Iran nuclear program takes another step up escalation ladder

Iran announced its intentions Monday to begin processing its uranium stockpile to a higher level of enrichment. Nuclear energy experts say the country is taking yet another step toward producing a nuclear weapon, though a bomb is still years away.

Raheb Homavandi / Reuters
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (c.) and Iran's chief Nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili (2nd r.) visit an exhibition of Iran laser science and technology in Tehran, Sunday.

Iran took another step Monday that will keep it high on the map of global nuclear trouble spots by announcing plans to begin processing its uranium stockpile to higher levels of enrichment.

Iran’s intentions, announced in a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog, sounded alarm bells among nuclear-energy experts and international leaders working to curtail Iran’s nuclear program because they represent another step in the direction of producing a nuclear bomb.

“This is worrying because it’s another small step up the escalation ladder,” says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington. “What we have to keep in perspective is that Iran is still a number of years and a lot of technical expertise away from building a nuclear weapon,” he adds. “But what’s disconcerting is that they keep chipping away at those limitations.”

Iran said in its letter to the IAEA that it plans to begin processing at least part of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to 20 percent enrichment, a level considered “high-enriched” uranium and on the way to the 90-percent enrichment required for a nuclear weapon.

Iran says it needs the high-enriched uranium for a research reactor in Tehran to deliver isotopes for medical uses, and blamed the international community for leaving it no alternative by failing to reach an agreement for providing the nuclear fuel it needs.

But several countries, including the United States, that thought they had a deal with Iran last October for providing the fuel say this latest step only raises additional suspicions about Iran’s direction.

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in Paris for meetings with French officials, said the international community has no alternative but the “pressure track” for influencing Iran’s decision-making – a reference to the Obama administration’s efforts to obtain UN Security Council approval of a fourth round of economic sanctions against Iran.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner also said Monday that Iran’s latest actions constitute “real blackmail,” despite what he said are his doubts that Iran has the technical ability to achieve the level of uranium enrichment it speaks of in its IAEA letter.

Mr. Kouchner noted that all major powers except China are now on board the sanctions effort. Russia has recently indicated its support for additional sanctions targeting the economic interests behind Iran’s nuclear program. And on Monday a prominent member of Russia’s parliament and specialist in Russian foreign policy, Konstantin Kosachyov, said the international community should “swiftly react” to Iran’s latest plans.

Iran’s latest announcement is the latest in a string of conflicting signals to the international community. Last week Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran was ready to accept a deal with world powers to export a large quantity of Iran’s uranium stockpile for eventual reprocessing into fuel for the Tehran research reactor. Then on Sunday he gave the first hint of the enrichment plan announced today in the letter to the IAEA.

Iran’s intention to reprocess an undisclosed portion of its low-enriched uranium to 20-percent enrichment causes new concerns but also calls for a dose of caution, nuclear experts say.

In the “concerns” column:

• If Iran does arrive at 20-percent enrichment on its own, the time and number of spinning centrifuges required to get to 90-percent enrichment – the level needed for a nuclear weapon – is less.

• Other sources exist for the fuel Iran supposedly needs to operate its research reactor, thus raising suspicions about Iran’s stated reason for enriching on its own.

“The ostensible reason they are giving for this step is a problem because they simply don’t need an industrial-scale operation to deliver the fuel” for the Tehran research reactor, Mr. Kimball says.

And in the “cautions” column:

Iran has said that it will allow the IAEA inspectors to stay. That means that the international community should be immediately aware of any further increases in the enrichment process.

• Iran still faces technical hurdles before it is capable of building and delivering a nuclear weapon, nuclear experts say.

• Iran is still “years” away from possessing a nuclear weapon, Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last week.

“What that means is that there’s still time for a diplomatic solution to this,” Kimball says. “The problem is that right now the Iranians aren’t acting too interested.”

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