Jeffrey LewisIran, Enrichment, Etc. Etc.

Two Words: ROAD TRIP

The head of the Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization (Esfandiar Rahim-Masha’i) has said: Foreign tourists can visit Iran’s nuclear centers. In order to learn more about this report, we’ve telephoned the deputy head of the Tourism Organization. Hello, Mr Malekzadeh. Please go ahead.

(Mohammad Sharif Malekzadeh) In the discussion that Mr Masha’i had with the president, Dr Ahmadinezhad, the honourable president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, voiced his consent for all tourists to visit Iran’s nuclear centers and sites. And this is a turning point in terms of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s transparency in all scientific and practical dimensions.

On a more serious note, Mohammad Sa’idi, Deputy Chief of the Iranian National Atomic Energy Organisation, proposed that France should establish a consortium to enrich uranium in Iran:

“The best solution to dispel the worries about Iran’s nuclear activities is not to demand a suspension” of enrichment, the deputy head of Iran’s atomic energy organisation, Mohammad Saeedi, told AFP.

“We have an idea that technically and legally is the best solution.

“It is that France creates a consortium with Eurodif and Areva to carry out enrichment in Iran and thus they can closely monitor our nuclear programme,” he added, referring to France’s enrichment specialist and its parent company.

Rice called the idea old, while the French called it totally new—though both were attempting to say the same thing, which in case you missed it, was that the proposal doesn’t really address the matter at hand. Javier Solana ginned up a little more enthusiasm, calling it interesting.

For what it is worth, I don’t really understand how this works—Eurodif enriches uranium with the extremely inefficient gaserous diffusion process (hence, the dif). Areva established the Enrichment Technology Company (ETC)—a joint venture with Urenco—to use Urenco TC-21 centrifuges under a “black box” arrangement to protect the proprietary technology. (More on black boxes).

Geoff Forden and John Thomson have proposed putting a URENCO plant in Iran, instead of building an enrichment plant in Russia.

Ultimately, these kind of deals come down to a sort of theoretical trade-off. There are two ways to make it “hard” for Iran to build a bomb: One way is to restrict Iran’s access to information and technology; the other is to propose monitoring and verification efforts to make any decision to move toward a bomb a very public decision.

Neither offers a guarantee—the 2002 revelation of Iran’s clandestine centrifuge program demonstrates both that controlling technology is difficult and that, even with lots of warning, we might not be able to stop a country like Iran. As we try to decide how much enrichment work we can accept in Iran and under what safeguards (or monitoring, really), we can imagine a hypothetical policymaker with an indifference curve that defines the rate at which she is willing to allow Iran access to enrichment technology in exchange for better capabilities to monitor Iran’s activities.

As Iran’s scientists learn more about centrifuges, we need to learn more about Iran’s scientists.

The Forden and Thomson proposal reflects a judgement that Iran is going to learn lots about centrifuges—and they’ve got 164 reasons to think so. Gaining as much access as possible, therefore, is worth—to Forden and Thomson—letting Iran have really awesome (although black boxed) centrifuges just kind of hanging around (under reasonable safeguards). For others, no amount of monitoring will make it okay for Iran to have a centrifuge plant on its soil.

You see can see, I think, a different willingness to trade in Matthew Bunn’s proposal to allow Iran to conduct certain activities under a suspension and the response by David Albright and Jackie Shire, driven by different assessments of how much Iran is likely to learn anyway.

At the extreme—and making a deal politically difficult—are those who shall remain nameless who can’t stomach the idea of Iranians knowing anything about centrifuges (save for maybe that they spin); a hopeless goal brilliantly parodied by the The Onion

Report: Iranian Science Teachers May Be Enriching Students

September 26, 2006 | Issue 42•39

WASHINGTON, DC—A recently released Pentagon report is raising new worries that Iran has been operating several large facilities designed solely for the purpose of enriching mass quantities of high-grade students.

“We have reason to believe that specially trained Iranian science teachers are taking raw, unrefined brain power and bombarding it with knowledge at accelerated levels,” said U.S. Undersecretary Of Defense For Intelligence Stephen Cambone at a Tuesday press conference. “If current levels of student concentration remain this high, Iran could be a mere five to eight years away from developing an atomic scientist.”

The awesome photograph of a “standard overland bus (old type)” in Iran was taking by Holger Spamann, who has some really fantastic pictures of his bicycle trips.


  1. hass (History)

    “The issue here is that Iran should not be in aposition to acquire the technical expertise to enrich and reprocess…”Rice, quoted in Wash Times October 4, 2006.

    BTW – “As we try to decide how much enrichment work Iran should be allowed to undertake”…is a mighty presumptuious way of looking at the world – I think the Iranians would have something to say about it.

  2. Jeffrey Lewis

    I changed that sentence—you’re right and the point I was trying to make is that choice is certainly not ours alone to make.

  3. hass (History)

    The US position started out from “no nuclear reactors in Iran” to “to no enrichment” to “no enrichment for now” but this evolution was in response to the development of “facts on the ground” rather than any evolution in policy views in the US. I suspect that the day the Iranian demonstrate that they have obtained the knowhow for mass scale enrichment, the US position will similarly change but the problem is that as the IRanians progress along this path, their price for stepping back from their nuclear achievements only increases while the US’s leverage over Iran decreases.

    So, the longer the US puts off entering into talks with Iran (due mainly to pressures from Israel and Neocons) the more concessions the US will have to inevitably make to convince Iran to back off its nuclear development. The Israelis and other opponents of US-Iran talks are perhaps hoping that something will happen in the meanwhile which will change this dynamic – like a regime change scenario or outbreak of war – or they think that they can extract even larger concesions from the US themselves for allowing US-Iran talks (such as a formal mutual defense treaty and legitimization of Israel as a nuclear power) – but that is a big gamble, and the outcome may actually be worse for all involved.

    In Iran, the issue has now become a nationalistic cause and a litmus test of the patriotism of govt officials, thanks in no small part to the bull-headed approach of the US which has cast this matter into the same sort of Iranian historical context as the infamous “ultimatums” that were made on Iran by the Russians & British at the turn of the last century – something no Iranian forgets even today.

  4. Robot Economist (History)

    hass – You mean the U.S. position initially was “No new nuclear reactors in Iran.” Iran has a handful of operational research reactors, one of which is stamped “Made in the USA” – a little gift from us to the shah.

    If the Bush administration really wanted to play the warmonger on this issue, it should have gone with a blackbox solution. Breaking the seals to a centrifuge room is a far stronger statement of intent than some particles gleaned from an IAEA inspection. Why that doesn’t scream “causus belli” to the Bushies, I will never know.

  5. hass (History)

    Ah, but in Bush’s world, the fact that Iran’s nuclear program was supported and encouraged by the US (and some current Bush administration officials) is an inconvenient non-fact which was sent down the memory hole. God forbid we actually allow historical context to intrude into any crisis du jour! That would make it hard to scare the bejesus out of people and have them send their children to kill and die.