Ivanka Barzashka is intrigued by the puzzle that is Iran’s nuclear program. Unlike North Korea’s public pursuit of nuclear weapons, Iran has been steadfast in its denial of developing a nuclear bomb, stating time and time again that it is pursuing a self-sustaining nuclear energy program. The dual-use nature of nuclear technology, specifically uranium enrichment, is at the heart of the uncertainty concerning the Iranian situation.
Like most other experts, Ivanka agrees that at a minimum Iran is keeping open a latent nuclear weapons capability option. Recent developments that have fueled suspicions include the disclosure of a new fuel enrichment plant in Fordow, near Qom, and Tehran’s announcement to build 10 more enrichment sites. New allegations also accuse Iran of trying to develop a uranium deuteride neutron initiator, which could be part of a nuclear weapon.
Iranian intentions are not clear-cut and Ivanka is working to solve the mystery.
While Iran has shown some cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there is a need for greater transparency. She explains that while the U.S., British, and French governments have stated they believe that Fordow was meant as a clandestine enrichment plant, Iran used a more narrow interpretation of its safeguards obligations to the IAEA to explain the late disclosure of the facility.
Iran’s nuclear program is seen as a sign of technological achievement and a source of national pride. Statements by Iranian officials emphasize their poor past experience working with the west and the inability of the international community to provide solid fuel delivery guarantees. Iran is staunchly defending its right to pursuit peaceful nuclear energy technology.
But the international community has to wonder why Iran constructed a small-capacity enrichment facility in a tunnel inside a mountain if its goal is nuclear fuel production?
The size and location of Fordow provides the missing link between a peaceful nuclear program and one that could support bomb-making material.
“Iran has claimed that Fordow was meant to be a contingency plant in case of an attack on Natanz,” says Ivanka. “The White House, on the other hand, has implied that since Fordow is too small for industrial-scale enrichment, this means it could be part of a military program. However, in recent analysis of Fordow’s capacity, we have concluded that the facility is too small to make sense for both a fuel and a bomb program.”
FAS experts speculate that Fordow may simply be one of many similar facilities planned. Iran confirmed this speculation in its announcement to construct 10 new enrichment plants. Without more information about these future plants, the announcement itself does not make Iranian nuclear intentions clear-cut. And to further confuse matters, while the increase in enrichment capacity strengthens the military rationale, it also explains the rationale for both the ability to deter an attack on Nartanz and for commerce.
So, hypothetically, if Iran’s intention is to build a nuclear bomb, how long will it take?
Current estimates hinge on Iran’s ability to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one weapon using the centrifuges operated at its Natanz facility, which Iran declared will also be installed at Fordow. And information about those machines varies greatly.
First, centrifuge specifications are considered proprietary data. The IAEA does not collect these details, but only reports on information pertaining to nuclear material accountancy. Second, the centrifuge commercially operating at Natanz is based on a Pakistani model provided by the A.Q. Khan network. While this model is thought to correspond to an early European analog (that Khan acquired while working at Urenco — a European enrichment consortium), there is no consensus on what that analog is or what its specifications are. Third, a lot of the information in the public domain has questionable credibility – it is contradictory and most of its sources are untraceable and poorly referenced back to anonymous IAEA officials, former Urenco employees, or Western intelligence sources.
Based on IAEA report data of Natanz performance, Ivanka has actually calculated the capacity of Iran’s centrifugeto be only 25 percent or so of the published values.
“This indicates that the machine is not performing up to par, which is not news, but we now know exactly what this means numerically. This is very important. Iran’s nuclear clock is ticking slower than we thought. Take any time estimate quoted in the media on when Iran could produce enough enriched material for a bomb, divide it by four or five and that’s what they are most likely capable of today,” says Ivanka.
She believes the Obama administration is taking the right course of action by pursuing direct engagement without preconditions and the fact that the nuclear clock is ticking slower gives more time for diplomacy.
“Iran’s behavior may be ambiguous, but there is no smoking gun. I think it is important to keep in mind that Iran is denying the fact that they are or would like to pursue nuclear weapons. This should be exploited to get Tehran to concede to extended safeguards and more transparency,” she says. “Getting Iran to agree to suspend its uranium enrichment is an unrealistic first step.”
She suggests that instead, a short term goal should require Iranians to implement early notification of nuclear facility construction as required by the revised Code 3.1 to the Subsidiary Arrangements of their Safeguards Agreement and ratify the Additional Protocol, which would allow IAEA inspectors access to additional nuclear sites. Her research indicates Iran is struggling with nuclear technology. “This increases the possibility of response to incentives, which we have been short of lately,” she says.
Ivanka is a research assistant with the Strategic Security Program at the Federation of American Scientists. Her work focuses on international security policy, nonproliferation, and FAS’s ongoing assessment of Iran’s nuclear capabilities and potential. In five years she hopes to have a PhD from a program related to science and global security issues. You can learn more by visiting: www.fas.org/blog/ssp or www.fas.org/press/experts/barzashka.html