Last December, you may recall that I gave a presentation at the headquarters of US Strategic Command as part of a conference put on by CSIS’s Project on Nuclear Issues. The paper I wrote to accompany that presentation has finally been published, and is available as part of an amazing collection of papers from the presenters at that Capstone Conference. Please check them out here [pdf].
The fruit of nearly a year’s work, the following article was published in the July edition of the Nonproliferation Review. I’d be very grateful for any feedback you’d like to leave in the comments section.
Last week, I had the honor of giving a presentation before the US Air Force Global Strike Command down at Barksdale AFB in Louisiana. It was an amazing opportunity to spend some time with the airmen whose job it is to focus on nuclear threats everyday, and an experience I won’t soon forget.
The talk I gave was based on my thesis (due May 4 — yikes), and had the working title of “Deterring Iran’s Latent Nuclear Weapons Capability.” Rather than post the whole text — which is mostly scratched in the margins of the copy I printed the night before anyway — I’ll give the dime store version here. (I’m supposed to say that these views are my own and do not reflect the opinion of Global Strike or the US Air Force).
Following up on my last post about US and Israeli redlines for an attack on Iran, I wanted to take a closer look at the issue of advanced centrifuges being moved to the Fordow facility near Qom.
If you recall, Matthew Kroenig and Colin Kahl, both recently-departed Obama administration officials, noted that if Iran were to install advanced centrifuge designs in the deeply-buried Fordow facility, then Western officials would need to consider taking military action against that site. Kroenig said such a move by Iran would mean “the United States must strike immediately or forfeit its last opportunity to prevent Iran from joining the nuclear club.”
I viewed this as an unreasonable redline to draw, since Iran is already operating next-generation centrifuges at its other enrichment facility and that moving IR-2m or IR-4 machines into Fordow wouldn’t fundamentally alter the nature of Iran’s nuclear weapons potential in the same way that, say, a decision to start stockpiling weapons-grade uranium would. But I then got to thinking: wouldn’t more advanced centrifuges at the Qom site mean Iran could breakout quicker — possibly even in the 2-3 months between IAEA inspections? That would, after all, fundamentally alter the state of play on the nuclear issue, and probably would necessitate some deep thinking in Washington and Tel Aviv.
So let’s figure out what we’re really dealing with here. (Warning: math ahead).
According to the latest IAEA report, Iran intends to use the Fordow facility for two purposes: production of 20% enriched uranium and R&D, which has usually meant research and design on next-generation centrifuge technology. This is an important starting point, because it makes it clear that Iran plans to install next-generation centrifuges at Fordow already. So we’re not talking about some unlikely event over which we’re willing to go to war; this is part of the plan as of today — meaning there’s a lot at stake if we get things wrong.
At present, no advanced centrifuge designs are installed or are being installed at Fordow, though that could happen anytime. There are two cascades of IR-2m and IR-4 machines installed at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz. (If you recall, the PFEP served as the testing grounds for 20% enrichment before that process was moved to Fordow in 2011. So again, it’s likely those machines will someday be moved to Fordow.)
According to most estimates, the IR-2m and IR-4 machines are nearly 4 times as efficient as Iran’s IR-1 centrifuges, meaning their separative work capacity has been estimated at about 3-4 SWU/year. Assuming standard feed, tails, and 25kg of 90%U235 for a bomb, a conservative estimate of 4SWU/year/centrifuge would mean Iran would need roughly 815 centrifuges to produce one bomb’s worth of material in a year. Shrink that timeline down to a fast breakout of 3 months, and Iran would need 3261 machines — or about the entire capacity of the Fordow facility packed to the gills.
But all that assumes Iran feeds natural uranium into the machines. IF Iran wanted to breakout using next-gen machines at Fordow, and IF it tried to do so between IAEA visits, it would likely use its stockpile of 3.5% or, more likely, 20% material.
So using a feed of 3.5%U235, one bomb’s worth of material requires 4821SWUs for a 3-month breakout, or about 1205 centrifuges. Using a feed of 20%U235, that number shrinks drastically to 312 centrifuges — well within Iran’s current capability.
From there, it is easy to see why some Obama administration officials would be concerned about the presence of advanced centrifuges at Fordow: without round-the-clock inspections, Iran could theoretically produce enough fissile material for one bomb using 2 cascades of advanced centrifuges with a relatively high likelihood of escaping detection until it is too late. Obviously, this would cut it pretty close, and IAEA inspectors would undoubtedly discover the diversion on their next visit, so Iran would need to weaponize the material and potentially even perform a test detonation in a matter of days in order to truly catch the world by surprise. That’s unlikely, but not something we can easily ignore.
Thus, it becomes clear from this examination just how important it is for the next round of nuclear negotiations to convince Iran to relinquish its stockpile of 20% enriched material. Without this stockpile, the fast 3-month breakout scenario would require feeding 3.5%uranium into nearly 7 cascades of advanced centrifuges — far too many for Iran to manufacture at present, given the Western campaign of sanctions and sabotage that have choked off Iran’s supply line. This would also create space for the West to declare a very clear redline after Iran establishes the reality of next-generation machines at Fordow: 2 cascades won’t keep us up at night, but any more than that and we start getting itchy trigger fingers.
For my money, all this is an argument for a real concerted push at the next P5+1 meeting to take the deal offered by Ahmadinejad last September, so long as it can be expanded a bit to cover the existing stockpile of 20% uranium. It’s a bit of a stretch to say that it should be a redline for the West when Iran starts installing next-generation machines at Fordow, though I know you can’t just wait until everything’s installed since the facility is nearly invulnerable to airstrikes. Kroenig and Colin Kahl left off some nuance here, for which they can largely be forgiven. But there are few things which require more absolute crystal clarity than Western redlines for Iran’s nuclear activities — this is one which might deserve a more detailed explanation from US policymakers.
