Chief obstacle to Iran's nuclear effort: its own bad technology

Continuing technical challenges mean Iran is still probably 3 to 5 years away from acquiring a nuclear bomb. Diplomats should exploit that leverage.

Long before the mysterious Stuxnet computer virus struck an apparent blow at Iran’s nuclear program, Tehran’s nuclear effort was being delayed by a far more mundane problem: bad technology.

The technical hurdles that Iran continues to face with its nuclear program help explain why US officials say Iran is still 3 to 5 years away from acquiring the bomb. This provides time and leverage for diplomatic approaches to be pursued.

Bad centrifuge design

The most fundamental problem with Iran’s enrichment program appears to be its own centrifuge design. Called the P-1 after a Pakistani mock-up of a Dutch design pilfered in the 1970s, the centrifuge that Iran has been attempting to operate is known to be temperamental and fault-prone. Centrifuge technology is already a very difficult process to master, since it requires constructing complex machinery at precise specifications to allow the cylindrical devices to spin at supersonic speeds, day in and day out. Reverse engineering faulty, smuggled equipment, as Iran has tried to do, only makes this challenge worse.

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In fact, during an Arms Control Association briefing last month, former inspections chief Olli Heinonen said Iran’s P-1 centrifuge “seems to be a cul-de-sac,” stating that many of the delays Iran has experienced most likely “has to do with the design itself.” Iran’s own efforts to try to develop a better replacement seem to bear this out, and those efforts have been stalled in the R&D phase for years. “They are still struggling with the final design and have limitations in getting raw materials,” Mr. Heinonen said about that replacement effort.

Running at half capacity

So in spite of making the development of gas centrifuge enrichment technology a national priority, Iran is currently only able to run about half of the 8,500 centrifuges that it has installed at its Natanz plant. The machines that Iran has been able to run only operate at about 60 percent of their capacity, and Tehran has repeatedly had to replace broken-down centrifuges with new ones.

Replacing centrifuges is not a trivial issue, either. Iran still needs access to high-quality materials and components produced to very specific parameters. Its smuggling network to acquire such goods is sophisticated, but increasing international support for UN sanctions has helped to cut off some of Iran’s procurement pathways.

If Stuxnet indeed crippled Iran’s nuclear program as several headlines read, it was already limping.

To that point, senior US officials have said over the past year that, because of the technical problems Iran has been facing, the timeframe in which Iran could make a dash toward nuclear weapons has been pushed further into the future. This only repeats a familiar pattern in which the “deadlines” cited by more alarmist assessments have come and gone:

Warnings of imminent nuclear threat – from 15 years ago

In 2000, the CIA reportedly told President Clinton that Iran might already be capable of making a nuclear weapon.

In 1995, the United States assessed that Iran could have the bomb by 2003.

That same year, a book by then-Likud Party Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu said the “best estimates” placed an Iranian nuclear weapons capability at 3 to 5 years away.

Fifteen years later, Vice Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Gen. James Cartwright gave Congress the same 3-to-5 year timeframe this April.

Make no mistake, Iran’s nuclear activities are worrisome, and the threat that they pose should be taken seriously. But taking them seriously means realistically appraising the progress Iran’s nuclear program has made and how much further it needs to go before it gives Iran a viable nuclear weapons capability. A bomb’s worth of low-enriched uranium is not a viable capability.

Diplomacy takes time

The meeting between Iran and the six major powers this week did not resolve much. But a diplomatic process of this kind takes time, and requires confidence to be built between both sides. Proposals such as the “fuel-swap” deal trading reactor fuel for enriched uranium can help build such necessary confidence, as well as buy additional time for a negotiation process.

And we should be mindful of just how much time we have, before once again taking any destabilizing actions ourselves that may only worsen the threat.

Greg Thielmann is a senior fellow with the Arms Control Association and former senior professional staffer of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Peter Crail is a nonproliferation analyst with the Arms Control Association.

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