The Silver Lining on Iran’s Nukes

The silver lining on Iran’s nukes: a centrifuge design that dates to the 1970s.

Vahid salemi / AP Photo

Within minutes of the release Thursday of a new U.N. report on Iran’s nuclear program, headlines were rocketing around the internet—and they were grim. Iran, the report showed, has doubled its enrichment capabilities at the underground facility discovered in 2009 by the U.S. government known as Fordow.

But the news from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was not all bad. While the report showed that Iran had installed more centrifuges in the underground Fordow plant, the kind of centrifuges the Iranians deployed are still the primitive 1970s-era machines known as the IR-1. Iranian scientists have been working for more than a decade to make a more efficient and powerful centrifuge, but thus far they have only produced models suitable for testing—and have not lined them up in a cascade and used them to create nuclear fuel.

The status of Iran’s quest for advanced centrifuges is important. It was the IR-1 design that proved to be so brittle in 2010 when the stuxnet virus infected the logic board at Iran’s Natanz facility and sped up the spinning machines to the point where many were believed to have broken under the stress.

Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director of the IAEA, said of the report, “This is not yet for me a game changer.” He added, “If they solve their problems with producing the advanced centrifuges, then it will be a different ballgame. These machines are three to four times more powerful, which means you can produce three to four times more material or significantly cut the break out time.”

One reason Iran has not had success in producing the advanced centrifuges is because of western efforts to sabotage the complex supply chain for this kind of sensitive equipment. The current IR-1 centrifuges in place are copies of the design of Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan. According to Heinonen, Pakistan discarded the design—known in Pakistan as the P-1—in the 1980s for more efficient machines.

“It’s interesting to note they have not yet deployed any of the advanced machines despite having worked on them for a long time,” said Christina Walrond, a research analyst for the Institute for Science and International Security.

Heinonen said that while it’s possible to produce the highly enriched uranium needed for nuclear weapons with the IR-1 centrifuges, it’s not a practical method. “You could theoretically get highly enriched uranium from the current IR-1 design centrifuges, but this is inefficient—you lose a lot of material,” said Heinonen, who is now a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center. “This is why A.Q. Khan in the 1980s himself gave up the P-1 design and developed the more efficient centrifuges used today by Pakistan.”

Still, despite the troubles Iran has experienced in developing the advanced centrifuges, the report also shows Iran is moving more and more of its known program to underground facilities that are more difficult to destroy through aerial bombardment.

An Israeli official who requested anonymity said, “We are studying this report. We knew before this report was issued that Iran is continuously dragging out negotiations while installing more centrifuges. The sanctions which have dealt a blow to Iran’s economy have not affected the nuclear program.”

In many ways, the Israeli assessment could be the most important factor in whether the cold war between Iran and the west turns hot. Israeli leaders in the last eight months have openly spoken about the idea of a “zone of immunity,” whereby Iran would place its nuclear program so far underground that Israel would not be able to destroy the program through bunker busters or bombs that burrow into the earth before detonating. As the Iranians move more centrifuges into underground facilities, the window for an Israeli strike to be effective appears to be closing.

In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said at a press conference Thursday that the administration was worried about the latest report. Nonetheless, Carney said the window for diplomacy has not yet closed. “The window of opportunity to resolve this remains open,” he said. “But it will not remain open indefinitely.”