Monday, April 09, 2007

Happy Nuclear Energy Day

In case you missed it, today is, officially, "National Day of Nuclear Energy in Iran." And, as predicted, the Tehran government used the occasion to announce that it is now capable of enriching nuclear fuel on an industrial scale.

The announcement suggests that Iran has achieved its goal of assembling a 3,000 centrifuge array, used to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU). The fuel can power a nuclear reactor, or--if produced at sufficient purity levels--be used for nuclear weapons.

As we've noted in the past, there are still a number of unanswered questions about Iran and its HEU production capabilities. While a 3,000 centrifuge cascade could eventually produce a nuclear weapon, that process will take time, and only if the array is operating properly and generating HEU at sufficient "purity" levels for weapons production. Uranium enriched at low levels (around three percent) can be used to fuel a nuclear reactor; it takes a much higher grade of HEU (90% or higher) for weapons production. At this point in its nuclear development, it's doubtful that Iran has achieved that latter benchmark. There are also questions about how long it might take Tehran to get the larger centrifuge cascade to operate properly, creating more delays for the nuclear program.

But today's announcement was less a demonstration of Iran's nuclear prowress, and more about President Ahmadinejad's continuing propaganda campaign. Using his "good cop" routine last week in "pardoning" the British hostages, the Iranian leader is now back in his "bad cop" role, reminding adversaries that Tehran will continue to pursue its nuclear options, whatever the cost.

And, it's no accident that today's announcement came on the heels of last week's hostage release. On one hand, the Iranians didn't want a nuclear statement to interfere with their carefully calibrated propaganda ploy. But more importantly, Ahmadinejad wanted to assess western reaction--and accomodations--to the hostage incident before unveiling his nuclear news. Gauging the west's response as overly-cautious (timid might be a better word), Ahmadinejad deduced that he had nothing to fear in following the captives' release with his latest nuclear announcement.

Iran also used today's pronouncements to take another poke at UN efforts to regin in its nuclear program. According to Iran, one of its senior officials--placed on travel restrictions by the U.N. last month--traveled easily to Moscow over the weekend, suggesting that those sanctions are largely toothless. Revolutionary Guards General Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr (who is also deputy interior minister for security affairs) was quoted on the state TV Web site as saying that his six-day journey to Moscow showed "the ineffectiveness of the resolution."

For its part, Moscow has confirmed that Zolqadr's visit to Russia. A foreign ministry spokesman told The Associated Press that the resolution does not prohibit visits by the listed individuals, but calls for heightened vigilance "directed first of all at people who are directly related to nuclear programs" - suggesting that Zolqadr was not.

Zolqadr's visit visit also indicates something of a thaw in relations between Russia and Iran. Last month, Russian announced it was suspending work at Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, because Tehran had failed to make required payments. At the time, Russia even indicated a new willingness to support U.N. sanctions against Iran's nuclear program, but analyzed that reported "position shift" as little more than a negotiating ploy. Given Zolqadr's apparently successful trip, you can expect a forthcoming statement that the nuclear impasse between Moscow and Tehran has been resolved.

With the hostage crises over, Ahmadinejad is again drawing a nuclear line in the sand. The centrifuges at Natanz are spinning; the output and quality of HEU are gradually increasing. Work will likely resume at Bushehr in the next couple of months, and Russian crews could begin fueling the reactor later this year. And the western response? Little more than the threat of new consultations are slightly tougher sanctions, which can be undermined by the Russians or the Chinese.

No wonder Ahmadinejad looks so confident on "National Day of Nuclear Energy."

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