international analysis and commentary

Iran’s latest enrichment threat: how serious is it?

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A proposal of ten new enrichment sites was reportedly “decided” by Ahmadinejad and his Cabinet on November 29. There are several aspects of this announcement that raise real questions. The most important may be the fact that the so-called decision was made by the Cabinet, even though it is the Supreme National Security Council that is normally responsible for major security decisions. The major power centers, e.g. the Revolutionary Guard and the Supreme Leader, are not represented directly in the Cabinet. Perhaps they were consulted, but that is not clear.

We should put these unfolding events in their proper context: Iran is at a revolutionary juncture, one of those hinge moments in history when an explosion of actions and debates produce towering outcomes — often unintended.

This hinge moment began on 22 Khordad — June 12 on the Western calendar — the date of Iran’s electoral debacle. On that date, all the old rules changed and a new set of rules began to be devised. There is evidence of deep political fissures among the ruling elite and signs of fierce debate. At the moment, Iran’s political leadership finds it convenient to pretend that all is as before. But in fact, there has been a political earthquake and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is moving to consolidate its power. Before it is over, we may see a new strongman emerge from the military, as has happened in so many other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere when the political status quo was shattered and everything was in flux.

Against this background, there are at least two factors that occur to me on first reaction in trying to make sense of the November 29 announcement:

1. Ahmadinejad is calling for a total of 500,000 centrifuges. Fabrication of centrifuges by Iran began in a major way around the year 2000. Iran to date has constructed and installed fewer than 9,000 centrifuges, of which only about half are actually producing low-enriched uranium (LEU). Taking the actual record of adding roughly 1,000 working centrifuges per year over ten years as a baseline, it would take 500 years to complete the program as announced.

2. Everyone today is aware of the so-called Fardo enrichment site that was recently disclosed on a Revolutionary Guard base near Qom. Iran says its construction began in 2003. If that is true, in six years they have installed the piping and fittings for a total of 3,000 centrifuges; but no centrifuges have actually been installed, and the site is actually scheduled to be completed by 2011. Using a rough estimate of nine years per site, it could require 90 years to build ten more, if the sites were developed sequentially.

But Ahmadinejad was talking about ten new sites the size of the major facility at Natanz, which is eventually intended to house 54,000 centrifuges. Natanz has two underground halls buried deep in a mountain under masses of concrete and constituting two halls of more than 60,000 square feet. Constructing ten of these enormous underground sites would place immense pressure on Iran’s ability to excavate and equip such a vast array of production sites. Given the amount of time Iran has spent developing Natanz, and the problems they have encountered, the project imagined by Ahmadinejad would be limited by the very size of the Iranian economy and its manufacturing capabilities.

At a minimum, this is a project that would require Iran to mobilize all of its resources in a national effort over many years. It is not something that could be done quickly. It also may not appeal to other parts of the government in light of Iran’s huge economic deficiencies.

In my view, this is a classic Ahmadinejad blustery response to the recent IAEA resolution that criticized Iran. It is also the kind of ante-raising that one might expect in a negotiating game of “chicken.” We have also heard various Iranian commentators in the past few days say that Iran might withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and others threaten that Iran would enrich uranium for their own fuel cells to power their nuclear research reactor (though they don’t have the technology to manufacture the fuel cells), etc. These statements appear to be political hot air coming from people who don’t know what they are talking about.

Unless and until we hear any of these “decisions” from responsible decision-makers in Iran, I think it is premature, as our British friends might say, to get our knickers in a twist.