Clarifying the Iran Debate: Viewing the Latest IAEA report

Media reports buzzed with words like “capabilities,” “redlines” and “zones of immunity” following the release of last week’s report on Iran’s nuclear program by the International Atomic Energy Agency.  Those words are concerning, but not precise. What did the IAEA report actually say?

IAEA reports can be highly technical. However, the non-expert can get a sense of the trajectory of Iran’s program by observing two things: how many centrifuges are enriching to 20 percent and how much 20 percent uranium Iran has stockpiled. If further enriched, that uranium eventually could be used in the explosive cores for nuclear weapons. The number of centrifuges partially determines how long it would take Iran to enrich its uranium stockpile to weapons grade, if it made the decision to do so.

The best snapshot of those numbers comes from Ploughshares Fund grantees at the Arms Control Association and the Institute for Science and International Security - the go-to resources for analysis of IAEA reports.

Iran installed more centrifuges, but not all are enriching. Iran installed another 1,076 centrifuges at Fordow, the underground enrichment site where Iran does its most of its 20 percent enrichment. This doubled the number of centrifuges installed at the facility. However, only 636 centrifuges are enriching uranium, notes David Albright of ISIS. This means Iran is moving to expand its capacity to produce 20 percent enriched uranium, but only bringing that capacity online slowly. It is almost as if Iran were “seeking to calibrate the tempo of its enrichment activity so as not to goad its antagonists,” writes Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent uranium actually decreased.  Iran produced an additional 43 kg of 20 percent uranium in the last three months. However, Iran is in the process of converting approximately half of its stockpile into fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor, meaning this material is no longer available for rapid enrichment. “Thus Tehran has only 91 kg of 20 percent enriched material it could quickly enrich to weapons grade. This would not be enough material for one bomb, if Tehran were to further enrich it to bomb-grade,” write Tom Collina and Daryl Kimball at ACA.

So what does this mean for Iran’s program?

Mark Fitzpatrick notes, “The danger posed by Iran’s nuclear program is heightening incrementally: The numbers grow arithmetically, not by orders of magnitude.” But Iran’s program appears not to be at a tipping point yet. “If Iran sought to make a rush to build nuclear weapons, the combination of IAEA inspections and intense intelligence scrutiny would sound the warning in time,” writes Fitzpatrick.

This leaves “time and space” to find a diplomatic solution that keeps Iran from getting nuclear weapons and averts another disastrous war in the Middle East.