Update: Josh Pollack informs me that the Fordow enrichment facility is under a much stricter IAEA safeguards regime than I initially thought. Rather than having a window of 2-3 months between site inspections, the IAEA averages one Design Information Verification (DIV) visit per month, in addition to various other types of near-continuous monitoring, both remote and on-site. Thus, a breakout scenario that depends on the rapid enrichment of weapons-usable material under the nose of IAEA inspectors strains even further the limits of Iran’s technical capability.
Ronen Bergman’s New York Times Magazine article about the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran includes a few interesting nuggets — that there were 2 confirmed cyber-attacks, that Israel was the source of the NCRI’s information in 2002 about the existence of the Natanz facility — but what I think is most noteworthy is what it doesn’t include and instead merely hints at. Bergman concludes that an Israeli strike is likely in 2012, but provides very little detail about what precisely are the redlines that would trigger such a strike. Here is an excerpt (emphasis mine):
He warned that no more than one year remains to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weaponry. This is because it is close to entering its “immunity zone” — a term coined by Barak that refers to the point when Iran’s accumulated know-how, raw materials, experience and equipment (as well as the distribution of materials among its underground facilities) — will be such that an attack could not derail the nuclear project. Israel estimates that Iran’s nuclear program is about nine months away from being able to withstand an Israeli attack; America, with its superior firepower, has a time frame of 15 months. In either case, they are presented with a very narrow window of opportunity. One very senior Israeli security source told me: “The Americans tell us there is time, and we tell them that they only have about six to nine months more than we do and that therefore the sanctions have to be brought to a culmination now, in order to exhaust that track.”
I personally have no idea what is meant by “an attack could not derail the nuclear project.” Presumably it has something to do with the dispersal of enrichment between both Natanz and Fordow, with the latter being nearly invulnerable to airstrikes. But that is the situation today, not months from today. Similarly, Iran’s accumulated know-how, materials, and experience are not things that can be wiped away by an airstrike in the next 11 months but not after; those are things that persist no matter when or how Iran falls under attack.
Matthew Kroenig laid out American redlines much more explicitly in his Foreign Affairs article. According to him, they are: expelling IAEA inspectors, beginning enrichment up to 90%, or installing advanced centrifuges at Fordow. Colin Kahl echoed these and added another in his rebuttal: the discovery of new covert enrichment sites. Both Kahl and Kroenig are in a good position to indicate the conventional wisdom about these redlines within the administration, so their lists seem plausible to me. But I was struck by the reference to installing advanced centrifuges at Fordow as a redline that must precipitate an attack. To me, this seemed to be a far lower standard (and a far likelier event) than the others. We know Iran is developing advanced centrifuges; it has declared an interest in using advanced centrifuges for its 20% enrichment program; and it has now moved its 20% enrichment program to the Fordow facility. These three facts point to a pretty good likelihood that Iran is on its way to crossing this redline; far more than any of the others, this one seems to be almost imminent.
All this raises some questions: 1) Are Kroenig and Kahl correct in stating that this is a US redline that would trigger an attack? 2) If so, why has the administration chosen to include this particular redline which (in my view) doesn’t give Iran a fundamentally different capability than it already has today? and 3) What precisely does Israel view as comprising the “immunity zone” and when will it begin?
It is a little bit telling that Bergman didn’t include any explicit references to US or Israeli redlines in his article, so I am inclined to believe that his prediction of an attack is no different than the dozens of incorrect predictions in recent years that preceded it. But I worry that the US or Israel or both might suffer from a lack of clarity about truly meaningful redlines, and the resulting ambiguity could make the risk of confrontation needlessly greater.
This post originally appeared in Nuclear Intelligence Weekly (pdf)
Instant gratification is a rarity in international relations, yet that has not stopped Western policymakers from celebrating the swift impact of tough sanctions on Iran’s central bank. Iran’s currency, the rial, has lost around 33 percent of its value the last four months, reaching record lows against the dollar. Iranian officials have called for emergency measures to contain the damage, but the evidence is clear that the latest rounds of pressure have had a profound effect. So is it safe to say that Western policies are finally working? Unfortunately, no.
While it is true that sanctions have inflicted real damage, the nuclear program continues apace. Just this month, Iran reached two new milestones when it declared that it had produced its first domestically-engineered fuel rods for a nuclear reactor and has begun enriching uranium at a heavily fortified facility outside of Qom. Political and military leaders remain defiant in the face of Western pressure, having concluded a provocative ten-day war game in the Persian Gulf. And although another round of talks seems to be in the works, Tehran has shown no willingness to take a softer line at the negotiating table.
All this begs the question: can sanctions really be said to be working when Tehran’s leaders are as defiant as ever?
This post originally appeared at Al Jazeera English:
The United States and its Western allies have utilised nearly every tool at their disposal to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, from sanctions and sabotage to cyber attacks and assassinations. In their zeal, however, Western leaders risk hastening the very thing that they seek to prevent: an Iranian bomb.
It has become increasingly obvious that Iran and the West are now at a state of war, albeit a covert one. Mysteriousexplosions have rocked the Iranian countryside, while suspected Western intelligence agents have targeted nuclear scientists for assassination.
For Iran’s part, recent months have seen a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, the storming of the British Embassy, the downing of a US stealth drone, and threats to close the Strait of Hormuz. American observers have heard a lot about these events; what they haven’t heard about is the high likelihood that Iran will retaliate for what it views as acts of war.