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Oh, Satanic Flyboys! This Way to the Islamic Revolutionary Uranium!

posted at 1:55 pm on March 4, 2010 by

Well, it was a good story while it lasted.  The Iranians have put their low-enriched uranium (LEU) stockpile back in underground storage, which should obviate further speculation, at least for now, that they transferred it to an above-ground processing facility in order to get Israel to attack it (the “Road Runner baiting Wyle E. Coyote” theory).

But as Emanuele Ottolenghi notes at Commentary’s “contentions” today, American think-tank experts who follow Iran’s nuclear program closely still considered the LEU move hard to explain.  They’ve started talking about the possibility that Iran is building a secret, covert processing network outside of IAEA supervision.

Since that’s what I’ve been thinking for a couple of months now (and wrote about here and here) – some thoughts.

There are indicators that the known stockpile at Natanz, the LEU accounted for by IAEA inspectors, isn’t all the uranium Iran has in a processing pipeline.  In other words, there could be other uranium being converted and enriched outside of the declared facilities visited by IAEA at Natanz and Esfahan.  If that conclusion is accurate, then putting the known LEU stockpile at Natanz in an above-ground facility doesn’t actually mean making all of Iran’s LEU vulnerable to an air strike.  But we would think it did, at least in terms of official estimates.

Before proceeding further, it’s important to establish that there’s a valid reason for putting any LEU in the above-ground facility in question:  that’s where Iran can enrich it to a higher level.  There’s a technical and logistic reason for moving LEU into the facility, the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant, or PFEP, at Natanz.  The Iranians didn’t just do it for kicks.  When they announced their intention to enrich uranium to 20%, that meant they would, for now at least, be processing LEU in the PFEP.

The unexpected action was moving all of their known LEU to the PFEP at once.  This means the Iranians seem to have made their whole LEU stockpile vulnerable unnecessarily.  The whole stockpile is also more than they need for the stated purpose of medical application.  Those factors are why the action raised eyebrows.

But there’s context for this development, and the most important aspect of that context is that it involves Iranian actions that are not under IAEA supervision.  See my links above for the extended case; I will reiterate it only briefly here.  It’s this:  Iran has for several years had the opportunity and means to mine and process its own uranium outside of IAEA supervision.  A documented drop in uranium conversion and enrichment at the supervised sites, in late 2008 and early 2009, may well have represented the point at which Iran transferred her emphasis from processing uranium at the supervised sites to processing it in undeclared, unsupervised facilities.  I called this the “Uranium jerk.”

If you can struggle through the techno-jargon and graphs at my earlier blog piece, I think you may find it convincing.  One of the key indicators is a dramatic increase in uranium mining and refining at a site in southern Iran, between late 2007 and late 2008.  The timing of this development would make it an unbelievable coincidence with the “Uranium jerk” – the drop in follow-on processing output – if the two developments were unrelated.

Iran has plenty of underground space now in which to convert and enrich uranium outside of the declared facilities.  The underground space we know about remains entirely uninspected since 2004, except for last fall’s visit to the suspect Fordo site near Qom.  (For documentation of all these assertions, see the link to my earlier piece.)  That leaves underground sites at Natanz and Esfahan, and two suspect sites outside Tehran, just to name the best-known and most likely.

It can’t be stressed enough that the IAEA has no charter to inspect and account for Iran’s indigenous mining activities, because Iran is not allowing IAEA to act on the provisions of what’s known as the “Additional Protocol” to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  So we have had no accountability on what happens to the uranium mined in Iran.  We know from satellite imagery that there was a huge increase in 2008 – two years ago – in mining and milling at the mine site in southern Iran.  But we can’t account for what has happened to all the uranium mined from that site, either before or after 2008.

Therefore, we simply don’t know if the LEU stockpile that was moved above-ground at Natanz represents all of Iran’s LEU.  But the Iranians’ willingness to accept risk for it may well be a fresh indicator that it doesn’t.  If there is conversion and enrichment going on elsewhere, outside of IAEA supervision, the movement of LEU to a vulnerable above-ground processing plant appears in a different light.

Ostentatiously placing all of the LEU, at once, in an unnecessarily vulnerable position, could look like setting up a decoy.  On the other hand – my assessment – it could just be that if the Iranians feel a separate LEU stash to be safe, they’ll accept the risk posed to the known LEU by moving it all at once.  They claim now to have extracted the amount they needed for higher-level enrichment, which is why they’re moving the rest back below ground.  Moving the LEU that way could very well have simply been the most technically efficient method for their capabilities.

There’s a growing list of developments that make the most sense if Iran has a separate, unsupervised uranium processing capacity going, and perhaps already a stockpile of undeclared LEU.  Again, the most important thing to know about any of this is that the official IAEA inspection process is not going to reveal the truth about that for us:  prove or disprove it one way or another.  There is no guaranteed way to “catch” Iran doing undeclared uranium processing with the inspection regime that’s in place.  To reveal what Iran doesn’t want us to know, we’d have to enforce a change of methodology – over Iran’s objections.  That’s where we stand.

