to the supplier
nation for the entire lifetime of the plants. In return, Iran would have to
restrict uranium enrichment to R&D for the next 14 years. It would also have
to make public the deal’s R&D parameters, including the maximum enriched
uranium inventories it has, and any exemptions granted for wastes, scrap
material, and hold-up. The R&D plan would become part of a public White
Paper on Iran’s nuclear energy for a 14-year period. It would need to be
reviewed by the Joint Committee, which was set up by the deal, in five-year
intervals to accommodate developments in energy plans and international nuclear
fuel markets. These steps would go some way to alleviate international concerns
about Iran’s future capabilities.
The Trump administration will need to act quickly. Once Iran is
technically able to construct an IR-8 demonstration plant, and once the IAEA
reaches a broader conclusion, rolling back Tehran’s enrichment capacity will
no longer be in the cards. Instead, Iran will have an expanding nuclear program
with increasing uranium enrichment capacities – with all of the dangerous
ramifications for the region and the world that such a scenario would bring.