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February 10, 2010

Why So Serious?
Posted by Patrick Barry

One irritating aspect of Iran adopting a diplomatic style marked by the alternating use of concessions\provocations is that it does little to tamp down alarmism about its nuclear program. Take yesterday’s reports that Iran will move to enrich its LEU stockpile (enriched to 3.5%) to medical levels (enriched to 20%.)  Before going on, I should make clear that I think this is a serious step by the Iranians, for reasons David Albright lays out in this Washington Post story (though the piece requires some help translation from Jeffrey Lewis). Basically, according to Albright, it’s much easier to go from uranium enriched for medical purposes to uranium enriched for weapon’s purposes. This plan would bring Iran closer to nuclear breakout capacity, and so at some level, it should be concerning.   

But announcing an action is not the same as actually doing it.  That’s why my housemates and I don’t react very strongly when one of us declares something like, “this is the week when we get serious about cleaning the living room.”   So while Glenn Kessler may have a point that its very scary to imagine that Iran could make the “significant step” toward “possessing the raw material needed to build a nuclear bomb,” the less-frightening reality is that enriching uranium to levels consistent with medical use is a rather complicated and lengthy process. According to the Associated Press, “enriching to 20 percent would take about one year and require up to 2,000 centrifuges.”  And as Reza Aslan points out, “not only has Iran thus far barely managed to enrich uranium to 5 percent, it can hardly keep its one enrichment plant in Natanz—which took many years to build—up and running full time.”    All in all, it's not clear whether Iran has the ability to see its plan through to fruition, making its somewhat troubling declaration rather hollow.

A more accurate analysis of the announcement would read something like “Iran takes step in the direction of year-long process, which, if successful, would result in the uranium necessary for further enrichment to weaponization levels.”  But no, instead Iran is “one step closer to a bomb.”  


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