On the occasion of Iran’s celebration of Nuclear Day on April 9, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, had big news for the people of Iran; they announced major breakthroughs for Iran’s nuclear program. The Nuclear Day declaration was accompanied by much pomp and ceremony.
The first piece of news involved the production of nuclear fuel. The Iranian president stated: “Iran’s nuclear authorities have announced that the various cycles of nuclear fuel management are in our grasp in a comprehensive and domestically produced way.” The central point of his declaration was an assertion regarding Iran’s capability to produce uranium pellets. Once the low-enriched uranium is taken out of the centrifuges, they are placed into these pellets, which are then placed in bundles. They are then placed inside a heavily insulated pressurized chamber in the reactor, as part of the process to create heat to turn the turbines in order to produce energy.
According to Aghazadeh, “Seven thousand centrifuges had been installed in an underground nuclear facility in Natanz.” Ahmadinejad declared that Iran had tested two new types of centrifuges with “a capacity a few times higher than the existing centrifuges” currently in use.
The international community, especially Israel and France, were openly concerned by Ahmadinejad’s statement, which they interpreted as a sign of defiance. The most interesting reaction came from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said, “We don’t know what to believe about the Iranian program.” Clinton’s statement was a diplomatic way of saying, “We don’t believe the bombastic nuclear claims made by the Iranian president.” She would be absolutely right. The statements made in such a grandiose manner by Ahmadinejad and Aghazadeh may have been new to the people of Iran. But to the free world, they were old recycled news. The goal was to slap some cosmetic sheen on President Ahmadinejad’s election campaign.
Iran’s capability to produce uranium pellets is nothing new to the international community, which was made aware of this development back in February by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The Iranian press, probably on the orders of the president and the supreme leader, did not print it at the time, so that it could be used to boost Ahmadinejad’s stature on Nuclear Day.
Furthermore, Ahmadinejad’s claim that Iran had tested two types of new centrifuges was a fact declared by the IAEA as long ago as September 2008; there was certainly nothing new about this announcement.
Meanwhile, in a desperate bid to strengthen Iran’s position before negotiations with the U.S. and to make Ahmadinejad look good, other Iranian lawmakers decided to jump on the bandwagon by making even more bombastic Nuclear Day statements.
A notable example was a declaration made by Alaeddin Borujerdi, the head of Iran’s parliamentary commission of national security and foreign policy, who stated that “the nuclear fuel cycle has been practically completed.”
To the Iranian public and to the international community, it may sound like Iran now has the capability to start running nuclear power stations. However, what Bourojerdi does not purposely mention is that while Iran may have the knowledge, it by no means has the capacity to do so. In order to make nuclear fuel for a power station, 30,000 to 40,000 centrifuges are needed to work in cascades in order to make sufficient low-enriched uranium. According to its own estimates, Iran only has 7000 centrifuges installed. This is by no means sufficient.
What Iran’s leaders also don’t say is how many of these are spinning and enriching uranium.
The IAEA does. According to its September 2008 report, Iran had 6,000 centrifuges, but “only 3,964 centrifuges were actively enriching uranium.” The rest were either empty or undergoing vacuum or dry run tests. So not only is the number of centrifuges disputable, so is Iran’s ability to make the required low-enriched uranium to power up nuclear stations.
This doesn’t mean that there is no grounds for worry. What should concern the international community is that although the current number of centrifuges are not sufficient to produce fuel for power stations, they are sufficient to enable Iran to make a bomb.
This will not be easy. The centrifuges in Natanz are under the supervision of the IAEA and under the 24-hour surveillance of its cameras. Nevertheless, the knowledge Iran has acquired in the enrichment of uranium can be used in secret facilities.
The nuclear program is the main leverage Tehran has in negotiations with the U.S. It is extremely unlikely that Iran will turn the clock back on its nuclear program. Although issues such as Iranian influence in Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Gaza may be up for grabs, nukes are not expected to be part of any compromises offered by Tehran.
President Ahmadinejad has essentially ruined the Iranian economy, a fact which has greatly damaged his popularity. He continues to try to use the nuclear program as a tool to improve his position. The statements about Iran’s nuclear achievements increase proportionally with allegations of corruption and mismanagement against him. Ahmadinejad literally has nothing else positive to show about his four year term as president.
President Obama should use these statements, and any intransigence shown by Tehran in negotiations, as justification to impose tougher sanctions. For real results, sanctions will focus on the wealth of Iran’s leadership. By naming and shaming companies owned by Iran’s leadership and Revolutionary Guards in places such as Dubai, he would strike hard at the supreme leader and his cronies who make millions from illicit deals. Although they don’t care about the suffering of the people of Iran, Iranian politicians do care about their own pocketbooks. These businesses and their profits are important to them, and they are far more likely to compromise over the nuclear program in a shorter space of time.
Striking at corrupt politicians in Iran and their business interests abroad would put America firmly on the side of the Iranian people. There is nothing that disgusts them more than government corruption, against which they are defenseless. Punishing their crooked politicians would mean much more to the hearts and minds of the people of Iran than any new year’s message.