Iran appears to have resumed converting small amounts of its higher-grade enriched uranium into reactor fuel, diplomats say, a process which if expanded could buy time for negotiations between Washington and Tehran on its disputed nuclear program.
The possibility of Iran converting enriched uranium into fuel — slowing a growth in stockpiles of material that could be used to make weapons — is one of the few ways in which the nuclear dispute could avoid hitting a crisis by the summer.
Tehran could otherwise have amassed sufficient stock by June to hit a “red line” set by Israel after which it has indicated it could attack to prevent Iran acquiring enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. Yet few expect progress in talks until after the Iranian presidential election in June — a formula for a potentially explosive clash of timetables.
Diplomats accredited to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna said that Iran had apparently resumed converting into fuel small amounts of higher-grade enriched uranium — thereby reducing the amount potentially available for nuclear weapons — though they had few details and one said that “very, very little had been done” so far.
A fuller picture is unlikely until a new IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear activity, due by late February. But the question is crucial in determining the size of its stockpiles and how close these are to Israel’s red line. “We will all be doing the mathematics soon,” said one diplomat.
In September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would not let Iran acquire enough material for a bomb; enriching uranium raises the less than one percent of fissile isotope U-235 found in mined metal to higher concentrations: About 4 percent for reactor fuel, up to 90 percent for a bomb.
While scientists differ about how much uranium is needed to have the ability quickly to make a bomb, analysts say the Israeli figure is believed to be 240 kg of uranium enriched to 20 percent; at that concentration, the material is nine tenths of the way to the weapons-grade of about 90 percent, since most of the unwanted isotopes have been separated out by then.
“Israeli officials, in private, widely use the 240kg figure,” said Shashank Joshi, a Research Fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). “The figure is so specific and so widely used that they must understand the implications of drawing this red line: That Iran is free to produce anything up to that amount, but that producing any more would force Israel to choose between humiliation or war.” Iran averted a potential crisis last year by converting around 100 kg of its 20-percent enriched uranium into fuel — prompting some analysts to believe it was deliberately keeping below the threshold for potential weapons-grade material set by Israel, while still advancing its nuclear technology. It is not believed to have enriched uranium beyond 20 percent.
Iran, a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, denies seeking nuclear weapons, saying its aim is electric power and some higher-grade enriched uranium for medical purposes. It says non-signatory Israel, assumed to have nuclear arms, is a threat.
Last year’s fuel conversion only slowed Iran’s accumulation of 20 percent enriched uranium and was stopped. As it continues to produce fresh supplies — diplomats believe it is adding 14 to 15 kg a month — stockpiles are rising quickly and they calculate Iran will hit the Israeli red line by May or June, unless it again expands fuel conversions or slows its rate of enrichment.
It is here that the complex calculations of nuclear experts and international diplomacy collide.
The Iranian nuclear program is controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — who last week publicly rebuffed US overtures for direct talks. While he is not facing voters himself, he is seen as unlikely to want to make any concessions until he has a firmer grip on the warring factions vying for power beneath him after the presidential election in June.
“I think, until we get a clearer sense of how that plays out, that the Iranians are going to be basically in a holding pattern,” said Shannon Kile, a nuclear proliferation expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Sunday Iran would not negotiate under pressure but would talk if others stopped “pointing the gun.” At odds with Khamenei, Ahmadinejad will step down in June but appears to maneuvering to maintain influence.
At the same time, there appears to be a growing recognition among world powers that using economic sanctions to force Tehran to curb its nuclear program are unlikely to succeed without a broader political dialogue between the United States and Iran to ease acrimony dating back to the 1979 Iranian revolution.
US Vice President Joe Biden repeated an offer for direct talks at a conference in Munich early this month.
Negotiations with Tehran are currently run jointly by the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany — known as the P5+1. These are expected to make at best limited progress in a meeting with Iran due in Kazakhstan on Feb. 26.
“It has been obvious for years that Iran would only move on this issue in the context of a direct dialogue with the US,” said one former senior diplomat who has negotiated with Iran.