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What Next In Iran Nuclear Standoff?

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (center) inspects the Natanz enrichment plant in March 2007.

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (center) inspects the Natanz enrichment plant in March 2007.

When world powers and Iran met this week in Geneva, the key immediate result was Tehran’s agreement to let inspectors visit the secret uranium-enrichment plant whose existence is the latest surprise in the Iran nuclear crisis.

The agreement helps calm tensions for now. But it also shows the ever increasing stakes in the standoff.

Where once, it seemed enough to press Iran to stop uranium enrichment, the challenge now is to assure that Iran does not have clandestine nuclear facilities that make diplomacy irrelevant. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel spoke with nuclear expert Shannon Kile of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) about the new difficulties.

RFE/RL: The permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany met with Iran in Geneva in the wake of a major surprise revelation that Iran was secretly building a new uranium-enrichment plant near Qom. Iran says it voluntarily made the revelation last month, but the West says Tehran did so only to avoid Western exposure of the plant’s existence. Is this plant, which has been under construction since 2006 at a former Revolutionary Guards missile base, likely to be the only secret plant of this kind? Or does it suggest the existence of a larger, clandestine nuclear-facilities network in Iran?

Shannon Kile: I think the consensus among nuclear analysts is that this site could not be a stand-alone nuclear facility. It was an undeclared facility. Now it has been exposed and the Iranians are declaring it, but I don't think that anyone seriously believes that it would be the only facility of its type.

It would almost certainly, for example, need another source of fuel other than what Iran is already building (and is known to the IAEA). That means, perhaps, that there is a clandestine Iranian conversion facility [to convert uranium to uranium hexafluoride, the feed stock for the enrichment process] somewhere in Iran. This is bringing back a lot of interest in the so-called Green Salt Project, the document which the IAEA inadvertently discovered a couple of years ago and that basically was a plan for manufacturing uranium tetraflouride or "green salt," which is the precursor for uranium hexafluoride that would go into a centrifuge plant.

RFE/RL: In many ways, the revelation of the secret facility seems like a return to the earliest days of the Iran nuclear crisis, when the West learned in 2002 that Tehran had a secret uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz. Since then, much of the focus of international diplomacy has been to make Iran stop uranium enrichment at Natanz, something Tehran has refused to do. How much does the existence of yet another, hitherto secret, facility change things?

Kile: The revelation of the Qom facility at least does change the focus of the debate coming up. It no longer is going to be on Natanz and how many centrifuges. It is going to be more on how can we have confidence that Iran doesn't have undeclared nuclear activities under way. And that really is going to be the difficult question to answer.

It seems to me that this really emphasizes the importance of Iran opening its nuclear program to the IAEA and also enhancing the investigatory powers of the IAEA in Iran. First and foremost, that means that Iran really needs to adhere to the provisions of the additional protocol [which Tehran has signed, but not ratified]. And that is important because that gives the IAEA enhanced investigatory powers. It allows the IAEA to investigate suspected sites where nuclear activities may be taking place but where there is no direct connection to safeguarded nuclear material. So I think this is really what the focus of the international community's efforts needs to be now.

RFE/RL: How much could a small, secret plant like the one built near Qom actually advance any efforts by Iran to create highly enriched uranium, which can be used for nuclear warheads? Western intelligence estimates the Qom would accommodate some 3,000 centrifuges. Does that size tell us anything about the plant’s intended use or capabilities?

Shannon Kile (file photo)
Iran initially claimed it was for industrial-centrifuge enrichment; obviously it is not big enough for an industrial facility. We don't know what type of centrifuges Iran is installing or whether they are even beginning to install centrifuges at the plant, whether they are the old so-called P-1 centrifuges or whether they are more advanced centrifuge designs.That remains to be seen and, hopefully, we will know that fairly soon. But that makes a difference in how much enriched uranium that facility would be capable of producing. At a minimum it looks like it would be capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for at least one nuclear weapon on an annual basis.

RFE/RL: When one starts thinking about new and small enrichment facilities being built secretly, one can’t help but think of an escalating cat-and-mouse game. This facility was built by tunneling deep into a mountainside -- a big construction project -- and was guarded by a very visible antiaircraft battery. But could such facilities also be hidden in ordinary buildings, making them harder to detect?

Kile: A centrifuge facility with small scale production is very easy to conceal. It doesn't have a lot of the tell-tale signatures that, say, a plutonium-processing facility would have. It is not going to emit certain signature elements from reprocessing like krypton-85 that can be picked up by airborne samplers. It doesn't require a huge drain on the electrical grid, and that is one way to detect hidden facilities, by looking at a sudden use of electrical power. So it is definitely possible to conceal a facility like this in an ordinary building.

RFE/RL: Iran is believed to have mastered the uranium-enrichment process up to the level of about 5 percent. That is enough to produce fuel for nuclear reactors, but it is still short of the level of 90 percent enrichment needed to produce material for a nuclear warhead. Could Iran reach that level of enrichment in a small facility like the one near Qom?

Kile: That could definitely be achieved in an undeclared facility, which could be a quite compact size and easily concealed. The task of producing weapons-grade highly enriched uranium at such a plant would be facilitated if Iran could introduce low enriched uranium into the centrifuges from existing stocks.

RFE/RL: All the parties involved in the Iran nuclear crisis understand that this is a race against the clock. Is it possible to know how much more time Iran needs to master all the steps toward acquiring a nuclear weapon, if that is Tehran’s intention? Or are there too many uncertainties to make an accurate prediction?

Kile: When you look at the totality of designing the warhead, designing a delivery vehicle that could actually deliver the warhead, there are so many uncertainties that I think it is not really meaningful to talk about a timeline for Iran to achieve a breakout capability. I think everyone, though, does concede that it could happen in the next three to five years.

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