Time, once again, to review the bidding (and the state of hysteria) over Iran’s nuclear program.
Let’s start with the piece in the New York Times on February 9 by William Broad, a science reporter, who analyzed the import of Iran’s high-profile announcement last week that it would start to refine its own low-enriched uranium (LEU) from the current 4 percent to 20 percent, for use in fuel rods for the Tehran medical reactor. Iran’s announcement, widely seen as defiant, was their riposte to demands that Iran make good on its October 1, 2009, deal with the United States and other world powers in the P5 + 1 group to ship its LEU abroad. That plan would have had the uranium enriched and turned into fuel rods in Russia and France, then shipped back to Iran for use in the medical reactor.
Broad raises alarms about the Iranian decision to go from 4 to 20 percent, calling it an "act of brinkmanship in a standoff with the West" and suggesting that, paradoxically, enriching uranium to 20 percent gets Iran "almost to the finish line" in producing material for a bomb. Even though highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a weapon would have to be something like 95 percent U-235, not 20 percent, Broad quotes technical experts who argue that getting to the 20 percent level takes 90 percent of the energy needed, making it a short step to bomb-grade material. He concludes by quoting David Albright of ISIS:
"David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a private organization in Washington that tracks nuclear proliferation, said the diminishing effort needed to enrich at higher levels meant Iran would need fewer working centrifuges.
"Mr. Albright said Iran would need only 500 to 1,000 centrifuges working for six months to enrich uranium from a level of 20 percent to that needed for a bomb, a tiny fraction of the number required to enrich to lower concentrations.
"The number of centrifuges is small enough that international inspectors and intelligence agencies would have an "extremely hard" time trying to detect the spinning machines if Iran hid them in a clandestine site, Mr. Albright said."
But how does that square with a blockbuster report in the Washington Post on February 11 suggesting that Iran’s nuclear enrichment program is faltering, plagued by mistakes, and saddled with decrepit, 1970s-era technology?
The Post piece, by Joby Warrick and Glenn Kessler, a draft ISIS report and other experts reporting that the number of Iran’s 8,700 centrifuges actually spinning has dropped precipitously from only 5,000 last May to 3,900 in November. The article also cites Albright, thus:
"At least through the end of 2009, the Natanz plant appears to have performed so poorly that sabotage cannot be ruled out as an explanation, according to a draft study by David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS)."
Sabotage, of course, presumably means that long-rumored effort by the United States and its allies to undermine Iran’s program covertly, by sending it defective materials and software infested with bugs and glitches. "It is well known that the United States and European intelligence agencies seek to place defective or bugged equipment into Iran’s smuggling networks," says the ISIS report. In any case, Iran’s program is breaking down and its uranium output is dropping — meaning, it appears, that President Ahmadinejad’s intention to enrich uranium from 4 to 20 percent may be a lot harder than it looks.
The Obama administration, even as it pushed for targeted sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), seems to want to avoid raising too many alarm bells. The Post today quotes Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, saying that Iran’s boasts are "based on politics, not on physics," adding: "We do not believe they have the capability to enrich to the degree to which they now say they are enriching."