David Albright, a well-known expert on Iran’s nuclear program, who a few months ago was somewhat optimistic that a diplomatic solution could be found to halt Iran’s nuclear program, has become increasingly pessimistic. He says that not only is he convinced Iran wants to build nuclear weapons but “I’m also rather pessimistic that the international community can organize a sanctions effort against Iran. The effort of the Security Council is in disarray. You have Russia refusing to go along with sanctions, leaving sanctions that are incredibly weak, largely symbolic.”
“And so we’re in a dangerous situation now where safeguards are not adequate and the IAEA is losing a lot of information it had about the Iranian centrifuge program,” says Albright.
Can you bring us up to date on Iran’s nuclear program? The president of Iran made some statements the other day to the effect that Iran’s going to have its nuclear program complete by the end of the Iranian year, which is in March, and they’re going to have a big celebration. And they’re going on to make more cascades and so forth.
The Iranian centrifuge program is definitely pressing ahead, but I don’t think anyone believes that Iran can have 3,000 centrifuges built by March of 2007. The Iranians, publicly at least, state that they’re going to do that and that their centrifuge program is proceeding very quickly. But the reality is quite different.
And what is that reality?
They may start to install centrifuges in the underground facility and then work over a period of time to have 3,000 but I think right now the Iranians are struggling to get even a few test cascades. So those cascades are in the pilot plant. That’s an above ground facility. For many months they’ve had 164 cascades operational. The Iranians have been struggling to learn how to operate this 164-machine cascade. They recently started a second 164-machine cascade. They are making progress. They’re enriching more uranium in the first cascade and one expects them to enrich more uranium in the second cascade. The bottom line is that the physical, technical problems have not stopped them from making progress. There’ve been some press reports that state they’ve had overheating problems or the first cascade isn’t working. But those reports I think have been incorrect or overblown. The P-1 is a difficult machine to work; it’s difficult to run a cascade of P-1s. Certainly P-1s do break in the cascade but the Iranians have been replacing them.
P-1 means it’s the original Pakistan design?
Yes. And Iranians don’t call it that. We’re calling it that because it is a Pakistani design. And the Pakistanis modified it a little bit from the original Dutch design that A.Q. Khan stole. A.Q. Khan stole the design in Holland, but there were some pieces that were in the Dutch design that weren’t in the group of drawings Khan stole. And those were drawings of parts that had to be made to fix a problem in the P-1 that prevented it from operating. And so when Pakistan copied this design, it didn’t work at all. And so they then had to find the fix. And they successfully did. And I’m told Khan even published an article in a technical journal talking about fixing this problem.
Well how many cascades do you need to actually make enough enriched uranium that would be significant enough to make a nuclear device?
We think that Iran would need at least 1,500 P-1’s operating.
1,500. They’d have to operate quite well together. And the cascade would have to be improved. Iran built an inefficient cascade. So they have to redesign the cascade somewhat so that it would produce enriched uranium more efficiently. Now, I think they can do that but if they don’t do it, then they’re going to need more than 1,500 centrifuges, more like 2,000, 3,000.
Again it’s a stupid question. But I know my readers want to know the answer: the difference between a cascade and a centrifuge, are they the same thing?
No. A centrifuge looks like a long cylinder in a diameter that’s in the order of 100 millimeters across. And then it’s about two meters tall. What you do is hook the centrifuges together with pipes and then that becomes a cascade. The basic unit in Iran is the cascade of 164 P-1s. And then if you build 3,000 centrifuges, you’re building those 3,000 in units of 164-machine cascades.
And the 3,000 or so—I mean it’s not exact, I think 164 doesn’t divide into 3,000, it’s about 3,000 machines. Then that whole set of cascades, it’s about eighteen or so, would be run together as a unit with a common control room, a common area to insert uranium hexafluoride feed gas and then also to take out the product, the enriched uranium produced by all these cascades. So basically the Iranians have created a design with a module of 3,000 centrifuges and about eighteen cascades. Their centrifuge plant underground is scheduled to hold 50,000 machines or so. Then what they would be installing is one module after another, working their way up with that number.