Cross-posted at The Optimistic Conservative.

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Thanks for another excellent analysis.

Conceding your much greater knowledge and study on this topic, JED, I’ll just propose for consideration one other effect of this move. It objectively demonstrates, once again, Iran’s freedom of movement in the nuclear realm: “We can do this, whether you like it or not, whether you understand it or not, and that goes for everything else we’re doing.” It’s Iran’s way of virtually withdrawing from the NPT, and thumbing its nose at the world, without having to withdraw formally and dealing with the blowback on that, while also creeping us ever closer to the point where Iran could formally withdraw from the NPT, or actually deploy a nuclear arsenal, and the general reaction would be “whatever – we thought you pretty much already had.”

We seem more afraid of declaring them in irrevocable breach than they are of irrevocably breaching, which is also part of their getting many of the deterrent benefits of actually deploying nukes without actually having to do so – as when our concern for preserving the possibility of negotiation apparently prevented us from supporting anti-government indigenous forces.

CK MacLeod on March 4, 2010 at 3:33 PM

Agreed. Good take on this.

Don’t forget the shell game effect. Show ’em, shuffle ’em, keep their eyes off the pickpocket.

Robert17 on March 4, 2010 at 7:42 PM

From the circumstance that the Iranians’ rulers are dangerous, I conclude that they still exist. As far as I know, they have always remained above ground continuously or almost so, and the greatest of them have always concentrated themselves in Tehran. From these things, I conclude that Tehran still exists.

I want to offer another possible reason the Iranians’ rulers brought such a quantity of low-enriched uranium to the surface, where it could be reached by the Israelis or the Americans. They did it because they were confident and wished to show everyone, including the Americans and the Israelis, that neither the Israelis’ rulers nor the Americans’ rulers would order that anything be done. The Iranians just mooned you, and I think it’s pretty funny.

Kralizec on March 4, 2010 at 8:11 PM

CKM, Kralizec — of course the Iranians would high-five each other over our fecklessness, but that doesn’t mean shooting us the bird was their primary intention.

By focusing on being mooned, and how stupid we should feel about that, we risk missing something important. If Iran is as far along as I think she now is with enriching uranium in a separate network (she’s been at it, if we date it from the “Uranium jerk,” for nearly 18 months), then all our assumptions are outdated.

It’s not that we aren’t going to attack the known LEU stash when it’s above ground. It’s that attacking that LEU stash wouldn’t do us any good.

We’re giving Iran time to bury her whole program so that we can’t get at it with a limited air strike. The evidence is now emerging that points to that project being underway.

Frankly, who gives a rat’s behind if they think they’re mooning us? What matter is whether we can wipe the stupid grin off their faces. The time may well have passed when we could — without committing to regime change.

J.E. Dyer on March 5, 2010 at 12:19 PM

And considering the unwillingness and unpreparedness of our political and military decision-makers to commit to regime change, then something like the Friedman option – forced re-definition of the entire dilemma, in the direction of a different Grand Compromise – becomes more likely, at least as the impetus of American containment strategy.

If your assessment is more right than wrong, then we might in effect already be in that phase, and whether or not Iran actually deploys an arsenal becomes almost secondary. As your colleague Emanuele Ottolenghi and as Amir Taheri have argued, it may be more advantageous for Iran to have its cake than eat it.

CK MacLeod on March 5, 2010 at 1:41 PM

Lest anyone forget, Saddam Hussein jerked the IAEA around until the more viable WMDs found their way to Syria or beyond, leaving only 6000+ half-life shells available to the search committee of the IAEA. And how was Iraq stopped from producing more? Looks like the mullahs are using the same playbook. Hide them for now, expose a few billets of pre-processed glow worms as a demo of “jihad power”, line up some allies to the jihad cause, maybe including the NK’s own USA-hating Kim, lined up to take a quick delivery if things heat up, then sit back, relax, spout vitriol and shake a few fists in the air.

The mullahs are aware that we’ve got an election coming up in November. Obama is perceived, correctly, as weak and ineffectual. The same can be said for the current Congress. The rush is on to meet deadlines before 2012 in Iraq and the potential for the USA to elect another “capitalist warmonger”. And it is notable in the world press that Israel is standing mostly alone right now. Even the mullahs can recall the 92-1 drubbing the Israeli Air Force dealt the Syrians the last time there was any major conflict. And considering the pace of R&D in Israel, along with bunker building, the odds are good that the Iranians would do little better than their nine year war with Iraq.

This nuke thing isn’t just bluster. But Iran is doing a lot of bragging. It’s not bragging if you can do it. And you don’t brag if you can either. You just play your cards close. NoKo is no better off. Setting off a 5k sizzler in a mine shaft, well, Timothy McVeigh shook the seismographs nearly as much. This is not to say that with practice they won’t get there. But rest assured it is not unknown where the labs and bunkers are. It is well known that we cancelled the F-22, but not because of money. We have something better. Much better. Count on it.

