Is Iran blowing smoke about its "industrial level" nuke program?

Yeah, according to nuclear expert Jeffrey Lewis, writing at Danger Room. In a nutshell, it sounds like they’ve installed 3,000 centrifuges in their main industrial plant at Natanz and have begun injecting uranium gas into them, although (a) ABC News insists it’s more like 1,000, (b) it was Ali Larijani, Iran’s NSA, who spoke about specific numbers and capabilities, not Ahmadinejad, and (c) from what I understand after reading Lewis and others today, merely installing the machines and injecting the gas is no big trick. The trick is enriching it, which requires three things: centrifuges that are operating, operating in tandem, i.e. a “cascade,” and operating constantly. Larijani pointedly didn’t mention any of those three. According to Lewis, best estimates right now are that Iran was only able to buy 1,000-2,000 fully operational centrifuges on the black market, and even those appear to have been running only 20% of the time. If they’ve got 3,000 installed, it may be that a good chunk aren’t operational because they’re missing parts or because Iran hasn’t figured out how to keep them running smoothly and consistently enough to enrich uranium highly enough to build a weapon.

Lewis himself thinks this is a political stunt by Iranian hardliners, and various diplomats interviewed by WaPo and the Times agree. Not just a stunt for western consumption, either:

As for the A-Bomb and [Iran’s] political people, they also have a motive to exaggerate Iran’s progress. Redefining Iran’s pilot efforts may help the hardliners accuse pragmatists of trading away “industrial scale” enrichment capabilities—capabilities Iran does not yet have.

If you believe the Times and its European sources, that trade may be closer than we think:

At Natanz, Iran is also setting up the large industrial plant, roughly half the size of the Pentagon, with the claimed 3,000 centrifuges as a first step toward an eventual total of 54,000. Nuclear experts said that, before today, Iran had apparently not injected uranium gas at the plant…

A senior European diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity, said he doubted Iran had actually crossed that line, because serious discussions were underway between Tehran and European negotiators over potential ways to resolve Iran’s standoff with the United Nations Security Council.

“I would be surprised if they fed the centrifuges, because it would jeopardize the talks,” the diplomat said. “There are proposals out there which are quite serious.”

The upshot here is that they’re unlikely to have a bomb within a year, which is possible with 3,000 centrifuges if everything’s working as it should, but the in-the-know estimate isn’t much beyond that anyway — two to three years, which makes this a huge election issue. As far as I know, not a single Democrat has said they’re willing to accept an Iranian nuclear weapon as a price of peace (nor will they, given how, er, radioactive that would make them), but you may start hearing code creeping into their speeches on this subject, e.g., lots of references to detente with the Soviets despite their huge nuclear arsenals, etc. Sanctions won’t stop Iran for various reasons, one of which is that not everyone will enforce them; in fact, according to Iranian media, a general from the Revolutionary Guard who was banned by name from traveling under the latest Security Council resolution recently returned from a trip to Russia.

Which leaves the military option. Iran already has its army on high alert for a U.S. attack. A majority of Europeans apparently think that’d be a fine idea, just so long as they don’t have to contribute. But given whom Iran chose to retaliate against recently in their standoff with the U.S., and given whom other terrorist groups like AQ have focused their attentions on since 9/11, Europe’s along for this ride whether they want to be or not.

Update: Russia has confirmed that they violated the UN sanctions.