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A New Spin on Iran's Nuclear Threat

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The neo-cons, some of the reporters from major US newspapers, and a number of nonproliferation experts are now spinning a new story about the potential threat of Iran's uranium enrichment capability.  According to the story, sometime in 2009, Iran will have enough Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) which may then be used as a seed for further refinement to bomb grade level, commonly referred to as High Enriched Uranium (HEU). LEU has the purity of about 5% and is only used to fuel reactors for generating electricity, but HEU has to be enriched to the 90% level and it is only good for bomb making purposes

This allegation has technical and logical flaws that are not discussed by the highly biased and ignorant US media.  Centrifuges at the Natanz facility in Iran are not set up for efficient enrichment to the level of 90%.  Pipes have to be redesigned and new connections have to be made to get the cascades ready for efficient refinement to the level of 90% for bomb grade uranium.  Moreover, the LEU product is under the strict control of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  Any change in the cascades' configuration or tap into the accumulated LEU would be noticed by the IAEA cameras, sensors and frequent inspections within minutes.  The re-piping efforts would take months to finish and the US decision makers would have ample time to get the world community to support drastic measures to stop such illegal activity.

Of course Iran could opt to use the existing cascades without any modifications, by employing batch processing.  This is a very inefficient and time consuming method which would also be immediately noticed by the IAEA.  Batch processing means taking the 5% product currently stored under the control of the IAEA and run it through the existing cascades one more time.  5% fuel would produce a 20% product, and if the 20% product was used as the feed, it would refine the uranium to the 60% purity level. One additional refinement through the existing setup of the centrifuges with the 60% feed would produce bomb grade fuel at the requisite 90% purity.

The latest unofficial report on the Natanz facility is that currently there are 5000 centrifuges running smoothly without any major technical problems.  It is reported that an additional 1000 centrifuges are scheduled to go online sometime in January of 2009.   Once all the 6000 units are working, they can enrich about 4-5 Kg of LEU per day.  Given that Iran has so far accumulated 700 Kg of LEU.  It will have, by April of this year or perhaps even sooner, close to 1000 Kg of LEU.  Recall that, in order to produce weapons grade fuel, roughly 30 Kg of LEU are needed to yield about 1 Kg of HEU.  A typical uranium bomb has 25 Kg or more of HEU material.

The base of the story spun in the US media is to declare the 1000 Kg LEU milestone as a point of no return for Iran's enrichment activity.  This is an arbitrary and flawed argument, because Natanz is a safeguarded facility and any deviations will be noticed immediately.  Let's assume hypothetically that Iran embarks on an illegal activity and relinquishes its obligations under the current safeguard agreement and initiates illicit enrichment of purifying uranium to the level of 90%.  The spin masters are saying that this emboldens Iran to threaten Israel which allegedly has more than 200 nuclear weapons.

Having 1000 Kg of LEU does not increase Iran's deterrence vis-à-vis hegemony aspirations of Israel in the Middle East.  First of all, even if Iran breaks its international agreements under IAEA and produces 25 Kg of HEU, detonating this material, although easier than plutonium, is not an easy task.  Moreover, this will be designated as a nuclear device and not a bomb, going from a device which is considered a laboratory prototype to a bomb requires sophisticated technologies that Iran does not have.

Let's assume that Iran passes all these difficult hurdles and with the help of their talented engineers develop a miniaturized and deliverable bomb, does anyone in the right mind believe that Iran could threaten Israel with their only bomb?  Even the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of November 2007 disagrees with the notion that theocratic leaders of Iran take chances with their nuclear aspirations: They are not in the business of committing suicide for the sake of helping the Palestinian people.

The entire negative propaganda machine is making sure that Obama will be tough on Iran and will continue the failed Bush policy of zero enrichment.  Iran has made its position clear to all the interlocutors in recent months that have contacted the government directly or indirectly: zero enrichment is not acceptable and is considered a redline position for Iran that they will not cross at any cost.

The team which president-elect Obama has selected for dealing with Iran includes Dennis Ross who has a long history of full support for Israel's positions in the Middle East.   His one-sided position during Clinton's Arab-Israeli peace process was so noticeable that one Arab observer said , "he listened to what Israel wanted and then tried to sell it to the Arabs."  Iranian politicians are very familiar with Clinton's team: Indyk, Miller, Kurtzer, and Ross.  By selecting such a biased team to negotiate with Iran, Obama has taken the wrong step, giving more ammunition to the hardliners in Iran to torpedo negotiations with these representatives of the US government.

If Obama is serious about engaging Iran to resolve many of the lingering differences between the two governments, two important issues must be tackled.  First and foremost, the threat of a military action is an illegal choice and a violation of Article 2 Paragraph 4 of UN Charter.  It should not be on the table.  A constitutional scholar such as Obama should know that and respect it, but so far in many of their public discussions Obama and Clinton have kept this illegal option on the table to appease Israel.  Second, the zero enrichment requirement cannot be the starting point for the negotiations.  Instead, how to enforce additional confidence building measures that the IAEA has established for member countries should be the focal point.
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Nader Bagherzadeh is a professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of California, Irvine. He regularly writes and lectures on the broad aspects of Iran's nuclear program.
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