Iran’s nuclear progress
From The Economist print edition
Filling in the gaps in Iran’s nuclear story
IRAN’S president is not above poking a finger in the eye of those wanting to contain his country’s nuclear ambitions. But it is not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s proud boast last week—that having successfully enriched a small quantity of uranium in a cascade of fast-spinning centrifuge machines at Natanz, Iran has joined the “nuclear countries”—which most troubles nuclear inspectors (it had almost reached that point before). Rather, by claiming that Iran has more advanced “P-2” centrifuges too, Mr Ahmadinejad has fuelled suspicion that it is still hiding nuclear work. If it is, then guesses by America and others that it might be five to ten years before Iran could lay its hands on a bomb may be astray.
Iran says it wants to produce only low-enriched uranium (last week’s was 3.5% enriched) for use in power reactors, not the 90%-enriched stuff needed for most bomb designs. But ever since Iran’s long-concealed nuclear work was exposed by regime opponents in 2002, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN‘s nuclear guardian, have suspected that it is still hiding something. Might that be some P-2 centrifuges?
Iranian officials eventually admitted that they had received designs for the more efficient P-2s in 1995, from the same Pakistan-centred black-market network that provided the less capable P-1 machines which produced the uranium Mr Ahmadinejad was waving about gleefully last week. But the plans, they claim, were ignored until 2002, when an Iranian company was given the job of conducting tests using some locally produced parts.
The inspectors never bought that story: testing would not have been possible, they worried, without more time to work on the designs. To add to their suspicions, some traces of low-enriched uranium found in Iran have yet to be explained, and may indicate more enrichment work than has been owned up to. Meanwhile, before inspectors could get there, Iran razed a site at Lavizan where nuclear work may have taken place. More recently, a key member of the black-market network, in custody in Malaysia, alleged that Iran bought equipment, not just designs, for the more advanced centrifuges, despite its denials.
Concerns have intensified since Mr Ahmadinejad’s claim that Iran has resumed “research” on P-2S. Once it is able to build the new models in some number (no one knows if it yet has all the parts to do so), it will be able to build up its uranium stocks much more quickly than first thought. Experts calculate that it would need about 1,500 P-1 centrifuges, configured to produce highly enriched uranium rather than the civilian sort, to produce enough fissile material for a bomb a year. The P-2S could do that job in half the time.
But might the gaps and evasions in Iran’s nuclear story point to a still more worrying conclusion? Some have long suspected that it has a parallel military enrichment programme. Inspectors have uncovered no evidence of that. But a small centrifuge plant would be difficult to detect. Using hidden P-2 machines, and either starting from scratch or with already partially enriched uranium (getting to 3-5% is already the hardest part) from its publicly known enrichment plant, Iran could spring a much nastier nuclear surprise.