By William Tucker
The UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has released their quarterly report on the Iranian nuclear program. The widely anticipated report stated that Iran had doubled the number of centrifuges used to enrich uranium at the Parchin site. Although the centrifuges are not yet operating, the increase in capacity will help Iran enrich uranium more rapidly. Currently, Iran has enriched uranium to three percent and has managed to reach levels as high as 20 percent in the last year. Without getting too technical, 20 percent is the minimum level of enrichment for highly enriched uranium (HEU), but 90 percent is the desired level for a nuclear device. Of course lower levels could be used, but 90 percent enrichment is typically the goal. These numbers are important because each successive level of enrichment takes shorter time if your equipment is up to the task. Iran has faced several setbacks with regards to their equipment, but it appears that some of these obstacles have been overcome.
For Iran, the ability to enrich uranium without outside assistance it vital. Iran has been disappointed on several occasions by the Russians in trying to get the Bushehr nuclear reactor up and running. According to the contract with the Russians, Bushehr was supposed to have been brought on line in 1999. It was finally brought to full capacity this weekend. Iran wants to expand its use of nuclear power to other parts of the country to limit its use of oil domestically. Lower oil use domestically would translate to high capacity for oil export – or so its believed. The constant delays in nuclear power and the weight of international sanctions has certainly taken its toll. This brings us to the weapons program.
Iran is believed to have successfully designed the components for a nuclear device; however they have not enriched uranium to the needed level. While technical problems share some of the blame, the limiting of enrichment thus far is likely a political decision. Enrichment to levels 20 percent and under can be easily explained as being used for reactor fuel or medicinal purposes, but enrichment to levels above 20 percent would likely remove all doubt about Iran’s nuclear intentions. In the meantime, Iran wants to ensure that it can create and mass produce all the other technical aspects of a nuclear weapons program. By doing this without necessarily enriching the uranium further, Iran is able to better mask its endeavors by claiming that the military pursuits are of a conventional nature. Once the political decision has been made to enrich the uranium further, Iran will be better situated to produce a small nuclear arsenal in a shorter amount of time. If this happens there will be little recourse for the nations opposed to a nuclear Iran. Perhaps it is no coincidence that talk of a military strike on Iran nuclear facilities has increased lately. Then again, its likely just a continuance of the psychological warfare directed at Tehran. Eventually, Iran or the U.S./Israel/Arab states will feel compelled to take the next step. That said, we are entering a rather dangerous phase.
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