‘A Pretext for Breakout’ – Experts Warn About Potential Iranian Plans for Highly-Enriched Uranium

October 30, 2012 - 4:54 AM

Ahmadinejad at nuclear plant

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses a ceremony at Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz in 2007. (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian/File)

(CNSNews.com) – A senior Iranian lawmaker’s threat that Tehran could increase the level to which it’s enriching uranium has prompted a U.S. scientific think tank to warn that the step would move Iran significantly closer to having weapons-grade uranium – and increase the likelihood of war.

Before Iran formally announces any such plans, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) advised, the United States and its partners should “quietly but clearly state to Iran what it risks by producing highly-enriched uranium under any pretext.”

ISIS analysts were responding to statements by Mansour Haghigatpour, deputy chairman of Iran’s parliamentary committee on national security, to the effect that if negotiations with the “P5+1” – the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – fail to deliver a deal Iran may have to start enriching uranium to 60 percent.

Haghigatpour first made the comment to Iran’s state-funded Press TV early this month, and repeated it in an interview with the Associated Press last week. He said enrichment to that level would be needed to fuel nuclear-powered submarines and other vessels.

ISIS president David Albright and analysts Andrea Stricker and Christina Walrond said in a report that if Tehran gets away with enriching uranium to 60 percent “without provoking military strikes or draconian sanctions, there is little to prevent it from claiming a civilian or naval justification for producing WGU [weapons-grade uranium] and amassing a stockpile of nuclear weapons material.

“Taken in this context, any official Iranian announcement to make highly enriched uranium should be seen as unacceptable,” they added. “Many will view such a decision as equivalent to initiating a breakout to acquire nuclear weapons, reducing any chance for negotiations to work and potentially increasing the chances for military strikes and war.”

Iran has for years been enriching uranium to 3.5 percent – the grade required to fuel a power plant – and in 2010 it began enriching to 19.75 percent, the upper end of the required level for research reactors like its Tehran-based medical research facility.

Twenty percent is the defining line between low-enriched uranium (LEU) and highly-enriched uranium (HEU), while weapons-grade uranium (WEU) is enriched at 90 percent or more.

In its latest safeguards report on Iran, in early September, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Iran’s stockpiles of 3.5- and 19.75-percent enriched uranium, as well as its enrichment capacity, have continued to grow despite international sanctions.

The nuclear watchdog said Iran now possess 6,876 kilograms of LEU, an increase of 679 kilograms since last May. ISIS calculates that 6,876 kilograms of LEU, “if further enriched to weapon grade, is enough to make over six nuclear weapons.”

Haghigatpour’s comment has not been repeated by others in the Iranian hierarchy, and Albright, Stricker and Walrond said it “should not be seen as having any official standing for policy unless repeated or announced by senior executive or nuclear officials.”

At the same time, ISIS said the U.S. and international community should prepare for the possibility that Iran may officially announce such a decision.

Iran has no need for HEU, they argued, since even if it wanted to build nuclear-powered naval vessels it could do so using reactors operating with uranium enriched between five and 20 percent. (Naval nuclear reactors can operate with uranium enriched to a wide range – France has deployed submarines fueled with LEU under 10 percent, while American submarines are fueled with 90 percent-plus HEU.)

Besides, the ISIS report said, Iran is not expected to be capable of building a nuclear-powered submarine for decades.

“Iran’s claim to need 60 percent highly enriched uranium fuel has no credibility and should be seen as a pretext for breakout,” it stated.

ISIS warned of the possibility of a “slow motion breakout” – an Iranian tactic of gradually increasing enrichment levels over a relatively long period of time, in the hope the international community will acclimatize to each new level.

Three high-level meetings between Iran and the P5+1 this year have seen no progress towards resolving the decade-old nuclear standoff.

A Congressional Research Service report published this month said U.S. and international sanctions imposed on Iran have so far not “accomplished their core strategic objective of compelling Iran to verifiably limit its nuclear development to purely peaceful purposes.”