According to David Ignatius of the Washington Post, Iran may not be as close to a nuclear weapon as we might believe. In a column published last Friday, Mr. Ignatius reported that Tehran's supply of low-enriched uranium--the potential feedstock for a nuclear weapon--has impurities that could cause centrifuges to break, if the Iranians attempt to raise it to weapons grade.
That assessment is based on a recent article in Nucleonics Week, a nuclear industry trade publication. Sources tell the magazine (published by a division of McGraw-Hill) that Iran has been unable to remove all traces of molybdenum from the gaseous form of uranium, produced at a plant near Esfahan. After being converted to a gas, the uranium is enriched in centrifuges at the Natanz complex, and (presumably), a similar plant, recently discovered near the holy city of Qom.
But if Iran's existing stockpile of LEU is contaminated, that would greatly hinder efforts to produce a nuclear bomb. Building a bomb's nuclear core from highly enriched uranium--Tehran's most viable option at present--would require decontaminating remaining supplies of low-enriched uranium. That process could take years to complete, meaning that Iran may not be on the threshold of producing its first nuclear weapon.
The contamination problem may also provide an explanation for Iran's sudden willingness to go along with western proposals for uranium enrichment. At a preliminary meeting on its nuclear program (held in Geneva earlier this month), Tehran tentatively agreed to send its LEU to Russia, where it would be raised to the 19.75% purity level, required for use in medical isotopes.
Still, there are serious issues with the scenario outlined in Nucleonics Week and the Post. For starters, the magazine (and Mr. Ignatius) assume that Iran is fully wedded to the notion of building its own bomb, from its own nuclear material.
While that is clearly Tehran's long-term goal, it is not the only option available. If their stockpile of LEU is hopelessly contaminated, the Iranians could simply buy weapons-grade material from their good friends in North Korea. True, Pyongyang has had its own problems with the nuclear cycle (their first bomb test in 2006 was largely a fizzle), but the DPRK is much further along in the process, and would be glad to sell required materials to Iran, along with blueprints for a viable weapon.
As we've noted in previous columns, both North Korean and Iranian cargo airlift fly regular missions between Pyongyang and Tehran, carrying missile parts, munitions, small arms and God-knows-what-else. Unlike North Korea's merchant ships (which are subject to boarding and inspection on the high seas), there has never been any attempt to block the air traffic. It would be relatively easy for an IL-76 to fly the right material from North Korea to Iran, undetected.
And for that matter, Tehran could simply buy a finished nuclear device from Kim Jong-il. Desperate for hard currency, Pyongyang has no problem selling nuclear technology to anyone with enough money. Intelligence reporting suggests that Iran was an "investor" in that Syrian nuclear facility bombed by Israel two years ago. The complex was designed and built by North Korea. Acquiring needed technology (or a finished weapon) would shatter the "extended" timetable outlined in recent press reports.
Additionally, not all experts concur with the "problems" outlined by Nucleonics Weekly. Indeed, the consensus among western spy agencies is that Iran will join the nuclear club sooner rather than later. Many analysts believe Tehran is only a year away from being able to produce a nuclear bomb--one reason that Israel is pressing for new, tougher sanctions against Iran by early 2010. If that doesn't happen, Tel Aviv will launch a long-threatened attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
While the magazine's report cannot be completely dismissed, it seems to represent a minority view. However, even that sort of thinking can be dangerous. Barely two years ago, the U.S. intelligence community embraced an equally remote possibility in that infamous NIE which declared that Iran halted its nuclear weaponization efforts in 2003. Senior officials spent much of the next year back-peddling on that conclusion, but the damage was already done. The intel foundation for a possible military strike on Iran had been shattered, and Iran gained more time to pursue its nuclear ambitions. We will soon learn if claims about contaminated LEU give the Iranians another reprieve.