Obama's Iran Reality Check

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's plans to increase his country’s uranium enrichment to near weapons grade could be a wakeup call for President Obama. Michael Adler on what the Iranian president's mixed signals mean for Obama’s diplomatic hopes.

Upping the ante once again in Iran's nuclear showdown with the United States, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has given orders to have uranium enriched to almost 20 percent—much closer to weapons level. If Iran goes ahead with Ahmadinejad's plans, President Obama's rhetoric about engagement would get a reality check.

To increase enrichment, Iran would have to rearrange the centrifuge arrays that refine uranium at the closely watched Natanz site, a focus of concern that the Islamic Republic is seeking nuclear weapons. And the country would be crossing another so-called red line, taking enrichment over the 5 percent level needed for fuel for nuclear power reactors. Given the geometric curve that is enrichment, going to nearly 20 percent is all but the last step needed to jump to the more than 90 percent required for weapons.

The United States may be trapped into a stillborn policy of doing too little, too late if it seriously seeks to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Iran has always denied that its nuclear program has military aims, insisting it is only trying to produce nuclear reactor fuel. It has produced more than 1,500 kilograms of low-enriched uranium. But it needs an increased level of 19.75 percent for a research reactor in Tehran that makes medical diagnostic isotopes, and it is running out of fuel that it purchased abroad for the facility. Last July, the government asked the UN atomic energy agency for the right to buy more.

The United States and five other world powers negotiating with Iran came back in October with an offer for Iran to ship out some three-quarters of the uranium it has made to let Russia and China turn it into fuel for the research reactor. The plan would have reduced Iran's uranium stockpile below the amount needed to refine further into material for a first bomb. It would have been a "confidence-building measure" on Iran's part that would have opened the way to talks with the six world powers to resolve the nuclear crisis.

Reza Aslan: Iran on the BrinkIran first agreed to the deal. But then it didn't. It said it feared that the West only wanted to take its uranium away. It insisted on a simultaneous exchange of fuel for the Iranian uranium. The United States refused to modify the offer and called for tough sanctions to get Iran to cooperate. In a surprise, Ahamdinejad said last week that he was not opposed to shipping uranium out of the country to get fuel for the research reactor, but it was not clear how much fissile material he was talking about. Officials in Washington were left wondering whether the announcement was a ploy to ward off sanctions or a move to shore up Ahmadinejad's credibility in the face of protests at home.

And now this—over the weekend, at a speech attended by Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Iranian atomic energy agency, Ahmadinejad said: "I had said let us give them [world powers] two to three months and if they don't agree, we would start ourselves" to enrich the uranium. "Now Dr. Salehi, start to make the 20 percent with the centrifuges."

If this were poker, one would have to say Iran is calling Washington's bluff. Or treating U.S. policy as if it were a bluff. One could read the Iranian answer as: Threaten sanctions, will you? Try to hardball us on a uranium deal we don't really like? Think we're down and out because there are anti-government riots in our streets? OK, we'll not just not cut down on the uranium enrichment that has you so worried, we'll increase it to make material closer to weapons grade than we ever did before.

Or Iran could just be applying pressure of its own to get a uranium deal it can live with. Even in Tehran, parliamentarians noted that Ahmadinejad was sending out mixed signals.

The Iranian president's move comes as the United States is struggling to get international backing for UN sanctions. China, a key oil client of Iran, is a notable holdout, saying diplomacy must be given more time. It is not clear how China will react to Iran increasing its enrichment. But Ahmadinejad is pitching his plan as Iran's only choice, if it is to keep making medical isotopes.

Moving forward with enrichment would be a great learning experience for Iran in developing its nuclear capabilities. It has some 4,000 centrifuges enriching uranium at Natanz, with some 4,000 more turning in a vacuum or ready to go. There are reports that Iran has hit a bump in its program, as the centrifuges it is using are fragile. Upping enrichment, which would take months to get started, would give it a chance to expand its research into centrifuges and how they work. It is not clear if Iran could then make the fuel for its research reactor, since enrichment is but the first step. The fuel assemblies must still be made—a difficult process, and potentially dangerous if not done properly.

The bottom line is that Iran continues to delay the West, in a crisis that began when secret Iranian nuclear plants were uncovered in 2002. Since then, Iran has reacted to the leverage applied against it by increasing its atomic work. It claims the right to enrich under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and that same logic would give it the right to increase the level of enrichment. Washington's current strategy of holding out for engagement while moving toward sanctions may not be enough to break this cycle. In addition, matters are complicated with uncertainty about how fast to go in dealing with a regime whose legitimacy is challenged by a stubborn opposition movement. The United States may be trapped into a stillborn policy of doing too little, too late if it seriously seeks to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions.

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Michael Adler, a longtime reporter for Agence France-Presse, is currently 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.