Recent negotiations with Iran have rightly focused on the most immediately alarming aspects of its nuclear program.
The spotlight has been on its uranium enrichment to 20 per cent purity – on the cusp of being weapons grade – and the deeply buried facility at Fordow, which happens to be too small for commercial purposes but the right size for a weapons program.
Placing exclusive emphasis on these dangers, however, obscures other worrying installations inside Iran. Often forgotten is the Arak research reactor that seems on track for completion next year. The United Nations Security Council ordered Iran to stop building this plant because it could provide the ability to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
There are two paths to a nuclear weapon. Like all other nations that have pursued the ability to make a bomb, Iran is following both. Arak is a classic dual-use facility. It will be used for medical isotope production and other civilian purposes. But its size and character make it ideal for producing a bomb’s worth of plutonium a year. India, Israel and North Korea all used similar reactors for their first nuclear weapons.
I do not wish to sound alarmist. To render the plutonium usable in a bomb, it would have to be reprocessed using technology that Iran does not have and that it has offered to forgo. Arak is monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which would blow the whistle if Iran were to extract any spent fuel rods for reprocessing – even if Tehran could build the plant.
But what if Iran were to expel the inspectors, as North Korea did, and acquire the reprocessing technology from Pyongyang? By then, the option of a military strike on an operating reactor would present enormous complications because of the radiation that would be spread. Some think that Israel has drawn its red line for military action before Arak comes on line, which Iran says will be next year.
The other facility that is overlooked is the large underground enrichment plant at Natanz. Here, Iran produces low-enriched uranium at the 5 per cent purity needed to run nuclear power stations. Its experts have now amassed a big enough stockpile to make five nuclear weapons, if the material was further enriched to weapons grade.
Meanwhile, Iran is sharply increasing the capacity of Natanz by installing more and better centrifuges. The level of enrichment there is still appropriate for nuclear-power stations. But Iran only has one such plant – called Bushehr – which gets all its fuel from Russia. That means there is no civilian need for Iran to continue enriching uranium at all.
Remember, the disclosure of Natanz and Arak in 2002 sparked the Iranian nuclear crisis. If Iran did try to produce weapons-grade uranium, this would be discovered by the IAEA inspectors. But again, what if the inspectors are expelled or thwarted? Until an agreement is reached that lays these concerns to rest, Iran’s growing stockpiles of enriched uranium and capacity to produce plutonium, are dangers.
That is why the six world powers, now negotiating with Iran in Kazakhstan, are not willing to relax sanctions in exchange for interim measures. Iran has offered merely to suspend 20 per cent enrichment, for which it demands that all sanctions be lifted and its ‘‘right’’ to enrich be acknowledged.
If the talks are to make progress, the six powers will have to be ready to remove more sanctions than they have suggested to date. But the biggest steps must wait a comprehensive agreement that addresses all the threatening features of Iran’s nuclear program.
London Daily Telegraph
Mark Fitzpatrick is director of non-proliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies