By Dore Gold, JCPA
The lead editorial of the Washington Post on February 5, 2015, expressed the growing concern in elite circles with the contours of the emerging nuclear accord between Iran and the P5+1 (the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany).1 Part of the concern emanates from the change in the goals of Western negotiators: rather than eliminate Iran’s potential to build nuclear weapons, they now want to restrict Iranian capabilities, which would leave Tehran in a position to break out of any restrictions in the future.2
The best way to evaluate the impending nuclear agreement is to look at the statements of high-levels officials who have been involved in the negotiations. While not all of the details of the agreement have been made public, elements have been disclosed in the international media that are deeply worrying.
For example, there is the issue of the number of centrifuges that Iran will be allowed to retain. A centrifuge is a machine that separates uranium gas into two isotopes: U-238, which does not release nuclear energy, and U-235, which, when split, can release the energy for either a nuclear reactor or an atomic bomb. The enrichment process involves producing uranium with increasing percentages of U-235. At 90 percent purity, the uranium is characterized as weapons-grade.
Iran currently has 19,000 centrifuges, 9,000 of which are running and 10,000 that are installed but not operating. Israel’s position is that Iran should have zero centrifuges. The reason is that if Iran truly needs enriched uranium for civilian purposes, it could import enriched uranium as do roughly 15 other countries, such as Canada, Mexico, and Spain. The Israeli position is in line with six UN Security Council resolutions that were adopted between 2006 and 2010, with the support of Russia and China. If Iran eliminated all of its centrifuges and then chose to build new centrifuges, the process would take four to five years. There would be ample time to detect Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium beyond what is needed for civilian purposes and to organize an international response.
According to Gary Samore, President Obama’s former non-proliferation adviser, at the beginning of the current round of negotiations, the United States was demanding that Iran significantly reduce its stock of centrifuges to 1,500, but in doing so dropped the longstanding U.S. policy that Iran eliminate its centrifuges completely.3
The numbers are important. In a scenario of “breakout,” in which the Iranians race to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for their first atomic bomb, the number of centrifuges largely determines the amount of time the Iranians will need to accomplish this goal.
In addition to the number of centrifuges that Iran has, there is also the issue of the amount of enriched uranium that Iran has already stockpiled. With enough low-enriched uranium, Iran can make a final push to weapons-grade uranium for an atomic bomb. Robert Einhorn, the former special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control during the Obama administration, has calculated that if Iran uses 1,500 kilograms of low-enriched uranium and …read more