An Iran nuclear deal is coming into focus, but there’s one glaring problem

Business Insider (Feb 22) — U.S. negotiators believe restrictions on enrichment and rigorously enforced enriched uranium stockpile limits will be able to prevent Tehran from accumulating enough highly enriched uranium to construct a nuclear weapon undetected.

By this logic, the problem with Iran’s nuclear program isn’t its 19,000 centrifuges, secretive and heavily guarded nuclear facilities, weaponization and advance centrifuge research, Revolutionary Guards Corps involvement, ballistic-missile program, and plutonium reactor.

Instead, the problem is the much more narrow, and solvable, issue of preventing Iran from having enough plutonium or highly enriched uranium needed to construct a bomb within a certain time.

So the latest reports suggest Iran would be allowed to keep between 4,500 and 6,500 centrifuges. According to Olli Heinonen, a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a former deputy director general for safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency, a nuclear weapon requires 5,000 separative work units, or SWUs, of uranium enrichment. (SWU is a standard unit for measuring the effort needed to separate uranium isotopes.)

Each Iranian centrifuge produces 1 SWU a year, although the country has 1,000 more advanced machines capable of producing 5 SWU. So it would take Iran about six months to create a single nuclear weapon with 10,000 centrifuges if it had no previous stockpile of low or highly enriched uranium to bump up to weapons grade. At the moment, Iran has over 8 metric tons of low-enriched uranium, shortening its path to a bomb.

Interestingly, one of Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s stated “red lines” in negotiations is 190,000 SWU a year.

If Iran were really building a nuclear program for purely civilian reasons, it could just purchase all of its enriched uranium from a foreign seller. Even the U.S. actually imports the vast majority of its enriched uranium and has no currently operating industrial-scale enrichment facilities, says Olli Heinonen, former deputy director general for safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency.

There’s a larger principle at stake. A deal including 4,500 centrifuges or more would make Iran one of the few countries in the world to have its uranium enrichment formally legalized under an international treaty.

Strikingly, this wouldn’t happen as the result of an alliance with the US. The US has a nuclear cooperation treaty with India, for instance, but Delhi is a longstanding US economic and political ally and a fellow democracy. And this wouldn’t be a reward for Iran’s virtuous behavior on the world stage. Iran’s uranium enrichment is banned under several UN Security Council resolutions. Tehran is still a US-listed state sponsor of terrorism, and its assistance is responsible for Bashar Assad’s regime hanging on in Syria.

Under an agreement that allows Iran to keep thousands of centrifuges, Iran will be given a green light to enrich uranium — something it has no practical need to do — thanks to decades of recalcitrance, single-minded policy dedication, and outright deceit. It would be a historic and nearly unprecedented accomplishment, and one with unknown implications for nuclear proliferation.

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