What Iran's nuclear milestone means

Iran's nuclear program is cause for concern, but not for the reasons you think.

By Jacqueline Shire

There are plenty of reasons to pay close attention to Iran's nuclear progress, but the new International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report showing that the country has accumulated 1010 kg of low-enriched uranium is not at the top of my list.

That's not to say that this milestone is insignificant. We now know that Iran has accumulated enough low-enriched uranium (LEU) to yield sufficient high-enriched uranium for a single nuclear weapon should Iran decide to seize the material, which is under IAEA safeguards, further enrich it, and in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, use the material in a nuclear warhead. Luckily, given the international crisis this action would certainly provoke, Iran is unlikely to attempt the feat.

We've also learned that Iran has achieved its objective of successfully operating several thousand centrifuges. This has been a gradual process that began in earnest two years ago.

The report generated further concern because of a discrepancy in the accounting of Iran's uranium. According to senior U.N. officials, the discrepancy, which resulted in the underreporting of LEU in the November 2008 report by 209 kg, was an engineering miscalculation on Iran's part and not a deliberate attempt to mislead the IAEA. The net effect is that Iran crossed the so-called breakout threshold a few months earlier than expected. 

While legitimate cause for worry, these headlines obscure other equally important developments. One is that although Iran has installed upwards of 5,400 centrifuges, it continues to operate just under 4,000 of them, bringing into operation only one additional cascade of centrifuges since November. Is Iran suddenly more attuned to the optics of its nuclear program? Hard to say, especially given that it continues to stonewall the IAEA on access to a heavy water reactor under construction at Arak, and refuses to even discuss a set of documents that allegedly show research into nuclear warhead design.

Potentially more troubling is Iran's refusal to allow IAEA inspection of nuclear facilities not covered under traditional safeguards, in particular places where centrifuges are manufactured and stored. The consequence is that the IAEA has little knowledge of how many centrifuges Iran is manufacturing and where they are. It is conceivable therefore that Iran could make centrifuges that are not destined for the inspected site at Natanz, but for a clandestine facility. Because of another change that Iran unilaterally made to its safeguards relationship with the IAEA, it has declared that it will only inform the IAEA of new nuclear facilities six months before they become operational.

These are the fine-print details of Iran's relationship with Vienna that don't garner flashy headlines, but are the real reason to keep a close eye on Iran's actions. 

Jacqueline Shire is a senior analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security and a widely cited expert on Iran's nuclear program.

Photo: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images