February 20, 2012

Iran Takes Another Step

Originally published in The Weekly Standard Blog

The prospect of Iran achieving nuclear breakout capability is becoming more imminent. Reports this past weekend indicate that Iran has built the infrastructure needed for operating more efficient and advanced centrifuges at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant. The Iranian regime will be able to dramatically shorten the time required to produce fuel for a nuclear weapon once it installs and begins operating these centrifuges. In addition, Iran could expand its stockpile of enriched uranium up to 20 percent faster using advanced centrifuges at Fordow.

The press reports suggest that the infrastructure at Fordow could support several thousand advanced centrifuges. Iran has previously told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it intends to operate around 3,000 centrifuges there. Its current declared inventory of advanced centrifuges, the IR-2 and IR-4, are located at the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant. The IAEA noted in its last report that Iran installed a full cascade of 164 IR-2 centrifuges and smaller cascades of IR-2 and IR-4 centrifuges at Natanz. Any additional inventory of advanced centrifuges has not been accounted for in previous IAEA reports, possibly due to Iran’s refusal to grant the IAEA access to facilities where it builds centrifuges. The diplomats briefing journalists on this development also indicated that the reconfiguration of cascades at Fordow for the production of weapons-grade uranium could be completed “within days.”

The timeline for the installation and operation of advanced centrifuges at Fordow remains unclear. But this development is a concrete sign that Iran is setting the conditions for an accelerated breakout capability at its enrichment facility buried inside a small mountain. We assessed in January that Iran would have enough 19.75 percent enriched uranium by June to be within two and one half months of producing enough weapons-grade fuel for one 15-kiloton atomic weapon. Iran will be able to move both ends of this breakout window to the left once it begins operating advanced centrifuges at Fordow because it will more rapidly produce 19.75 percent enriched uranium and it will reduce the time required to enrich that material further to weapons-grade levels.

Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, have warned that Iran is approaching a “zone of immunity” in its nuclear weapons program this year. That zone is the point at which the program has advanced, in technical and physical terms, such that a military attack against the facilities would be ineffective or would have a more limited impact. Iran’s preparation to install advanced centrifuges at Fordow is a dangerous step forward toward that zone of immunity and an indication of Iran’s determination to acquire the capability to field atomic weapons despite increasing international sanctions.