Iran has a new president, but does it have a new nuclear Policy?
Updated June 18, 2013
On June 15, Iran surprised the world by electing a new president seen as a relative moderate. Hassan Rowhani, a cleric, won an unexpected majority over five other candidates considered more conservative than himself. For those concerned about Iran’s nuclear efforts, however, there was little to celebrate. Power over nuclear matters will remain exclusively in the hands of Iran’s unelected, but supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, a man who has shown little interest in forging a nuclear compromise. And Mr. Rowhani himself, in a speech in 2004, affirmed his belief that Iran’s nuclear effort should be driven forward until the world “has no choice” but to accept it.
Iran has been successfully pursuing this nuclear strategy ever since. In 2004, negotiators worked to convince Iran to fully suspend uranium enrichment. Today's negotiators are just hoping for a diminution in Iran's most sensitive nuclear work and stockpile. And they are failing to achieve even this narrow objective.
Mr. Rowhani's election followed by a month the collapse of the last round of talks aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear progress. The International Atomic Energy Agency met with Iran in Vienna on May 15 to try to resolve questions over possible "military dimensions" of Tehran’s nuclear efforts. This was the latest of about a dozen meetings held over the past year. The talks went nowhere and the IAEA’s director, in a speech on June 2, concluded that "for some time now we have been going around in circles."
Also on May 15, in Istanbul, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton met with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, for their first discussions since a failed round of talks in April. The May talks also ended in failure, even after concessions were made to Iran by the P5+1 negotiating group, which includes Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States. In February, this group asked Iran to "significantly restrict" its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, and suspend enrichment at its fortified underground Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant, in exchange for relief from sanctions on trade in precious metals and petrochemical products. In earlier talks, the P5+1 had taken a tougher line, calling for all 20 percent uranium to be shipped out of the country and for the Fordow plant to be shut down.
Faced with this lack of progress, the U.S. Congress has begun to consider a sharp escalation in its sanctions campaign: bills were introduced calling for a global ban on Iranian oil and for a de facto commercial embargo. Under the proposed measures, countries that do not stop buying Iranian crude would be denied access to the U.S. banking system. A recent study by two groups, Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) and Roubini Global Economics, concluded that 2013 is a viable year for measures that would reduce the supply of Iranian oil by roughly 1.5 million bpd. According to the study, such a reduction would not drive up oil prices or have a negative impact on the global economy. (See full report here.) Measures being considered by Congress would put more pressure on countries like China, which have been exempted from existing sanctions without consistently decreasing oil purchases. For instance in May, the same month a sanctions waiver was renewed by the State Department, China nearly doubled its imports of Iranian oil, as compared to April's figures.
In addition, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation on May 8 to close a loophole in existing sanctions. Iran would be denied access to an estimated $100 billion in foreign currency reserves, mostly euros, parked in foreign banks. This is the latest in a series of measures aimed at restricting Iran's ability to conduct business abroad. On June 3, President Barack Obama signed a new executive order sanctioning foreign financial institutions that deal with Iran's currency outside of Iran. And on July 1, the U.S. will begin enforcing a global ban on gold trading -- another avenue Iran has been exploiting to evade financial sanctions. Also on July 1, companies that continue to deal with Iran's shipping or shipbuilding sectors -- by, for instance, delivering non-sanctioned goods to an Iranian port -- could wind up on the U.S. blacklist. This already has led some companies to stop accepting any cargo to or from Iran.
Amid these developments, Iran has continued to build its nuclear wherewithal -- most recently with the installation of advanced IR-2m centrifuges at its commercial-scale enrichment facility at Natanz and with the installation of key equipment at the Arak heavy water reactor. According to an IAEA report in May, four cascades of IR-2m centrifuges have been installed, an increase of 500 since February. The head of Iran’s atomic energy organization has announced that a total of 3,000 would be operational "in the near future." The IR-2m can enrich uranium at a rate several times faster than the first generation IR-1 centrifuges now in use. As for the reactor, Iran claims that commissioning will take place in early 2014. Once it is operating, the reactor will provide Iran with a source of plutonium, contained within the reactor's spent fuel.
Iran also has expanded the number of its older IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz, according to the IAEA report. More than 13,500 such centrifuges are now installed. Approximately 9,000 of these machines were enriching uranium to the level of 3.5 percent U-235 when IAEA inspectors last visited the plant. As of mid-May, Iran's stockpile of this low-enriched uranium gas contained some 6,300 kg, an amount sufficient -- with further enrichment and processing -- to fuel six implosion bombs according to the Wisconsin Project's estimates. For details, see "Iran's Nuclear Timetable."
In addition to this low-enriched stockpile, Iran has a growing stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, which is much closer to weapon-grade. The IAEA reported that Iran has now produced 324 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium gas, about 40 percent of which has been converted to research reactor fuel. The Wisconsin Project estimates that the remaining stockpile would be sufficient to fuel one nuclear weapon, if the material were further enriched. Media reports, citing Israeli sources, estimate that Iran would need about 240 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium gas to fuel one weapon.
Iran’s effort to produce 20 percent enriched uranium is based principally at Fordow. Iran is now enriching uranium in only 696 of the nearly 3,000 first generation IR-1 centrifuges installed there. If fully operational, the plant could produce about 40 kg of this 20 percent material each month, enough to fuel approximately three nuclear weapons annually, according to Wisconsin Project estimates, if the material were further enriched to weapon-grade.
Questions about Iran’s suspected work on a nuclear weapon remain open, despite repeated meetings between the IAEA and Iran. In April, the IAEA suggested for the first time that work on nuclear weaponry had continued to the present day. In an April 2 interview with the Associated Press, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said the agency had "information indicating that Iran was engaged in activities relevant to the development of nuclear explosive devices in the past and now."
Also in April, Mr. Amano expressed frustration at Iran's continued refusal to allow international inspectors access to Iran’s Parchin site, a military installation suspected of hosting nuclear weapon research. Restrictions by Iran on access to the site would hamper inspectors, according to Amano, who said "if our hands and legs are bound, we can't do our job." According to the Agency's May report, Iran has continued sanitizing Parchin by removing soil, spreading and leveling new material, and paving over "a significant proportion" of the site.