Iran said last week it is now capable of "industrial-scale" uranium enrichment. The fear is Iran has begun expanding its capabilities so it can make atomic bombs. Iran's Atomic Energy agency said that the facility at Natanz plans to install 3,000 centrifuges in the near future and has plans for 50,000 which goes way beyond anything previously announced by Iran.
So the question is whether the Iranians really are making enriched uranium at an "industrial scale?" The IAEA and the Russians say maybe not. The IAEA went so far as to impolitely point out that Iran has only hundreds of uranium enrichment centrifuges at work and not 50,000.
A rich interpretation of the Russian perspective is that the Iranian's are simply faking it. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said in a statement Russia was "unaware of any recent technological breakthroughs in the Iranian nuclear program that would change the format of its enrichment effort." He should know. The Russian government is helping build Iran's only nuclear reactor at Bushehr. The Russians are more up to speed on what Iran is doing with its nuclear program than anyone else except perhaps for the IAEA.
For their part Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Moscow, "We haven't got a confirmation yet that they have actually begun uranium enrichment at the new cascades of centrifuges." The Bushehr nuclear plant is scheduled to begin operations in March 2008. Six months prior to that date, about October 2007, the Russians are scheduled to deliver nuclear fuel for the reactor.
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington and a former United Nations weapons inspector, agrees Iran might be bluffing. He told the NY Times Iran seems more interested in scoring diplomatic points than in making technical advances.
“Ahmadinejad is trying to demonstrate facts on the ground and negotiate from a stronger position. If they enriched today it would destroy the ability to go forward on any negotiation. Such enrichment would escalate the confrontation. It raises all kinds of worst-case scenarios that, if not managed correctly, could escalate up to a military action.”To get more to the point of whether Iran is blowing diplomatic smoke, the IAEA emphasized it has inspectors on the ground in Iran. IAEA's director Mohamed El Baradei confirmed that IAEA inspectors were in Iran and could provide the first independent assessment of Iran's assertion.
Two IAEA inspectors arrived in Iran this week . During their formal inspection visit they will investigate the status of uranium reprocessing work at the Natanz enrichment facility. Their conclusions will shape the next IAEA report to the UN Security Council on Iranian NPT compliance, to be delivered following the nuclear watchdog's board meeting in late May.
If Iran doesn't let the inspectors see the centrifuges it claims it has working, or the inspectors confirm the number of operational machines are in the hundreds, and not tens of thousands, it could be a significant setback for that country's public credibility on matters nuclear and particularly that of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who has been the chief nuclear boaster and purveyor of the "stick it" message to the UN.
Another problem for Iran is its not so subtle threat to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran's threat to withdraw from the NPT is also likely a bluff and a bad one at that because of the ramifications if it follows through. This week Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani warned that Tehran could withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty if the international community imposes further pressure over its nuclear program. A third round of UN sanctions might occur after the IAEA's report to the UN Security Council due in late May.
Given all the other inflated rhetoric coming out of Iran, leaving the NPT seems like a particularly bad idea. Withdrawing from the NPT would be equivalent to saying that their intentions are not peaceful. It would be a clear signal that Iran's nuclear program is for weapons purposes. This opens up a host of hostile possibilities none of which are good for regional political stability in the Mideast or the price of oil. While the US has repeatedly denied it plans to use military force against Iran, that country's neighbors are not be happy about the prospect of having a new nuclear power next door especially one that also threatens to drop its commitments in the NPT.
The final debunking of Iran's boast also came from the Russians. "We have heard the Iranian president's statement and have adopted a serious attitude to what is going on in relation to the Iranian nuclear program," Lavrov said. "But we would like to proceed from facts, not from emotional political gestures."
Here's a quick interpretation of diplomatic speak. In Texas that might translate as a a plainer description of Iran's uranium enrichment program and its latest round of bellicose claims. In reality the Russians and the IAEA say Iran's nuclear claims are "all hat and no cattle." Can anyone say that in Farsi? Does Iran get the message even without the translation?