No sooner had Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced Iran’s renewal of uranium enrichment on Nov. 5 than the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that a cylinder containing some two tons of UF6 gas (uranium hexa-fluoride compound) had been transferred to the Fordow fuel-enrichment plant and connected to two centrifuge cascades (each containing 174 centrifuges) in preparation for enrichment.
Four days later, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) spokesman confirmed that uranium enrichment had begun at Fordow (though only to a level of 4.5 percent, the grade of nuclear fuel in nuclear power reactors)—in full view of IAEA inspectors on-site to monitor the implementation of the July 2015 nuclear agreement.
For his part, AEOI Director Ali Akbar Salehi used the unveiling of 30 new advanced IR6 centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment facility (in addition to the 30 already-installed IR6 centrifuges) to laud Iran’s (supposedly peaceful) nuclear program. Hailing the IR6’s high enrichment capacity—10 separative work units (SWU) compared to 1.2 SWU for the older IR1 comprising the lion’s share of Iran’s pre-2015 centrifuges—Salehi boasted that over the past two months, Tehran had increased its uranium enrichment capacity from 6,000 SWU and 450 g uranium per day to 8,660 SWU and 5 kg uranium per day.
While saying that Iran would momentarily limit the enrichment process to a 5 percent grade (way below the 90 percent required to produce nuclear weapons), Salehi revealed that Tehran was testing IR8 centrifuges (with some 20 SWU enrichment capacity) and experimenting with an IR9 prototype “which is 50 times faster than the IR1.”
“While we now have a sufficient amount of 20 percent enriched uranium [enrichment grade for nuclear reactor fuel, which could serve as a springboard for 90 percent enrichment], we can enrich more if necessary,” he said, adding that Tehran would need only four days to enrich uranium to a 20 percent level should it decide to do so. His assertion was amplified by the AEOI’s spokesman: “We can produce 5 percent, 20 percent, 60 percent or any other percentage of enriched uranium” (60 percent enrichment level is the highest springboard before reaching the critical 90 percent threshold).
Given that enriching natural uranium for 20 kg of nuclear weapons-grade (of at least 90 percent) requires approximately 5,000 SWU, Iran seems to be about one year from having the fissile material for its first nuclear bomb.
The latest Iranian move constitutes the fourth violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in so many months. The first violation occurred on July 1 when Tehran crossed the upper limit of 300 kg of 3.67 percent enriched uranium allowed by the agreement, only to raise the enrichment level to 4.5 percent the week after. On Sept. 7, Iran began operating more advanced centrifuges, with higher enrichment capacities. And while Tehran sought to misrepresent these violations as legitimate moves aimed at persuading other JCPOA signatories to oppose U.S. sanctions, few European leaders were impressed.
In a press conference on Nov. 6 during a visit to Beijing, French President Emmanuel Macron warned that Rouhani’s statement implied that “for the first time, Iran has decided in an explicit and blunt manner to leave the JCPOA agreement, which marks a profound shift.” He was quickly followed by his British and German counterparts, who criticized the latest Iranian violation as “most worrying,” while Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s “foreign-policy minister” and one of the JCPOA’s staunchest supporters, lamented that “it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the JCPOA.”
To make matters worse, Tehran’s relations with the IAEA have also soured. This is due in part to Iran’s preventing an IAEA inspector from entering the Natanz nuclear facility and the subsequent withdrawal of her accreditation, and in part to a change of leadership at the U.N. agency; incoming acting director Cornel Feruta seems to be more critical of Iranian misconduct than was his late predecessor, Yukiya Amano.
On Nov. 7, two days after Rouhani’s announcement, the IAEA’s board of governors met for a special session to discuss not only Tehran’s latest violation but also its prolonged failure to come clean on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s revelation in his Sept. 27, 2018 U.N. address that Iran had removed 15 kg of radioactive material from a warehouse in Tehran’s Turkuzabad suburb and “spread it around Tehran in an effort to hide the evidence.”
Indication of the veracity of this claim was afforded by the last IAEA report (Nov. 11, 2019), which noted that its inspectors had “detected natural [not enriched] uranium particles of anthropogenic [man-made] origin at a location in Iran not declared to the agency.”
Assuming this included the 15 kg noted by Netanyahu, which, according to the IAEA’s findings, comprised man-made natural uranium, it is possible that it was a dummy nuclear weapon core for the purpose of conducting a “cold test” to simulate a nuclear explosion. In this scenario, the casting of the natural uranium core would have been carried out at one of the Parchin site facilities, where Iran’s nuclear weapons development tests had previously been conducted.
Responding to Rouhani’s announcement, U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo estimated that Tehran may be preparing to break out in 2020 towards nuclear weapons. A joint report by the Washington-based Federation for Defense of Democracies and the Institute for Science and International Security (issued on Nov. 13) was similarly grim, setting the possible breakout time between eight and 10 months.
Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Raphael Ofek, a BESA Center Research Associate, is an expert in the field of nuclear physics and technology who served as a senior analyst in the Israeli intelligence community.
This article was first published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.