Iran Nuclear Progression Undeterred by the Ticking Clock


Iran’s nuclear program continues unabated, ever expanding the capacity to enrich more uranium and to enrich it to higher levels; and with the IR-40 heavy water reactor, currently under construction, in the third quarter of 2013, yet another dimension will be added. The reasons for continued suspicion regarding Iran’s intentions include the clandestine and covert nature of Iran’s activities, unrevealed over the years to the IAEA in good faith, including the Natanz facility, the Fordow facility, the Esfahan Uranium Conversion Facility, the Parchin hydrodynamics testing facility – which the IAEA believes was used to test the Shahab-3 nuclear payload capable warhead – and the Lavizan site, razed to the ground to hide activity undeclared to the IAEA, with the feeble excuse that the grounds belonged to a park – all disclosed or exposed by foreign governments, not Iran.

Another reason that Iran’s activities are suspect is their intrinsic nature: Iran has produced seven tons of low enriched uranium (LEU), nominally suitable for use as nuclear fuel in light water power reactors. But Iran does not have any such reactors, nor is it building any (the one light water power reactor that uses LEU, the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, is operated with Russian-provided fuel). The only plausible purpose therefore of producing large quantities of LEU is as feed for higher enrichment. This LEU is indeed used as feed for the current 20 percent enrichment effort, which in turn is explained as produced for the Teheran Research Reactor (TRR). But the TRR needs only modest quantities, and the centrifuges installed at Fordow provide a capacity to produce ten times as much. Again, the only plausible explanation for this capacity is to serve as feed material for even higher enrichment levels.

Iran is also constructing the 40-megawatt Iran Research Reactor (IR-40), a heavy water reactor which Iran claims is intended for the production of medical isotopes. But all of Iran’s requirements for these are satisfied by the Teheran reactor, and the IR-40 reactor would be out of proportion to Iran’s needs; it is, however, well suited for producing weapons grade plutonium. Iran has informed the IAEA that the IR-40 reactor will begin operating in late 2013.

Ideally, currently imposed oil sanctions might have been employed six years ago, to forestall Iran’s progression to its current level, especially the leap to 20 percent enrichment, and the accumulation of vast stocks of LEU to serve as feed for higher enrichment. Even now, with oil sanctions by the EU, which accounted for 13% of Iran’s oil exports, still neither Iran’s #1 oil customer (the PRC), nor Iran’s #2 customer (India), are applying sanctions, and Iran’s #3 customer Japan has reduced oil imports from Iran by only about twenty percent.

Sanctions proponents believe that eventually the regime will realize that incrementally severe economic disruptions pose a threat to its stability, and ultimately its survival, and will thus induce a reversal on the nuclear issue. But relenting on enrichment may be perceived as a capitulation, and would not be in the mandate of Iranian negotiators unless specifically directed to do so by the Supreme Leader; otherwise any concessions would be treasonous.

The current leadership does not believe that any military intervention – Israeli or US – will materialize, that it would cause only minor damage in the slim eventuality that it were to occur, that an attacker would incur exorbitant costs which deter such an attack in the first place, and that it would unite the Iranian people in support of the regime. The threat of military action, therefore, does not significantly figure in Iranian calculations as to whether to capitulate, or concede, or compromise on the nuclear program or not.

As for the Supreme Leader, he is not only a political figure but also the spiritual leader, and capitulation, or concession, to Western pressure could be interpreted as an unspeakable act of religious lapse of belief. Thus, the more extreme elements within the regime may be perceived to pose a more potent threat to the current leadership’s survival than the easily suppressed discontent due to sanctions. While Iran in many respects acts as a rational modern state, its government is after all a theocracy whose raison d’etre is that it differs from the governments of other states, and the IRGC provides it with the power base for domestic security, and the strategic force to deter or defeat any foreign attempts to derail the regime’s ideological agenda.

In 2013, if no substantive progress is made in negotiations military pre-emption will once again come to the fore.  2012 was marked by Israel’s declared intent to launch a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, as Iran was described as on the verge of a conceptual “zone of immunity”, meaning the task moving beyond Israel’s capabilities. Given stiff US resistance to an Israeli strike in 2012, it remains to be seen whether the US takes upon itself to guarantee its success as an allied venture, and when, if at all, this would materialize.

The crisis could be drawn out again if there is a verified slowing of Iran’s march towards increased capacities for weapons grade fissile materials, both HEU and plutonium.  Sanctions proponents believe that there is reason for guarded optimism that Iran will be more flexible as its leadership begins to accept that economic disruption caused by sanctions can lead to discontent increasingly threatening to regime stability, and to its survival. Skeptics, on the other hand, don’t believe that sanctions will have that kind of effect on the leadership’s nuclear decision-making, and that a diplomatic resolution of the crisis remains a long shot: Iran cannot permanently and verifiably give up higher levels of enrichment, because it will then not be able to produce weapons grade material for nuclear weapons, which is the driving force behind Iran’s decades-long nuclear effort, and insofar as this would be perceived as an act of capitulation, treasonous, and by implication an act of religious denial of faith; thus, capitulation or compromise constitute a greater existential threat to the leadership, and to the regime, than sanctions.

ATA Commentary