President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad revealed in a speech just a few hours ago what is probably the ‘stunning punch’ he promised to land on the West. According to the Washington Post, the Iranian president announced his country was now a “nuclear state”. It is not quite true, but it is getting there. Ahmedinajad’s claim was based on his assertion that it had produced its first package of 20% enriched uranium. “We have the capability to enrich uranium more than 20 percent or 80 percent but we don’t enrich (to this level) because we don’t need it,” he said. What is the significance of the 20%?
Michael Adler, who has been following the development of Iran’s uranium enrichment capability, anticipated the Iran would soon announce the 20% enrichment level. This is not yet the finish line but it is on the homestretch towards reaching the 90% required for weapons grade material. The real menace in Ahmedinajad’s announcement is more subtle. By reaching the 20% mark Teheran is now signalling to anyone who wants to make trouble for America that it is open for business. Iran now has proven its centrifuge technology, at least up to a point. Adler described the calculus:
If this were poker, one would have to say Iran is calling Washington’s bluff. Or treating U.S. policy as if it were a bluff. One could read the Iranian answer as: Threaten sanctions, will you? Try to hardball us on a uranium deal we don’t really like? Think we’re down and out because there are anti-government riots in our streets? OK, we’ll not just not cut down on the uranium enrichment that has you so worried, we’ll increase it to make material closer to weapons grade than we ever did before….
Moving forward with enrichment would be a great learning experience for Iran in developing its nuclear capabilities. It has some 4,000 centrifuges enriching uranium at Natanz, with some 4,000 more turning in a vacuum or ready to go. There are reports that Iran has hit a bump in its program, as the centrifuges it is using are fragile. Upping enrichment, which would take months to get started, would give it a chance to expand its research into centrifuges and how they work.
The West reposed its hope in the strategy of limiting Iran’s raw material, offering to swap out some of Teheran’s uranium for fuel in an effort to reduce its feedstock. Why not take the fuel, the West asserted, if all you want is civilian nuclear power? The Washington Post article summarized what the West was unsuccessfully trying to achieve.
Western powers blame Iran for rejecting an internationally endorsed plan to export its enriched uranium and have it enriched further and returned to the country in the form of fuel rods for the Tehran reactor – and in broader terms for turning down other overtures meant to diminish concerns about its nuclear agenda.
Iran, in turn, asserts it had no choice but to start enriching to higher levels because its suggested changes to the international plan were rejected.
The uranium swap strategy has fallen flat and Iran as Adler anticipated, has upped the ante. Now international uranium suppliers who might have been hanging back uncertain that Teheran could solve the technical problems are now recalculating the their positions. With Iran on the homestretch the probabilities are that unless some unforeseen contingency stops them that they will gallop past the tape. Nobody wants to back a loser in a contest. Who is that loser? What Ahmedinjad is now signalling to all comers is that he will succeed in giving Iran a bomb and Barack Obama will not be able to stop him. After wasting time trying to engage it, and throwing the Lebanese and the Iranian protesters under the bus to improve its bona fides, Washington finds itself with a dwindling set of options, none of which are easy. Can Washington still stop Iran from getting the bomb without running huge risks? What odds would you give Teheran?