The question about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, which Iran denies it’s pursuing, remains urgent despite an undeniable tedium to the seemingly endless and repetitive discussions in the media about what can be done to stop it.
Attention was refocused on this subject recently when talks between Iran and the “P5+1” – the five permanent UN Security Council members: the United States, France, Britain, Russia and China, plus Germany – ended after two days in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Feb. 27.
Iran came away from the negotiations pleased that the P5+1 members softened their previous demands, requiring that Iran only suspend, not shut down, operations at its deeply buried Fordo nuclear fuel enrichment site. In addition, Iran would be allowed to keep some stockpiles of 20 per cent enriched uranium – enough, that is, to be used to produce “medical isotopes.”
Apparently, the idea behind the P5+1 concessions is to give Iran some face-saving measures that will allow it to compromise in turn, though no deadline was set, only a schedule for further talks over the next two months.
It would be a mild understatement to say that Israel remains skeptical about Iran’s willingness to compromise in any meaningful way. Israel is convinced that Iran is simply stalling as it races ahead to develop capacity to build nuclear weapons. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “there are no measures that will make Iran heed the demands of the international community aside from military sanctions against it.”
Even that might be insufficient.
Netanyahu’s skepticism is well founded. While Kazakhstan talks were underway, Britain’s Telegraph disclosed “details of activity at a heavily guarded Iranian facility [at Arak] from which international inspectors have been barred for 18 months. [Satellite] images, taken earlier this month, show that Iran has activated the Arak heavy-water production plant.” Heavy water is needed to operate a nuclear reactor that can produce enough plutonium for a bomb.
Having two options for making a bomb (uranium and plutonium) is critical, as Mitch Ginsburg explained in a fascinating story last summer in the Times of Israel. Ginsburg interviewed Uzi Even, a founder of Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona. Currently a chemistry professor at Tel Aviv University, Even “has a history of being correct about foreign countries’ nuclear capacities” according to Ginsburg.
Although a political dove, Even has no doubt whatsoever about Iran’s determination to acquire a nuclear arsenal. He does not, however, favour an Israeli attack on Iran’s facilities at this time. Still, his assessment of what Iran has already achieved is sobering. As Ginsburg reported: “Even believes that [Iran] has already, covertly, created the 20 to 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium necessary to conduct a successful underground test. In other words, he believes Iran is already a nuclear power.”
Even explained that moving from 20 per cent enriched nuclear to weapons-grade fuel “can be done underground [as at Fordo], in something the size of a storage room, and no one would know.” This is what Iran has already accomplished, Even believes.
Nonetheless, it’s one thing to have sufficient enriched fuel for a nuclear test and quite another to be able to deploy it as a weapon. That could take several more years.
The problem is one of weight. Ginsburg summarized Even thus: “A uranium warhead is at least five times heavier than a plutonium one. Creating a nuclear warhead and winnowing down the complex infrastructure necessary to detonate it effectively — to, say, the one-ton maximum payload of Iran’s best ballistic missile, the Shahab-3” is currently beyond Iran’s capability.
It’s because of this problem that Iran is pursuing the plutonium option. Even explained that producing the plutonium needed for a single bomb would take one year from the time the plutonium-based reactor (in Arak) was operational. Last year, the IAEA knew that Iran planned to begin operating a plutonium-based reactor at Arak in the third quarter of 2013.
But if the information disclosed by the Telegraph is accurate, Iran has greatly accelerated its timetable.
While this should send alarm signals to the West, it appears that the West instead is playing into Iran’s hands.
Paul Michaels is director of research and senior media relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.