Jeffrey LewisIran's "Big Gains" at Natanz

Sometimes, I think the New York Times David Sanger is just Judy Miller without the creepy love notes from Scooter Libby. Then I think, I’ve never read David Sanger’s mail.

Sanger cites diplomats and nuclear experts who claim that Sunday’s “short notice” IAEA inspection at Natanz—the one that AFP reported was blocked, but the IAEA said was not—reveals that Iran has “solved most of its technological problems and is now beginning to enrich uranium on a far larger scale than before.” Here are the key grafs:

In a short-notice inspection of Iran’s operations in the main nuclear facility at Natanz on Sunday, conducted in advance of a report to the United Nations Security Council due early next week, the inspectors found that Iranian engineers were already using roughly 1,300 centrifuges and were producing fuel suitable for nuclear reactors, according to diplomats and nuclear experts here.

Until recently, the Iranians were having difficulty keeping the delicate centrifuges spinning at the tremendous speeds necessary to make nuclear fuel and were often running them empty or not at all.

Now, those roadblocks appear to have been surmounted. “We believe they pretty much have the knowledge about how to enrich,” said Mohammed ElBaradei, the director general of the energy agency, who clashed with the Bush administration four years ago when he declared that there was no evidence that Iraq had resumed its nuclear program. “From now on, it is simply a question of perfecting that knowledge. People will not like to hear it, but that’s a fact.”


The inspection conducted on Sunday took place on two hours notice, a time period so short that it appears unlikely that the Iranians could have turned on their centrifuges to impress the inspectors. According to diplomats familiar with the inspectors’ report, in addition to 1,300 working centrifuges, another 300 were being tested and appeared ready to be fed raw nuclear fuel as soon as late this week, the diplomats said. Another 300 are under construction.

“They are at the stage where they are doing one cascade a week,” said one diplomat familiar with the analysis of Iran’s activities, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the information. A “cascade” has 164 centrifuges, and experts say that at this pace, Iran could have 3,000 centrifuges operating by June — enough to make one bomb’s worth of material every year. Tehran may, the diplomat said, be able to build an additional 5,000 centrifuges by the end of the year, for a total of 8,000.

[Emphasis all mine]

I find it really difficult to make heads or tails of this story. Look, I am not a centrifuge engineer, nor have I inspected Iran’s centrifuge facilities. So, all I can do is try to dissect the story and observe what seems unclear, worrisome or untrue.

The ElBaradei Quote

The ElBaradei quote is out of context. Sanger makes it seem like ElBaradei is commenting on the story, but in reality—as Reuter’s Mark Heinrich reported—the comment is from remarks that ElBaradei released to the press in advance of the regular, forthcoming DG report. These remarks—as far as I can tell—seem pretty general in tone.

For example, compare yesterday’s comment with comments from February 2007 and March 2006:

  • “We believe they pretty much have the knowledge about how to enrich. From now on, it is simply a question of perfecting that knowledge. People will not like to hear it, but that’s a fact.”
  • “These are the three important issues for me from a non-proliferation point of view, much more important for me than Iran acquiring the knowledge [of how to enrich uranium]. Because even if that was relevant six months ago it is not relevant today because Iran has been running these centrifuges for at least six months. Yes, they might acquire a little bit more, perfecting the knowledge, but to aim at denying a country knowledge is almost impossible, to say the least.” [Inteview with FT, February 2007, Brackets in Original]
  • ”… we know that Iran has developed a knowledge of the so-called fuel cycle, how to enrich uranium, but that is not synonymous with saying that this is a weapon program. A lot of countries are enriching uranium for peaceful programs without necessarily using it for weaponry.” [Speech at Monterey, March 2006]

[Emphasis mine]

ElBaradei seems, to me at least, to be making a general point about political implications of Iran’s progress toward enrichment rather than commenting on a specific inspection.

Of course, I need to get the actual statement from the IAEA, which I am working on …

The Diplomat and 8,000 Centrifuges

A diplomat tells Sanger that Iran will have 3,000 centrifuges by June 1 and 8,000 centrifuges by January 1.

Let’s keep in mind that the 1,600 centrifuges to date works out—thanks to Andreas Persbo
—to about 11 a day, not 164 a week. That pushes the estimated date for 3,000 centrifuges back to about September 1.

The point isn’t whether it is June 1 or September 1, but just to note that the “diplomat” is clearly giving a one-sided account.

I have speculated that the Iranians will run up against a limit between 1600 and 2000 centrifuges, on the grounds that there is no evidence yet that they can domestically manufacture key components of sufficient quality.

The diplomat doesn’t address Iran’s manufacturing capabilities.

Running Smoothly With Hex?

The real key of the story is Sanger’s claim that “all the centrifuges appeared to be enriching uranium and running smoothly” for which he cites “nuclear experts” that he does not identify as being with the IAEA.

If true, that is a big deal—Paul reported in Arms Control Today that Iran “is not actually enriching uranium, a knowledgeable source told Arms Control Today April 18. Instead, Iran is injecting small amounts of feedstock into the centrifuges to ready them for operation.”

It would have been nice if Sanger had referenced Paul’s story, specifically stating that the most recent, authoritative description either does or does not currently reflect the IAEA understanding after the snap inspection.

But he did not, so I am left with specific questions:

First, is Iran using it’s own hex or that limited supply of high-quality Chinese UF6?

Second, how much LEU has Iran produced? That would allow us to determine if Iran has improved on its past operating record which, to date, suggest the centrifuges operate only 20 percent of time.

Third, are the centrifuges configured into distinct cascades or a single, coherent unit?

I think Mark Fitzpatrick expresses appropriate skepticism:

[It is not clear yet] whether the centrifuges are operating at normal speed, whether the cascades are linked together and whether they are working continuously. Until then, they cannot be said to have mastered the technology…, [although] at some point this year or next, Iran likely will reach that breakthrough,” he told Reuters. [Brackets in Original]

Iran Will Figure This Out, But When?

Look, the bottom line is that we do inspections for a reason. As Fitzpatrick says, at some point the Iranians will figure this out. We may be surprised at how quickly they do it or how long it takes them.

But the Sanger story seems to claim that by June 1, Iran will have enough centrifuges to reach a bomb within a year and, at some unspecified time in the near future, enough LEU that “If Iran stores the uranium and later runs it through centrifuges for four or five more months, it can raise the enrichment to 90 percent, the level needed for a nuclear weapon.”

That seems very unlikely to me.

Worse, it distracts from the technical information that would allow for a sensible compromise.

Seriously, David, be careful for what you wish. Judy’s war didn’t really work out so well for her, the Times or the country.

Cross posted at Danger Room .


  1. hass (History)

    Actually, rather than AP, I think it was AFP that falsely reported (quoting ‘diplomatic sources’) that Iran had blocked the Natanz inspections. Reuters called the correction by the IAEA, but the Reuters wire report was no picked up in any US publication as far as I can tell.

    [Whoops, that was a typo and has been corrected. JGL]

  2. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Somehow I turned off the comments. Sorry about that.

  3. Binh (History)

    ”… the IAEA found that Iran has already managed to enrich uranium to the four per cent purity needed for power stations. Weapons-grade uranium must reach a threshold of 84 per cent purity.

    “Mohammed ElBaradei, the IAEA’s head, said the West’s goal of halting the enrichment programme had been ‘overtaken by events.’ Iran had probably mastered this process and ‘the focus now should be to stop them from going to industrial scale production’.”