- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
David Albright, a well-known expert on Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, says although Iran is making some progress toward developing a uranium-enrichment program, it has achieved “a lot less than what it’s trying to get people to believe it’s accomplished.” Albright says he believes Iran is seeking a nuclear-weapons capability, but any military effort to stop it would be disastrous.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says Iran is now a nuclear industrial country, and following that, Reza Aghazadeh, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission in Iran said that they hope to have fifty thousand centrifuges in place pretty soon. What do you make of all this? Are they really going full blast ahead now?
No, I don’t think so. They’re certainly not a nuclear nation in the sense of being able to run thousands or tens of thousands of centrifuges to enrich uranium. Iran defines “industrial scale” in its own way.
In the past it’s been three thousand centrifuges enriching uranium in what’s called a module, and that module is in the underground cascade halls of Natanz . The assumption is that centrifuges are going to be working continuously at enriching uranium in significant quantity, but that hasn’t happened yet. In fact, Ahmadinejad seems to have lowered the bar on what is “industrial scale” because Iran only has about one thousand centrifuges installed underground, and from what I understand, they’re not enriching. They are spinning, in the sense that the centrifuges have been turned on and they’re operating under what’s called vacuum.
But I would be surprised if Iran was even enriching uranium in those thousand machines. I think Iran lowered the bar of what is industrial scale, even by its own definition, and then declared victory. In the West, operation of three thousand centrifuges with uranium gas would not be seen as industrial scale. Iran from the very beginning has lowered the standard, and now has lowered it even further. It’s accomplished a lot less than what it’s trying to get people to believe it’s accomplished.
Where did this fifty thousand figure come from?
Well at the Natanz site the cascade halls underground are big enough to hold fifty thousand. And they would fit the fifty thousand by building these modules of three thousand centrifuges, but the date when Iran can have fifty thousand centrifuges functioning is far in the future, at least a decade away.
If sanctions continue on Iran, it probably will never reach that point. Iran needs to buy a tremendous amount of equipment, such as valves, pumps, piping, from overseas. And it’s having to do that essentially illicitly because it’s not legal to sell Iran that kind of equipment. It can succeed at a certain level to buy things illicitly, but it’s going to have a very hard time succeeding to the point where it could ever build fifty thousand centrifuges.
You would think at this point if Iran was really interested in a civilian program the Iranian leaders would agree to the Security Council demands to suspend enrichment for a while. The Council has promised to help Iran develop peaceful nuclear programs, if it allows inspections to prevent a nuclear weapons program, right?
If Iran only intended to produce enriched uranium for civil purposes, or if it just intended to produce nuclear electricity and power reactors, it would probably not have been so tough about demanding that it be allowed to move forward and produce thousands of centrifuges. But that doesn’t mean Iran wants nuclear weapons.
In a ‘best case’ scenario for Iran, it would have enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in 2009.
The only thing you can draw from that is that it appears Iran wants to have a nuclear-weapons capability, wants to have some set of facilities, such as an enrichment plant, so it can look like it can build nuclear weapons if it wants. If it made the decision to build nuclear weapons, then it would have a good chance of succeeding before the world could stop it.
Well, under your calculations, how far are they away from that capability?
In a best case scenario for Iran, it would have enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in 2009. And I want to emphasize it’s a best case. It could take longer. But a nuclear weapons capability would probably be defined as having three thousand centrifuges enriching uranium. And that date could happen in 2008, leading up to 2009.
But they still haven’t made any highly enriched uranium. And if they did decide to make highly enriched uranium, it may take six months to a year to make enough for a bomb. So Iran could reach a nuclear-weapons capability in 2008, even though it wouldn’t have enough material for a nuclear weapon and may not even be trying at that point to produce material for a nuclear weapon. We’re entering the time when it’s very important to watch what Iran is accomplishing and sort through the facts and find the real situation. To do that, the most important information comes from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Are inspectors back in Natanz now?
