Last weekend, the International Atomic Energy Agency published one of its regular reports on the status of the Iranian nuclear program. This report was particularly important because it was coming out right before this week's critical meetings in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1, where it would be decided whether sanctions against Iran would be reduced in exchange for concessions on the Iranian nuclear program. Many experts wanted to know if the Iranians slowed down their program in any way as a good will gesture prior to the Geneva meeting.
But the real story was not only what the IAEA said, but also the popular reaction to its report in much of the international press. The Los Angeles Times ran a headline "Iran's nuclear program has slowed almost to a halt, IAEA says." The Washington Post was more careful in its headline, but its report by Joby Warrick still led with a sweeping generalization that "Iran appears to have dramatically slowed work on its atomic energy program since the summer." Even the normally conservative Wall Street Journal followed the rest of the journalistic pack with a headline that said: "U.N. says Iran has virtually frozen nuclear program in last few months."
So what did the IAEA really think about what Iran was doing? Two days before its report was made public Yukio Amano, the director-general of the IAEA, gave an interview to the Reuters news agency, which served as a kind of curtain-raiser for his agency's upcoming report. Looking at the previous three months coinciding with the period in which Hasan Rouhani came to power, Amano did not sound like the Western media. He simply stated: "I can say that enrichment activities are ongoing ... no radical change is reported to me." For the most part, the press ignored Amano, perhaps not wanting anything to break the momentum toward reaching an agreement in Geneva this week.
But Amano was right. Indeed, if the IAEA report is examined its becomes immediately evident why Amano was so careful in his assessment and did not join the cheering gallery with the Western press. According to its summary of the main developments of the last three months, the rates of production of low-enriched uranium, that is uranium enriched up to the 5 per cent level, remained "similar to that indicated in the previous report" which the IAEA published in August. Looking at the rates of production of uranium enriched up to the 20 per cent level, the IAEA concluded that it remained "similar to those indicated in the previous report."
So how did so much of the international press get it so wrong and reach the conclusion that Iran had "slowed down" or "frozen" its nuclear program? These media reports ignored Iran continuing enrichment activities. Instead they focused on the question of whether the Iranians were installing more centrifuges at their Natanz and Fordo facilities, especially the advanced IR-2m centrifuges that operate five times faster than the older IR-1 centrifuges, which they have used since 2007.
True, Iran did not install any new advanced centrifuges in the last three months, but that did not mean they had frozen their program. Since January, they have installed over a thousand of these new centrifuges, but they have not begun operating them. In the past, even during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, after the Iranians increased sharply the number of centrifuges, they would let their growth level off for a few years while the new centrifuges were being brought online. No one interpreted this behavior in the past as indicating that Iran was slowing down its nuclear program.
Moreover, most newspaper reports covering the Iranian nuclear program have missed a key point made in the IAEA's latest report. It states that "preparatory installation work" has been completed for another 12 IR-2m cascades at Natanz. Since 2011, Iran has been installing these centrifuges in what experts call "cascades" of 164 centrifuges. That means that Iran is laying the groundwork for nearly another 2,000 advanced centrifuges, on top of the thousand centrifuges they have added during 2013.
Not only has Iran been enriching more uranium, it has also been quietly working on the next big expansion of its Natanz facility. On top of this the numbers of the older IR-1 centrifuges have also grown in recent years. In August 2011, the Iranians had installed roughly 8,000 centrifuges in total; but by November 2013 the IAEA was reporting that Iran had a total of more than 18,000 centrifuges in both of its enrichment facilities.
These latest developments change the whole calculus of any future agreement in Geneva. International commentators on the Iran nuclear negotiations have been tirelessly repeating that any future agreement must deal with Iran's stockpile of 20 percent uranium while conceding to Iran that it can continue to enrich to 3.5 percent. The distinction was based on the assumption that if Iran wanted to make the last sprint to weapons-grade uranium, in what experts call "nuclear breakout," it would use its stock of 20 per cent enriched uranium.
But a sharp quantitative increase in the number of Iranian centrifuges, or alternatively the introduction of qualitatively superior fast centrifuges, totally changes this scenario. Gary Samore, who served on the U.S. National Security Council during President Barack Obama's first term, has in fact recently warned that all Iran has to do is massively increase its number of its older IR-1 centrifuges and it can pose a new threat to the West: "Ending production of 20-percent-enriched uranium is not sufficient to prevent breakout because Iran can produce nuclear weapons using low-enriched uranium and a large number of centrifuge machines." The installation of fast centrifuges, like the IR-2m, makes this even more of a challenge for the West.
Given Iran's new technical achievements, it becomes clear why Tehran is now so determined to get its "right of enrichment" recognized in any agreement that emerges in Geneva. For the Iranians have positioned themselves to get nuclear weapons from any level of enrichment that they are allowed. Of course there is no "right of enrichment" according to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which only speaks about "the inalienable right of all the parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes."
Past IAEA reports have noted that Iran is developing warheads that are to be fitted on its Shahab 3 missiles, that can strike Israel. Iran cannot argue that its uranium enrichment work is for peaceful purposes, in accordance with the NPT, and at the same time develop nuclear warheads for its ballistic missiles, in violation of the NPT. In short, Iran cannot claim a legal right based on a treaty that it has systematically breached so flagrantly.
It is often forgotten that, starting in 2006, the U.N. Security Council passed six resolutions prohibiting Iran from engaging in any enrichment. These resolutions were specifically adopted under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter and are legally binding under international law, adding further legal force to the argument that Iran has no legal right whatsoever to enrich uranium.
Thus for the West to acknowledge any Iranian claim to a right of enrichment is completely unnecessary and unwarranted. Given the technical developments in the Iranian nuclear program, such a concession would also be dangerous, for allowing enrichment at any level will make it extremely difficult for the West to be certain that Iran will not proceed to a nuclear weapon in the months ahead.