Nuclear Weapons

Will Iran Give Up Twenty Percent Enrichment?

07.23.10 | 4 min read | Text by Ivanka Barzashka

by Ivanka Barzashka

In response to sanctions, Iran’s parliament adopted the Nuclear Achievement Protection Bill on July 18. Among other things, the law requires the government to continue 20 percent enrichment and provide fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). Although this aspect of the legislation has largely fallen below the news radar, it raises important questions about the future of nuclear talks, which Iran has postponed until September as “punishment” of the West.

Iran says it is enriching to higher concentrations to manufacture its own fuel for the TRR, but a stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium will reduce by more than half Iran’s time to a bomb (when compared to its current stockpile of 3.5 percent LEU). Now Iran’s higher-level enrichment may have become the connection between sanctions and a fuel deal that will hinder any engagement options. However, there is still time to explore resolutions to the impasse.

Ivan Oelrich and I have co-authored an FAS issue brief that traces the history of Iranian higher-level enrichment efforts in an effort to understand Tehran’s nuclear intentions. We were driven by the question: Will Iran, at this stage, give up twenty percent enrichment? Three distinct periods were analyzed: (1) from the beginning of 20 percent enrichment to the Tehran Declaration, (2) from the Tehran Declaration to the passing of UN sanctions, and (3) after sanctions.

Iran’s initial move to enrich to 20 percent was most likely brinksmanship to apply pressure toward getting a desired outcome during a political standoff. We argued this in length in a recent article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It is conceivable that the events surrounding the fuel swap were all a carefully orchestrated subterfuge to provide a plausible cover for the next step toward bomb material, but if this were the case, we believe Iran would have boosted enrichment sooner and not offered repeatedly to give it up.  It is unlikely that Iran was serious about producing its own fuel at that stage since it took no other action consistent with domestic fuel production.

If Iran were using 20-percent enrichment as a form of political pressure to force the West to accept its terms for a swap, then that motivation went away when Iran accepted the West’s condition to send uranium to Turkey before receiving the reactor fuel. But if the agreement was truly meant as a breakthrough, it is puzzling why, according to Western governments and media, Tehran was determined to continue higher-level enrichment irrespective of a deal.

A closer reading of public statements by Iranian officials on the issue suggests that Iran was not resolved to maintain production of 20-percent uranium, but did not see a legal or contractual obligation to stop enrichment. Although we cannot completely exclude the possibility that the fuel deal was meant as an advance towards nuclear weapons capability, we judge this option to be unlikely. Iran could have used the stalemate with the fuel deal and US move towards sanctions to quickly increase 20-percent enrichment capacity and pursue domestic fuel production. This would have quickly reduced its time to a bomb and provided it with plausible deniability. Instead, it insisted on pursuing a deal, which would have taken away its justification for higher-level enrichment. We believe that, at that stage, continuing enrichment was still most likely a form of political pressure, a slowly ticking clock on reaching final agreement on a fuel swap and ensuring the actual delivery of fuel. We believe that, had the U.S. accepted the fuel swap after the Tehran Declaration was announced, suspension of 20 percent enrichment could have been folded into a larger deal.

The Tehran Declaration, by which Iran accepted the West’s terms on the fuel swap, was most likely a last minute concession intended to avert sanctions. In that regard, it obviously failed and Tehran has since been promising retaliation against major powers. One form of punishment seems to be to do precisely those things that most worry the international community, such as 20 percent enrichment.

After the sanctions vote, Tehran has declared its own “dual track” approach: to continue nuclear expansion while holding out the possibility of reengagement. There are now indications that Tehran could pursue a fuel deal while simultaneously continuing higher-level enrichment, irrespective of whether a fuel swap goes through. There has been a clear effort to decouple higher enrichment capability from a fuel deal with plans for four new medical isotope reactor and domestic legislation to pursue fuel fabrication. Developing these capabilities is clearly meant to defy the West, but is also an expression of distrust in foreign fuel suppliers. Under these circumstances, cessation of 20 percent production is still possible but far less likely. Indeed, if Iran now links 20 percent enrichment to sanctions and will not give up the capability even with a fuel swap, then the deal becomes unacceptable to the West. Twenty percent enrichment may have become the connection between sanctions and a fuel deal that will hinder any future engagement.

One slightly positive note is that Iran has taken no move to increase the rate of production of 20 percent material, so they can go on for several months without great additional danger. There is some time to explore resolutions to the impasse.

Please see the full text of the issue brief for more details.