When Iran issued its response to the Security Council demand to suspend enrichment at the end of August, you and I had a conversation. And you thought there was some possibility of ‘give’ in the Iranian position. But I see subsequently that you’ve gotten a little more negative. Is that right?
That’s correct. Whatever [Iran nuclear envoy Ali] Larijani was up to—because remember he was the one who raised this prospect of a couple months of suspension so negotiations could start—whatever Larijani was up to was stopped cold. And we suspect it was stopped by the hardliners. By the time President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad came to the United Nations and was giving interviews to the media and the like, I could tell from looking at the statements that Larijani’s effort was dead. I think that whatever was tried by Larijani failed and that a ruling group decided it was better just to hang tough. Iran subsequently started the second cascade in the shadow of the North Korea nuclear test in early October.
I had suspected one of the reasons the Iranians hadn’t started the second cascade is that they were worried that doing so could rock the boat; in essence hurt their cause, or hurt their chances of stopping the Security Council from implementing sanctions. I think after the North Korean test I think they decided to start the second cascade because no one would notice it. And they also, I think, in some way that I don’t understand, had come to a decision that they were going to go forward with building the enrichment plants.
In your mind do you have much doubt that Iran wants to go ahead and have at least a potential for weaponry?
I think Iran wants to do that. And I’m also rather pessimistic that the international community can organize a sanctions effort against Iran. The effort of the Security Council is in disarray. You have Russia refusing to go along with sanctions, leaving sanctions that are incredibly weak, largely symbolic. Russia is also not willing to stop anything at Bushehr, the planned nuclear power plant being built by the Russians. And so it’s hard to be optimistic that the UN Security Council is going to come up with a resolution that would exert any real pressure on Iran. And Iran is hardening its position, saying, “We want this issue sent back to the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] and have it discussed at the IAEA Board of Governors.” And they’re now starting, or continuing to say that they’re not cooperating with the inspectors until it goes back to the IAEA.
Based on the recent (IAEA) safeguards report (PDF) that came out just a few days ago, Iran is refusing to help resolve the basic issues that the IAEA’s still confronting on a range of questions about Iran’s past nuclear program. And therefore the IAEA is unable to say, “Iran does not have a nuclear weapons effort.” And Iran has said, “Well, we’re not going help resolve those questions until this issue moves back to the IAEA.” Iran is cooperating on the safeguards that are part of traditional safeguards. In terms of monitoring the amount of enriched uranium produced, or following nuclear materials at declared sites, the IAEA’s doing that. But the traditional safeguards are ineffective at being able to determine if the country has undeclared nuclear activities, or hid things in the past.
And so we’re in a dangerous situation now where safeguards are not adequate and the IAEA is losing a lot of information it had about the Iranian centrifuge program. For example the IAEA no longer knows how many centrifuge parts Iran makes. Iran has to say nothing about when it’s going to install centrifuges, when it’s going to start another cascade, when it’s going start moving cascades underground. So you have a situation where Iran can move forward and move toward even building an undeclared centrifuge plant and the IAEA has little chance of detecting that.
Would you be very concerned if Iran does develop a nuclear weapon?
Yes. I would be. I think it could be very dangerous. And it’d certainly make life for the United States in the Middle East much harder. Iran would become a greater regional power and may become more aggressive in its diplomacy. Other countries in the region may be faced with a hard choice. Do they get nuclear weapons? Or do they just allow Israel and Iran to have nuclear weapons and be seen as lesser powers because of it. What happens with Saudi Arabia? What do they do? It’s a much more unstable Middle East with Iran having nuclear weapons. And it’s important to stop. Now, that being said, I think the Bush administration has created a problem by trying to make Iran scared through the threat of military action whether it’s manifested by Israel or by administration officials speaking to journalists off the record. It’s created a sense that there could be war. Given what’s going on Iraq, I don’t think a sane person can sit there and say “We should go to war with Iran.” A “war” would involve attacking them militarily from the air, but even so, Iran can lash back. Given the negative view toward military actions in Iran given what’s been happening in Iraq, Iran reads that as another signal that it can get away with this.
In other words, the United States doesn’t really frighten Iran right now?
