WASHINGTON, Sep 1 2012 (IPS) - The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report made public Thursday reveals that Iran has actually reduced the amount of 20-percent enriched uranium available for any possible "breakout" to weapons grade enrichment over the last three months rather than increasing it.
Contrary to the impression conveyed by most news media coverage, the report provides new evidence that Iran's enrichment strategy is aimed at enhancing its bargaining position in negotiations with the United States rather than amassing such a breakout capability.
The reduction in the amount of 20-percent enriched uranium in the Iranian stockpile that could be used to enrich to weapons grade is the result of a major acceleration in the fabrication of fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor, which needs 20-percent enriched uranium to produce medical isotopes.
That higher level enriched uranium has been the main focus of U.S. diplomatic demands on Iran ever since 2009, on the ground that it represents the greatest threat of an Iranian move to obtain a nuclear weapon capability.
When 20-percent uranium is used to make fuel plates, however, it is very difficult to convert it back to a form that can enriched to weapons grade levels.
When data in the Aug. 30 IAEA report on the "inventory" of 20-percent enriched uranium is collated with comparable data in the May 25 IAEA report, it shows that Iran is further from having a breakout capability than it was three months earlier.
The data in the two reports indicate that Iran increased the total production of 20-percent enriched uranium from 143 kg in May 2012 to 189.4 kg in mid-August. But the total stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium that could be more easily enriched to weapons grade -- and which has been the focus of U.S. diplomatic demands on Iran ever since 2009 -- fell from 101 kg to 91.4 kg during the quarter.
The reduction in the stockpile available for weapons grade enrichment was the result of the conversion of 53.3 kg of 20-percent enriched uranium into fuel plates -- compared with only 43 kg in the previous five months.
Iran was thus creating fuel plates for its medical reactor faster than it was enriching uranium to a 20-percent level.
But although that reduction of the stockpile of enriched uranium of greatest concern to the United States was the real significance of the new report, it was not conveyed by the headlines and leads in news media coverage. Those stories focused instead on the fact that production of 20-percent enriched uranium had increased, and that the number of centrifuges at the underground facility at Fordow had doubled.
"Nobody has put out the story that their stockpile is shrinking," said Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund and a leading independent specialist on nuclear weapons policy, in an interview with IPS.
David Sanger and William Broad of the New York Times asserted in an Aug. 30 story that Iran had "doubled the number of centrifuges installed" at Fordow and had "cleansed" the site where the IAEA believed there had been nuclear weapons development work. The story made no reference to fuel plates or the effective stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium.
A second story by Sanger and Jodi Rudoren on the same day, datelined Jerusalem, was even more alarmist and inaccurate. It declared that the nuclear programme was "speeding up" and that Iran was "close to crossing what Israel has said is its red line: the capacity to produce nuclear weapons in a location invulnerable to Israeli attack."
Reuters and AP stories also focused on the doubling of +centrifuges as the main message in the IAEA report, and Reuters also said Iran "seems to be struggling to develop more efficient nuclear technology that would shorten the time it would need for any atom bomb bid."
The Washington Post headline said that Iran was "speeding up" uranium enrichment, and the lead said Iran had "substantially increased the production of a more enriched form of uranium in recent months." But in the second paragraph, it added, somewhat cryptically, that Iran "appeared to take steps that would make it harder to use its uranium stockpile to make nuclear bombs."