They should be there Tuesday or Wednesday. They’ll know if indeed any enrichment took place in the underground halls. Iran could enrich any day. That’s been the state of play for several weeks now. There’s an IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] seal on the tank that holds the uranium hexafluoride. Iran would have to cut the seal before it started enrichment. And if the seal’s cut, the IAEA will certainly know enrichment happened, and from the kind of measurements they can do, they’ll know how much. So the world will know if Iran did indeed enrich. It would be a surprise, if they did on Monday, however. Iran sent out signals last week to the IAEA and to other governments not to expect a big surprise on Monday.
So if there was enrichment, you’d be surprised?
Certainly enrichment would be a surprise. But it’s also been well known that Iran has been installing centrifuges at a pretty brisk rate for the last couple of months. The actual rate is about one cascade per week or two. A cascade contains 164 machines. Iran could end up installing all three thousand machines in this module by the end of May or sometime in June. But getting them all to enrich uranium is another thing. That’s a pretty big step, and Iran’s had trouble with that. So far it’s only enriched in two cascades that are in the pilot plant that is above ground at Natanz.
A military campaign against Iran … would devastate the civil nuclear program and many nuclear facilities, but it’s not going to stop the centrifuge program.
Using IAEA data, we’ve calculated that these two cascades have only operated about 20 percent of the time enriching uranium. To go from that state to suddenly enriching in one thousand centrifuges obviously is a huge jump. I would expect that the enrichment will just creep up slowly even though the number of machines installed is increasing dramatically.
The Russian press is quoting Russian atomic officials as doubting there’s been any breakthroughs in Iran. They don’t think Iran’s technology is up to it yet.
Iran is learning how to do things and they’re moving forward. Iran is making slow but steady progress on learning how to enrich uranium in a larger number of centrifuges. They’re never going to be as good as the centrifuge experts in Europe or in Russia. They’ll probably succeed in the end, but when you look at the plant, centrifuges will probably break more often than they ever would in Russia or Europe. There’ll be control problems. The system won’t work efficiently. I don’t think Iran expects to be able to do it like Europeans.
Why is that?
Its standards are lower. We have to be careful not to judge them by our standards and then miss something important—namely that Iran will muddle through and learn to enrich significant quantities of uranium, and we’ll miss that because we’re thinking, “Well, they’re not meeting our benchmarks, they’re not as good as us, in a sense they’re not mastering centrifuge operation like we could.” They may never master it like we can. They may just have a program that looks to us not very good, but in fact is good enough to produce enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon, just it’ll happen on a slower schedule and they’ll get less than they could.
You’ve been very strong in urging that no military force be used to stop this program. But the diplomacy doesn’t seem to be catching on either. Do you think the West should drop its insistence on a suspension?
No, I don’t think so. I mean that’s a long-held policy. There was a suspension for a couple years. As a transition stage, it may make sense to find a way to negotiate with Iran where maybe the full suspension doesn’t happen, but rather a temporary one. But it could get negotiations started and then there’d be an opportunity to try to work something out that would lead to a full suspension. But military options still aren’t any good, and their exercise would create a much more dangerous world and come back to haunt us just like the invasion or Iraq has. Perhaps even worse, because Iran isn’t going to just disintegrate. It could become intensely nationalistic and in essence would go to war against us.
A military campaign against Iran, as envisioned, would have to attack all of Iran with missiles and bombs and multiple sorties. I don’t think it would even destroy the nuclear program. It would devastate the civil nuclear program and many nuclear facilities, but it’s not going to stop the centrifuge program. Iran can reconstitute fairly quickly. Its program is becoming so dispersed that it’s very likely many centrifuge placements wouldn’t even be hit. And if Iran has any warning at all, it could empty out a lot of equipment in the bomb site, and in the centrifuges, and then reconstitute in a secret site. Centrifuge plants don’t use much electricity, they don’t emit much radiation, if any, and they’re very easy to hide, so if Iran wants to build a secret centrifuge plant it would have no trouble and it would be unlikely that we’d find it. It’s unlikely we even know where they’re making centrifuge components now.