Iran Gets Desperate

Tehran’s blustery plans to build 10 more uranium-enrichment plants are a dramatic overreaction to international condemnation, diplomats tell Michael Adler. Are Western negotiators dedicated to diplomacy miscalculating?

11.29.09 11:40 PM ET

Iran’s plan to build 10 more plants for enriching uranium “sounds desperate,” a European diplomat tells The Daily Beast.

The Iranian announcement Sunday, coming after the U.N. nuclear watchdog condemned the Islamic republic for hiding nuclear work and urged it to stop building an enrichment plant the international community discovered in September, “doesn’t make any sense to me at all,” the diplomat said, adding, “We ought to give the Iranians a bit more time.”

Iran’s announcement is only a coup de theatre at this point. It does not have enough unprocessed uranium to feed the half-million centrifuges, and its mines don’t have the capacity to supply the required amount of uranium.

But it takes years to build such facilities, so the Iranian plan is not an immediate threat. Iran's one functioning enrichment plant, at Natanz, has been under construction for almost a decade and still has only 8,000 of a planned 54,000 centrifuges installed. In addition, Iran does not yet have a nuclear reactor that would need homemade enriched uranium fuel, even if it claims to want to build some 20 atomic power plants. A U.S. official called the Sunday's announcement “petulant” and said “there’s not a country on the earth that needs 10 new enrichment facilities.” U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley and European diplomats I spoke to shortly after the Iranian announcement all but sighed in making their comments. The Iranian move is “posturing and something that’s not going to be well received by the international community,” said Crowley.

There is certainly more time. This is not the endgame. Western diplomats insist they are still holding steady and waiting for Iran to honor a pledge it made in Geneva on Oct. 1 to ship most of its enriched uranium out of the country. The uranium would be further processed in Russia, and then in France, for a research reactor in Iran that makes isotopes for medical diagnosing and is running out of fuel. The deal would be a confidence-making gesture, opening the way to serious talks, as Iran would no longer have enough of the enriched material needed to make a bomb. Iran, meanwhile, could continue enriching uranium, which can be fuel for nuclear reactors or, in highly refined form, the explosive core for atom bombs.

The bottom line is that for about a year, Iran would not have enough of this strategic material to be threatening. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reported to be for the deal while his political opponents were against it, possibly only to hurt him.

But such division, to the extent it existed, may now be in the past. What set Iran off is the watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency’s condemnation, as well as its call for Iran to accept the uranium deal. The IAEA’s 35-nation board of governors moved by a vote of 25-3 in its Vienna headquarters Friday for the resolution and to have the U.N. Security Council in New York notified. Such notification has in the past been the trigger for the council’s sanctioning Iran. The United States has threatened further, “crippling sanctions” if Iran does not cooperate. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Iran’s plans to expand its enrichment program, despite the Security Council having called for the program to be suspended, isolate the Islamic republic and show that “time is running out for Iran to address the international community’s growing concerns about its nuclear program.”

Faced with strong pressure, Iran was overreacting and blustering, diplomats said. Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani warned that Iran could reduce its cooperation with the IAEA. Iran believes that it has an inalienable right to enrichment under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and that the IAEA is obligated to get it fuel for its Tehran research reactor. Ahmadinejad has even threatened Iran would make the fuel itself. While Iran almost certainly does not have the capability to do this, it would open the door to Iran increasing the levels at which it is enriching uranium closer to those needed to make nuclear weapons.

Where does this leave us? Cuts in cooperation with the IAEA are the steps that would surely escalate the Iranian nuclear crisis. Iran is already allowing a minimum level of safeguards, the measures that allow the IAEA to track how much uranium is being enriched and to place cameras in plants and have inspectors visit. If these safeguards were diminished further, Iran might be able to refine its uranium up to weapons grade—a level of over 90 percent enriched, beyond the 3.5 percent enrichment level now done for reactor fuel—without the international community knowing about it. Iran has been careful throughout the crisis, which began in 2002, when the first secret plants were discovered, not to walk away from safeguards. These measures are a legal obligation under the NPT, of which the Islamic republic is a member.

North Korea withdrew from the NPT and kicked out IAEA inspectors in 2002-03, setting the stage for the escalation that led to North Korea getting the bomb. Iran has been careful to stay away from such a step. Even as he warned that Iran would react strongly to the IAEA resolution, Iranian ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh made it clear last Friday that Iran would honor its safeguards agreement, even for the previously hidden enrichment site near the holy city of Qom.

This makes Iran’s announcement about building 10 new enrichment sites only a coup de theatre at this point. Iran does not have enough unprocessed uranium to feed the half-million centrifuges, the machines that carry out enrichment, which Ahmadinejad was talking about installing, and its mines don’t have the capacity to supply the required amount of uranium feed.

Iranian leaders are furious, however, and are clearly looking for dramatic and damaging ways to react. The U.S.-led negotiating team of six world powers that is dedicated to finding a diplomatic way out of the crisis may be miscalculating, as Iran may want a deal on its terms, not theirs. The U.S. and its allies think they have time, at least a year, possibly more, for serious talks. Iran may be only interested in using time to advance its nuclear program.

Russia, an arms supplier to Iran that has also built a billion-dollar power reactor there—which is not yet operating and for which it will supply the fuel—and China, a major oil client, do not want to move toward tough sanctions. U.S. and other Western officials note, however, that the Russians, who have invested a lot of political capital in the deal to get uranium out of Iran, are as miffed as the United States that the Iranians are turning away. U.S. diplomats point out that a key non-aligned state such as India voted for the IAEA resolution while other Iran supporters, such as South Africa and Turkey, abstained rather than coming out against the anti-Iran move. There is hope, even a conviction, in Washington that Russia and China will get fed up enough with Iran to finally join if necessary in a hardline crackdown on the Islamic republic’s nuclear ambitions. Iran has managed to keep things from going this far. Whether matters will come to a breaking point remains anyone’s guess, despite the strident tone in the confrontation.

Michael Adler, a longtime reporter for Agence France-Presse, is a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and is writing a book on Iran’s nuclear diplomacy, which he has covered for most of this decade.