Robert17 on March 5, 2010 at 3:15 PM

Robert17 — agreed, Iran is working off the playbook from our history with previous proliferators. They all seem to handle us pretty much the same way.

I’m not sure Americans have ever recognized the extent to which Iran would approach this obliquely. Sure, sure, plenty of pundits have written about Iran developing the capability but not quite the bomb. But I think even those writers have been unconsciously expecting some watershed moments along the way, moments that would pose decision points for us.

It’s very possible, however, and always was, that no junctures of Iran’s process with the UN’s/West’s will occur to hand us decision points on a silver platter. The UN, P5+1, IAEA, EU-3, America — we’ve set up all these artificial deadlines, but none of it was really relevant to the progress of Iran’s program. It’s been much more related to our own politics.

Waiting at all, it’s increasingly obvious, means that when we do anything — unless it’s forcible regime change — it will be too late.

I don’t think Iran is quite there yet. If I’m right about the separate enrichment network, then the best reason to put LEU in the PFEP — exposed, open to IAEA — is because enriching uranium to 19.75% there really does represent their first attempt. They need to be sure they can do it, and they’ll pay no price for running the test out in the open, where it’s cheapest and most efficient. This posulate fits in with the timeline on which they’ve developed and installed the centrifuges for higher-level enrichment.

Regarding what we have that’s “much better,” I suppose you’re speaking of the MOP/GBU-57. I also have a good idea where the labs/bunkers are, and what a MOP attack could do to them. Releasing toxic elements into the atmosphere locally is one of the main things. There are hysterical and sober estimates of the actual effects of that, and I go with the sober ones. But that said, it’s the biggest possible political step to unleash toxins on central Iran. It’s automatically bigger than a “limited surgical strike” just because of that element, let alone the blast/frag damage to suburban Tehran, Natanz, and Esfahan.

If we do that to Iran we’d better be prepared to go in afterward and take charge. Politically, even in 2003, when we could have struck a few above-ground facilities and gotten about 90% of the program, there was no “fire and forget” option. That’s why Bush never did the surgical strike a lot of people were demanding: because all the follow-on scenarios for a limited strike were as big as regime-changing Iran anyway.

Even today, I think it would be better to make the operational-level mistake of hitting Iran right in the nuclear program, and taking our lumps dealing with a poorly-prepared-for aftermath.

The wise, responsible thing to do would be to accept the necessity of regime-change up front, and try to foster it through the Iranian people themselves. They’re certainly willing to do the hard work.

But if we’re not going to do that, embroiling ourselves in a stupidly-unplanned perfect storm of Mullah Fury would still not be as bad as simply standing by and letting the mullahs get the bomb.

There’s no question we have the means to attack Iran’s facilities, wherever they are. But the more there is to attack, and the further underground it goes, the bigger and more portentous is the political choice to conduct the attack. We’re already at the point where the “limited surgical strike” is no longer a political option.

J.E. Dyer on March 5, 2010 at 4:44 PM

When understanding the US DOD’s position, therefore the rest of the US Government’s position, on the development of weaponry in Iran, North Korea, or elsewhere, it is important to consider offsetting capabilities in defense. Nuclear activities are typically considered to be attention-getters.

Although nuclear weapons can be delivered by several methods into a target area, in the Iranian scenario the first look is at their missile delivery capability. Certainly we had a rash of launches last year by the Iranians followed by video and much saber rattling.

Lasers are the new “hip” in the military weapons catalogue. This link is rather recent, 2009.

But this one, on the same test is from 2004, CBS news.

And this story from 2002:

And this from 1989:

A land-borne systems test of a non-chemical version of this system was performed at Las Cruces ten years ago. The above reports are similar to what one would expect of a MSM report on Climategate. No need to tip the classified hand after all. The next link refers to official reporting on laser testing reporting. Note that one of the juicier pages is near the end, page 19. Note that this report template is from 2005. How much has advanced since then?

And of course the Navy is getting in on the act; story is from last year:

And, lest we forget the new from last year?

It was a success.

Bear in mind that along with the laser capability, the ability to deliver laser weapons on target is now on the ground, in the air, on sea, and in space. Computers have become more powerful over this same period of time further enhancing rapid target acquisition, tracking, and even speeding up development of the latest generation of laser weapons systems.

So whether the Iranians and NoKo’s deliver by missile, artillery shell, or fishing boat, the capability is there to destroy them. The big worry after that is the subtle attack, the suitcase bomb. And this is where it gets tricky. To be small enough to carry implies that the load must be light. Light implies less radiation shielding. Less shielding means that the load handlers absorb enough radiation to live for about 24-48 hours. And of course the radiation is much more detectable in concentration. So as improbable as it is to engage in nuclear attack, it is possible. And with the knuckleheads in Iran and NoKo getting their hands on them, there is no telling how stupid they may turn out to be. Using them will likely result in their weapons falling back on their own nation. If not, the US, Israel, and other nations must be in defensive posture only. No one wants to set themselves up to be the bad guy internationally in this matter. Except of course the knuckleheads in Iran and North Korea.

Robert17 on March 7, 2010 at 4:30 AM