The United States says its intelligence shows that Iran has enough nuclear fuel to make a single nuclear weapon -- known as "breakout capacity." But it appears that Tehran isn't taking the steps to reach that goal.
Radio Farda's Hossein Aryan spoke with Mark Fitzpatrick, the chief of the nonproliferation program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, about the significance of this development, and what the international community can do about it.
RFE/RL: Glyn Davies, the new UN ambassador to the IAEA in Vienna, is saying that Iran is approaching a "possible breakout capacity," and, if it decides to, it could convert its stockpile of LEU, or low-enriched uranium, to weapons-grade uranium. We know that Iran has slowed down its production and even the number of centrifuges, so how can we explain that, especially in light of comments by Mohamed el-Baradei, the director general of the IAEA, that the threat from Iran is not now very great.
Mark Fitzpatrick: Iran has not slowed down its production of low-enriched uranium. The output has remained steady. So in that sense, Iran has slowed down the acceleration of the uranium-enrichment production, but it is continuing a steady production. Meanwhile, Iran has continued to accelerate the installation of additional centrifuges. This is significant because it provides the basis for a future breakout capability, should Iran choose to expel inspectors and use the centrifuges for weapons production. This is one of the concerns of many countries about Iran's nuclear program. When the new U.S. ambassador in Vienna, Glyn Davies, spoke about Iran's stockpile of LEU, he was stating a fact that the fissile uranium content of the stockpiled uranium is sufficient for one nuclear weapon, should Iran choose to break out. So there does remain a concern. Meanwhile, Iran has yesterday put a package proposal to the great powers, but there's very little known about that package other than what Iran had said publicly, that it would not be discussing its own nuclear weapons program, but rather some vague global issues.
RFE/RL: In that context, we know that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said that Iran's nuclear file is closed. So the expectation is that he probably did not directly deal with or answer the questions raised by the international community and in the context of the UN Security Council. So if Iran is not going to answer it, where do we go from here?
Fitzpatrick: If indeed Iran's package yesterday [September 9] that it put to the E-3 Plus Three [ Britain, France and Germany, plus China, Russia, and the United States] followed what President Ahmadinejad had said -- that Iran would not be talking about its own nuclear program -- then I don't see any basis for negotiations. And where we go from here, then, would be that the other countries would talk about what additional forms of persuasion they could supply to strengthen the double option that has been put to Iran: either of cooperation and integration into the international community, or isolation because of its pursuit of uranium enrichment that is not necessary for civil nuclear energy but is useful for a nuclear weapons program.
RFE/RL: Some U.S. senators are considering a ban on the export of gasoline to Iran if things don't go well. Do you think that would be effective, especially after the recent visit by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to Iran in which he said his country would provide that gasoline?
Fitzpatrick: I think that if there was a ban on the export of refined petroleum to Iran that it would certainly be a sanction that would capture the attention of the Iranian leadership and of the Iranian public. Even though Venezuela said that it would supply some number of barrels of oil, it would not be sufficient to cover the loss from the major oil refineries, who presumably would follow the sanctions. I don't know whether this sanction would persuade the [Iranian] leadership to change its stance, but it certainly would be a sanction that would impose an economic penalty.
RFE/RL: Can we expect China and Russia to cooperate and take the same approach as the United States and the rest of the P-5 Plus One [five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States, plus Germany)?
Fitzpatrick: Russia and China are always reluctant to go along with the other major powers in the degree to which sanctions are imposed. But Russia and China do agree on the basic principle of sanctions. They agreed on four UN Security Council resolutions to date that have imposed sanctions. They always argue about the timing and the strength of those sanctions, but ultimately they have gone along. Most recently they have argued for not imposing a new round of sanctions right now. But I think if Iran continues to resist all forms of cooperation in meeting the mandate of the Security Council, and refuses to answer questions about its past nuclear activities that the IAEA has been seeking answers to, I think China and Russia probably will go along sooner or later with another round of UN sanctions.