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World Passivity in the Face of Advanced Nuclear Challenges

Written by Ephraim Asculai

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June 8, 2009
Ephraim Asculai
INSS Insight No. 112

With the countries of the world looking on, Iran reached its next serious milestone: the accumulation of enough low enriched uranium (LEU) to enable it to further enrich it and produce one Significant Quantity (S.Q.), or 25 kilograms, of high enriched uranium (HEU). This is considered the quantity that is sufficient for the production of one core for an HEU-based nuclear explosive device. The Iranians reached this milestone some months earlier than expected, due mainly to their efficiency in installing and operating a large number of gas centrifuges, the machines that perform the enrichment operation.

This assessment is based on the information contained in the latest (June 5, 2009) report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). At the present time Iran has no reason to produce HEU, since it would be more reasonable for it to accumulate a much larger quantity of LEU, and then enrich it in one batch to a quantity of HEU, sufficient for building a small arsenal of nuclear weapons. Should Iran decide that it wants to further enrich LEU to HEU, it could transform some of the operating LEU cascades (agglomerations of centrifuges), and complete the HEU enrichment in much less than a year. It would probably reason that it needs two explosive devices for underground nuclear tests (the second comes in case of the failure of the first) and then an additional one or two, as a deterrent or for actual use.

The information contained in the IAEA report suggests that four S.Q.s could be produced by the end of 2011 or even somewhat earlier. This could certainly happen if the world continues with the mild and ineffective actions ostensibly intended to prevent Iran from reaching further milestones. In the short term, the world is waiting for Iran's upcoming presidential elections, yet the fact is that no real change can be expected since more than the president, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is the de-facto ruler of Iran, and it is his decisions that matter. In addition, the Supreme Leader controls the Revolutionary Guards, who control the weapons of mass destruction production and deployment, including the missiles of Iran.

The change that could come out of the elections is a change of tone to one more conciliatory towards the West that could further lull it into thinking that there is a chance for a complete halt, if not a rollback of the nuclear weapons development program. Although many have agreed that Iran is succeeding in its play for time, the Obama administration is still taking its time, pinning hope on elusive "talks" that may or may not succeed. Yet Iran is now so close to its target that the chances of halting if not dismantling its nuclear program are almost gone. Only very strong action, such as sanctions of the type imposed on Iraq in 1991, with "catch-all" prohibitions on commerce and diplomatic relations, could perhaps force Iran into obeying the Security Council's demands concerning the suspension of activities.

The same day that the IAEA sent its report on Iran to its Member States, it also issued a report on Syria. Although less elaborate than the report on Iran, it has one very interesting point and an unfortunate omission. Paragraph 17 of the IAEA report, mentions that samples taken by the IAEA at a declared nuclear facility contained anthropogenic natural uranium particles, of an unnoted type. These were found inside hot-cells and associated equipment. This is quite interesting, since the natural uranium particles found at the Dir Alzour bombed reactor site were also denoted as "anthropogenic," i.e., the uranium was processed by human hands and not transformed by processes in nature. Inexplicably the IAEA report does not give any details of the composition of the particles, and more importantly, does not answer the question whether the particles found at both sites were similar. If similar, could they be indicative of reactor-fuel origin? If the particles are similar, why then does the IAEA continue to hamper on the issue of the possible Israeli bomb origin of the particles found at Dir Alzour? Whoever bombed the Dir Alzour site certainly did not bomb the declared laboratories and introduce the particles into them. This would refute any Syrian claim that the particles at the bombed site are of Israeli bomb origin. Moreover, what were these particles doing in and around the hot-cells?

The second issue and the significant omission from the report on Syria is that the IAEA desists from declaring the Syrian activities indicative of illicit nuclear activities and in non-compliance with Syria's obligations as a member of the NPT. This, unfortunately, is consistent with IAEA behavior, where the Director General is not willing to point a finger at a Member State and declare it as possibly being in non-compliance. He should have done that, and then given the state in question some time to disprove the allegations against it. Once the grace period elapses, the verdict against that state should become absolute. In the present system, however, no state can do wrong. As long as the state has stories to tell, and as long as it vaguely promises access, no indictment will come out of the IAEA. That is the case with Syria.

The issue of the IAEA and Iran is much worse, since the IAEA first became aware of and then noted in its reports Iran's lies, its concealed and undeclared activities, and its refusal, even now, to give the IAEA information to which it is legally entitled. As Dr. ElBaradei's term as IAEA director general draws to a close, one can only hope that the next director general, to be elected soon, will take a more realistic and less forgiving attitude towards those NPT members that are not willing to cooperate fully with the IAEA.
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The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. Through its mixture of researchers with backgrounds in academia, the military, government, and public policy, INSS is able to contribute to the public debate and governmental deliberation of leading strategic issues and offer policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers and public leaders, policy analysts, and theoreticians, both in Israel and abroad. As part of its mission, it is committed to encourage new ways of thinking and expand the traditional contours of establishment analysis.

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