Countering recent US sanctions and President Trump’s talk of ending the “bad” nuclear agreement with Iran, Iran’s president threatened to restart its nuclear program. If his threat is true as stated, he unwittingly admitted something highly supportive of Trump’s position:
Mr. Rouhani said that a reconstituted nuclear program would be “far more advanced,” a veiled threat that the country could start enriching uranium up to the level of 20 percent…. “Iran will definitely revert to a far more advanced situation than it had before the negotiations, not in a matter of weeks or months but in a matter of days or hours.” (New York Times)
If Iran is capable of ratcheting up its program in a matter of weeks to enrich uranium to 20%, that means it has been purchasing and stockpiling all the equipment it needs to do that because such equipment cannot be built and installed that fast. So, the equipment is “stored” in a manner that is ready to go. That, in itself, probably violates the terms of the agreement (known as the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action”).
HOWEVER, there is only one way Iran can have the capability to ratchet up production to “more advanced” levels than it had before the negotiations “in a matter of days or hours.” While I have no expertise in such equipment, it does not strike me as the kind of production process where you push a button, and you’re up and running with 20% enriched uranium coming out the other end in a matter of hours.
The New York Times seems to have missed that little tidbit.
What did Iran’s president mean?
The only way Iran could demonstrate production increases to 20% enrichment within hours is if the equipment is already producing highly enriched uranium so that all Iran would have to do to beat the high levels of enrichment that were known before the negotiations would be to start revealing what they are already producing!
The head of Iran’s nuclear program made clear that Rouhani did mean 20% enrichment and that Iran would be able to demonstrate that ability:
Ali Akbar Salehi, president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said the country could go up to 20 percent enrichment to “surprise the Americans.”
It would be no surprise to find out that Iran could build up the resources needed to start enriching uranium to 20%. They’ve already done that in the past. It would, however, certainly be a surprise to many to see 20% uranium in a matter of hours, as that would indicate they were already carrying out such enrichment or that they never got rid of their 20% uranium as the JCPA required, which would verify that Trump was right about the agreement being a bad deal.
Iran’s existing 20% enrichment fueled the JCPA in the first place. It is why the JCPA required Iran reduce its stock of 3.5% to a level that would not allow it to make enough 20% to become rapidly dangerous. So, how is it that Iran is now able to surprise the Americans with 20% enrichment in “days or hours?”
You can say this is just typical Iranian saber rattling, but since Iran’s president made this statement to the world as an argument against congress’s new sanctions and Trump’s statements that they are violating Obama’s nuclear agreement, I say we take him at his word. It is, after all, his argument as he chooses to make it. His word is that Iran can demonstrate 20% enrichment to the US within hours. (And it’s possible he even meant something more than 20% enrichment. I’m just limiting my understanding of his words to what his top energy dog claimed.)
Prior to the JCPA, Iran was known to already have enough 3.5% in the right gaseous form for further enrichment to make seven bombs if enrichment continued, using the centrifuges Iran already had. So, showing the world some uranium enriched to 3.5% wouldn’t cause anyone to raise an eyebrow because 1) the JCPA already allows that, and 2) it would not be “a far more advanced situation than … before the negotiations.”
In fact, even having some 20% is not a situation that is advanced beyond what existed before the negotiations. Iran already had hundreds of kilograms of 20% enriched uranium prior to the agreement in both solid (fuel) form and gaseous form (ready to be enriched to bomb-grade). That fact alone causes one to lean beyond the nuclear boss’s statement of a surprise at 20%. At 20%, the surprise, in the very least, would have to be in the fact that Iran is able to produce it in a matter of hours, meaning that the agreement hasn’t curtailed Iran’s breakout time to a nuclear bomb.
How long does uranium enrichment take?
The Washington Institute stated just before the nuclear accord was signed that it would take 18,000 centrifuges (the maximum number Iran was known to own before the agreement) only five weeks to turn the 3.5% level of enrichment that Iran is openly allowed under the accord into enough highly enriched uranium (90%) to make a single bomb (27kg enriched to 90%). That is why Iran was also required under the JCPA to reduce its number of available centrifuges to 6,500.
While that is a rapid leap to a bomb, it certainly doesn’t sound like the kind of fast process that would yield a surprise for Americans in a matter of hours. It takes much longer to enrich uranium up to Iran’s allowed 3.5% than it takes to go from 3.5% up to the agreement-violating step of 20%, which is used in research reactors, and then takes very little time and effort to go from 20% to the 90% used for bombs. So, what level is Iran at that would allow a surprise in mere days or hours?
The World Nuclear Association states that restarting centrifuges (just restarting, not installing and building) is a costly process. So, even if Iran’s centrifuges were not taken down as required, simply getting them back online sounds like it takes significant time and money.
An alternative explanation of the Iranian president’s warning would be that Iran, under the cloak of the JCPA, has managed to acquire much better equipment than the advanced equipment it was required to dismantle by the agreement. The JCPA would, indeed, be “a very bad deal” if it allowed Iran to purchase and store much better equipment than what it had and thereby reduce its breakout time to a bomb.