His Other Nuclear Secret

Hours before news of his covert nuclear facility broke, Ahmadinejad told a private dinner, which included The Daily Beast’s Michael Adler, that Iran may increase its uranium enrichment levels.

Damir Sagolj / Reuters

A few hours before Barack Obama’s announcement Friday morning that Iran is building a second site to enrich uranium, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hinted at a private dinner that Iran may also increase its level of enrichment of this strategic material, although not, he says, to weapons levels.

Enriching uranium is the essential step in making fuel for nuclear power reactors or the explosive core of atom bombs. Iran currently only enriches uranium up to five percent, which is enough to make fuel for nuclear power reactors but far below the 90 percent level needed to make an atom bomb.

“We’ve asked to buy it,” Ahmadinejad said of the enriched uranium. “Let’s see what happens.”

But Iran now says it wants to acquire uranium enriched up to 20 percent for its research reactor in Tehran, where it says it makes isotopes for medicine. In terms of weaponizing uranium, the difference in these enrichment levels is critical. The hardest parts of enriching come early: the jumping from 20 to 90 percent is exponentially shorter than the first steps of up to five percent or up to 20 percent.

The United States and other countries are concerned that Iran is building the capacity to enrich uranium in order to leapfrog to higher levels of refinement in order to build atom bombs. Iran has tacitly confirmed the second enrichment plant, joining the one already known about in Natanz (which had also been kept secret until it was uncovered by an Iranian resistance group in 2002).

Asked at a dinner of non-proliferation experts in New York late Thursday what Iran would do in the likelihood he could not get this 20 percent enriched uranium elsewhere, Ahmadinejad said: “From the reactor in Tehran, we produce about 20 forms of different medicine or drugs, drugs that are used to basically help cure very difficult diseases and illnesses.”

“Now if you were in our shoes and if you could not receive the fuel you need for these medicines, what would you do... If you don’t produce it, what other ways are there to get what you need?”

The Iranian president continued: “Technically 20 percent or 10 percent, none of this really has a military use at all, not at all. It is valueless from a military standpoint. It can only be used either for producing energy and power and medicine and in the industrial sector, for civilian industries.”

He concluded: “We’ve asked to buy it, let’s see what happens.” And within 12 hours, Obama, joined by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, was in front of a G-20 podium, warning the world about another movement forward for Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

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.