I don’t think it does. Although let me say this. The United States frightens Iran enough that Iran has, for the last couple years, been taking steps in its nuclear program to protect its vital nuclear assets, so that if Iran is bombed, the nuclear weapons program probably will not be set back that much. Iran’s civil nuclear infrastructure at Isfahan and Natanz will be destroyed. But a small, secret gas centrifuge program with an associated nuclear weaponization program probably will not be hurt that much if the United States attacks.
Interesting. And I guess you don’t hold out much hope for any real diplomacy at this stage.
I hold out hope for it. I just don’t see how it’s going to happen. Iran is moving slowly toward nuclear weapons. They’re not going to have nuclear weapons within two, three years. So I’m holding out hope that either Bush will come up with a more realistic policy on Iran, perhaps even broadening the set of issues that the United States wants to solve with Iran. Or, we’ll just survive these next two years and a new president will come in, whether Republican or Democratic, who will have a much more realistic and effective policy.
So you would be in favor of a sort of universal negotiation with Iran on all issues.
Traditionally I haven’t been. I think it should be limited to the nuclear, but I think because of what’s going on with the United States trying to find a solution in Iraqand in southern Lebanon, it may make sense to broaden the dialogue. I mean, I don’t believe in these grand deals. I don’t know how you negotiate them. I’m not opposed any more to some good ideas, and good approaches to Iran that would solve more than one problem. The only thing I’m worried about is that it can’t be a zero-sum game. You can’t get Iran’s help in Iraq and then say, “Oh, okay, it’s fine to have a centrifuge program. Keep it small. Don’t cause any trouble.” That would be an unacceptable compromise, because in the end Iran won’t keep it small. That’s one thing we’ve also learned is that people—in seeking a solution, and avoiding a military confrontation—have put forth various compromises, most of which have devolved down to “Iran, just operate a few hundred centrifuges.” But Iran has made it very clear over the last few years that it has no intention of doing that. If it’s going to build three- to five hundred, it’s going to build three- to five thousand.
And how does the Bushehr plant fit into all this? What kind of equipment will be in that plant?
It’s a very large power reactor aimed at producing electricity. And so of course, it uses low-enriched uranium fuel and the reactor operates with it. From that fuel, plutonium is produced, so there has to have very effective non-traditional safeguards to make sure Iran doesn’t divert plutonium in the spent fuel. So what you want is to know if that’s going to happen the day it happens, or the day after it happens. You don’t want to find out two months later that the fuel’s been diverted.
And the Russians say they will do that?
Well the Russians can’t do that. They don’t have the right. It’s the International Atomic Energy Agency. So you do have to worry that the fuel could be diverted. It’s not that easy to reprocess that kind of spent fuel, extract the plutonium. But it can be done. And so you do have to ensure that the reactor has the most stringent safeguards and that Russia implements its promise to take the spent fuel of Bushehr and take it back to Russia. Iran and Russia have agreed to that arrangement. You have to make sure it happens in a timely way, so that the fuel doesn’t sit there for ten years. And let me just add this, There’s a bit of a sleeper issue here which is the Arak forty-megawatt heavy water reactor being built next to the heavy-water production plant.
The Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors have asked Iran to stop construction. And the reason is that it’s a reactor that would use natural uranium fuel, produced indigenously in Iran, and that fuel, when used in a reactor, would produce weapon-grade plutonium. A light-water reactor can produce reactor-grade plutonium which is not nearly as good for nuclear weapons as weapon-grade plutonium. And so you have a situation developing where Iran is developing a second route to the bomb at the Arak reactor. And it’s not receiving that much attention.
And the Iranians say that they’ll finish the reactor in 2009 and so early next decade they could have a source of plutonium for nuclear weapons. Iran says it’s not building a reprocessing plant. But the information the IAEA and intelligence agencies collected, principally on Iran’s foreign procurement efforts, suggest that they were trying to build a large reprocessing plant—large enough for Arak. And intelligence agencies don’t know if Iran got the necessary equipment, because some of the things they saw Iran trying to do, they tried to stop, and were successful in many cases. It appears that Iran did want to build a reprocessing plant; it may have stopped. It says it’s stopped. But we don’t know for sure it has. Once they have this heavy-water reactor, and Iran decides to build a reprocessing plant this would be a second route to the bomb.