Iran and the “Uranium Jerk”
posted at 3:05 pm on February 14, 2010 by J.E. Dyer
Has Iran already started diversion of uranium into a covert processing network? Do we know enough, based on what the IAEA currently has access to, to say the answer is no? Do we know enough to say, on the other hand, that the answer is probably yes?
Most Americans are unaware of the arcane fact that Iran’s uranium enrichment operations were focused, until sometime in 2008, on a stash of yellowcake obtained from South Africa in the 1970s, when the Shah was still in power. Even fewer are aware that the UN’s accountability on the amount of low-enriched uranium (LEU) Iran has on-hand depends on knowing how much raw material there was to start with. When the IAEA certifies that it has detected no diversion of enriched uranium away from Iran’s supervised facilities, it can only do that in the context of what it knew about to begin with.
Still fewer Americans know that in 2008, Iran rapidly accelerated her use of indigenously mined uranium, to the point that by December of that year, everything being enriched in the centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment plant south of Tehran was reportedly mined in Iran. And equally few Americans know that IAEA doesn’t inspect Iran’s uranium mines or the refining and milling facilities. Due to a set of factors relating to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty’s “Additional Protocol,” IAEA inspects only Iranian activities closer in the pipeline to actual weaponization.
There are probably rocket scientists among Hot Air’s distinguished readership, but it doesn’t take one to immediately recognize what’s wrong with this picture. If IAEA doesn’t know how much uranium Iran has mined and produced yellowcake from, its only reliable accountability is on whatever amounts it sees Iran process, at the production facilities at Esfahan (where uranium is converted to uranium hexafluoride, or UF6) and at Natanz, where it is enriched. If Iran can arrange to convert and enrich her own yellowcake elsewhere, IAEA will have no way to detect the “diversion” through tabular accounting alone. The diversion will start before the material even gets to its first stop at Esfahan.
The possibility of Iran developing a covert uranium processing network has always been understood. Intelligence efforts to unearth such an enterprise would focus on intention and capability: that is, does Iran have a demonstrated penchant for being secretive and deceptive about her nuclear program? And do we see evidence of the capabilities she would require to set up a covert network, such as unaccountable sources of uranium, and facilities that might contain the requisite processing equipment, but remain uninspected?
The answer to both questions is, of course, yes. Iran has repeatedly been secretive and deceptive about her nuclear program, the revelation of the Fordo/Qom site in September being only the latest example. As for capability, Iran can now mine and refine her own uranium, a process not subject to inspection for accountability’s sake. And there remains a list of suspect sites where processing might occur, most of them uninspected and none visited at all since before 2006. Two of those sites are the massive underground complexes near Esfahan and Natanz, which we know about by remote-sensor detection of tunneling and excavation. The Esfahan tunnels were last visited by IAEA in late 2004, when the excavation effort there was only a few months old. Natanz’s tunnel complex has never been visited.
Now, however, we have a new data point that ought to trigger questions about what Iran is doing with uranium, from when it’s mined to its storage as LEU. The reason I am annoying you with all these technical factoids is that, in spite of their existence and compelling import, some civilian think-tank analysts – and the Washington Post – have decided to interpret this new data point in a way that suggests we have the breathing room to not do anything about Iran’s nuclear program just yet.
I’m referring to the study of Iran’s LEU output by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), reported by WaPo and cited by Ed Morrissey on Friday. Briefly, the study observes that Iran’s LEU output from Natanz declined dramatically in late 2008 and early 2009, and then ramped up again, but has not resumed the high-water mark of output seen in August 2008. (My lengthier analysis of all this, which includes documentation links for all the assertions in this post, is here.) Thousands of centrifuges installed at Natanz are idle – but the ones in operation are producing LEU more efficiently than before.
WaPo reports this under the headline “Technical setbacks cause Iran to falter in push to enrich uranium.” But reading the ISIS study itself, you realize that it’s on circumstantial analysis, not documented, empirical observation, that the analysts base their decision to favor “technical difficulties” as an explanation for the drop in LEU output.
That matters as we consider the key point that a precipitous drop in LEU output, followed by a resumption of output at a sustained lower level, is the kind of disjunctive “jerk” we would look for to figure out if uranium diversion is going on. It ought to be of grave concern to us in light of everything else we know. It’s a circumstantial concern, yes. But the explanation favored by the ISIS analysts is equally circumstantial. And even though ISIS, to its credit, considers other possibilities, WaPo helpfully reports the “technical difficulties” explanation as if it’s the only one. The implication is unmistakable: yes, Iran’s nukes are a problem, but given their technical woes, we’ve probably got some time to deal with it.
I don’t think – although I know some of you will – that either ISIS or WaPo is deliberately obscuring the obvious possibility: that the LEU output drop reflects the point at which uranium diversion started in earnest. What I do think is that their posture is dangerously complacent. For one thing, it’s patronizing in the extreme to simply assume the Iranians can’t handle their equipment, and are incapable of doing what would be required to set up a covert network mirroring their declared, inspected facilities. Another major source of unjustified complacency is blinkered reliance on the IAEA process and its reporting.
The salient truth about IAEA is that it can’t tell us if Iran is bringing a covert network online. The fact that it hasn’t detected one in the course of its official activities is meaningless. Just how meaningless it is has been brought home by the results of the ISIS study, viewed in conjunction with the increase in Iran’s indigenous uranium production. An inspection process that can’t explain the “uranium jerk” of late 2008-early 2009 is not a process we should be tying our triggers for action to. In military parlance, the IAEA inspection process has clearly been overtaken by events – is now OBE – and that’s what the WaPo headline should have been. The fact that the headline carried exactly the opposite implication – that we should be less worried, not more – amounts to failure on a level that approaches the civilizational and systemic.