COMMENT Spinning Iran's centrifuges
By Yousaf Butt
Consider yourself warned - "[I]n the next few years Iran will be in position to
detonate a nuclear device," so writes Ray Takeyh, confidently, in a recent
Washington Post OpEd . Why? Because the Iranian government willingly
informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it would begin
installing additional centrifuges with higher capacity to enrich uranium. 
Just like fertilizer can be used to increase crop yields - or make bombs -
uranium is a dual use material.
Uranium enrichment has been conflated with nuclear weaponization so often that
it has morphed into a virtual bogeyman bomb itself - an absolutely
impermissible activity for the likes of Iran to pursue. This was not always the
case. In irony
that only history can muster, Iran's nuclear program was kicked off in the
1950s with the full encouragement and support of the United States, under the
auspices of president Dwight D Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program. 
In 1970, the US proposed installing 23 nuclear power plants in Iran by the year
2000. A 1976 directive by then-president Gerald Ford offered Iran a US-built
reprocessing facility for extracting plutonium from nuclear reactor fuel,
another key ingredient for making nuclear bombs.  This "nuclear fuel-cycle"
infrastructure is precisely the type of technology the US is now keen to keep
out of Iran.
While it would be nice if Iran stopped enriching uranium, does the
international community have any right to insist on that? Unfortunately, none
of treaties and legal agreements that Iran is party to have changed since the
time of the shah: what was legal then is legal now. 
Iran is a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and, as such,
is entitled to enrich uranium under IAEA safeguards, which it does. Argentina,
Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, the Netherlands, Pakistan,
Russia, the United Kingdom and the US all enrich uranium without any fuss.
In Brazil's case, there actually ought to be some fuss: their leaders have
publicly expressed great interest in nuclear weapons  and have - unlike Iran
- restricted IAEA inspectors from full access to their main uranium enrichment
Uranium enrichment is useful for generating the fuel for nuclear power plants,
and for making radioisotopes for medical and agricultural uses - and, yes, for
nuclear weapons as well. Asking how many years Iran is from making a bomb only
makes sense if we know - or suspect that - Iran has a nuclear weapons
But earlier this year, the US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper
released a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the Iranian nuclear
program that could settle this question. 
This document represents the consensus view of 16 US intelligence agencies.
Although the content of the new NIE is classified, Clapper confirmed in senate
questioning that he has a "high level of confidence" that Iran "has not made a
decision as of this point to restart its nuclear weapons program". 
This jibes with the Intelligence community's 2007 NIE, the unclassified version
of which publicly stated that Iran wrapped up its nuclear weapons program in
2003. Recent State Department cables provided by WikiLeaks back this up - for
instance State Department officials confirmed that some rehashed IAEA reports
of suspicious Iranian activities in 2004 were "consistent with the 2003
weaponization halt assessment, since some activities were wrapping up in 2004".
To be clear, what the NIE and the State Department cables refer to as Iran's
"nuclear weapons program" (or "weaponization") pre-2003 was some possible - but
disputed - evidence of research by Iranian scientists having to do building and
potentially delivering a bomb, not a full-blown actual bomb factory.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient who spent more than a decade
as the director of the IAEA, recently told investigative journalist Seymour
Hersh that he had not "seen a shred of evidence that Iran has been weaponizing,
in terms of building nuclear-weapons facilities and using enriched materials
... I don't believe Iran is a clear and present danger. All I see is the hype
about the threat posed by Iran." 
Indeed, every year, the IAEA has confirmed that Iran has complied with its
nuclear materials' accountancy. There has never been any diversion of nuclear
material into any alleged weapons program. Ever.
So, unless Iran starts a real nuclear weapons program it will never make the
bomb - no matter how much enrichment takes place.
The only "evidence" of Iran's nuclear weapons program is its refusal to grant
the IAEA completely unfettered access to whatever facilities the IAEA would
like to inspect. But since the Iranian government has not ratified the
"Additional Protocol" agreement it has no obligation to open every door to the
Pretty much everything the US and its allies have done with regards to Iran's
nuclear program has been counter-productive: the sanctions have improved Iran's
domestic scientific capabilities. 
The assassination of Iranian scientists has led to one of the victims-to-be -
Professor Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani - to be named head of the Iran's Atomic
Energy Organization and therefore, automatically, one of the vice-presidents of
the country.  And cyber-warfare, like the STUXNET virus suspected to be the
work of US and Israel,  has not made a significant dent in Iran's
enrichment capabilities: to the contrary, the Iranians have reportedly begun
deploying second- and third-generation centrifuges which may boost their
enrichment capability three-fold. 
So what to do?
Call off the cyber-warfare. Call off the assassinations. Call off the
Not only are United Nations sanctions counterproductive, they are not even
legal. The UN charter clearly outlines the conditions needed to kick off such
sanctions - only after a determination of "the existence of any threat to the
peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression" is found, something that has
never been done.
Far from marching towards making a nuclear bomb, Iran has repeatedly offered to
place additional restrictions on its nuclear program well in excess of its
legal obligations, including opening the program entirely to joint US
participation and limiting the number of centrifuges they operate. More
recently they agreed to a Turkish-Brazilian brokered deal to export their
enriched uranium for fabrication into reactor fuel abroad. In each case, the US
deliberately undermined or ignored these offers.
The underhanded way in which the US and its allies are misusing the IAEA to
issue trumped up reports about Iran's alleged - and it should be stressed many
years' past - "intransigence" over possible military activities threatens the
very legitimacy of that agency.
The 118 nations that make up the non-aligned movement (NAM) - ie the real
"international community" - have raised howls (or, at least, what passes for
"howls" in diplomatic circles) about how politicized the agency has become
In a statement read during an IAEA board of governors meeting, representatives
of the NAM nations noted "with concern, the possible implications of the
continued departure from standard verification language in the summary of the
report of the director general [Yukio Amano]". 
As it turns out, Amano himself comes with some baggage attached. Leaked cables
cast him as "solidly in the US court" on Iran. . To save the legitimacy of
the IAEA, Amano should give serious thought to gracefully resigning his post.
Surely, Iran should be stopped - but only when it does things that are illegal.
A lot of dust has been kicked up recently because Iran has expressed interest
in enriching uranium to 19.75% as fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor so that
it can produce medical isotopes. (Normally, reactors used for generating
nuclear power use uranium of 3.5% enrichment.) But anything less than 20% is
considered low-enriched uranium (LEU) by the IAEA - not highly enriched uranium
(HEU) as some have reported.
And in fact there is nothing in the law stopping Iran from enriching uranium to
any level it pleases, so long as it does so under IAEA safeguards.
The most objective reading of Iran's intentions is that it may be stockpiling
enough LEU to give itself a "break-out" option to weaponize in the future -
unfortunately for the US and its allies, there is nothing illegal about that.
The fault lies with NPT that allows such behavior - not with Iran. The US may
as well insist that Iran also not produce fertilizer since that, too, can be
used in bombs.
Iran could certainly take its stock of LEU and enrich it to a grade required
for making bombs, but its LEU is under the surveillance of the IAEA - and has
been for decades.
Diverting this material for military purposes would be discovered by the IAEA.
So either Iran could cheat and get caught, or it could kick out the IAEA
inspectors.  These, then, should be the real "red-lines" for taking any
tougher actions on Iran.
Yousaf Butt is a nuclear physicist and is currently serving as a
scientific consultant to the Federation of American Scientists on global
security issues. Previously, he was a fellow on the Committee on International
Security and Arms Control at the US National Academy of Sciences, and on the
Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.