A leading nuclear weapons proliferation expert is questioning the Obama administration’s claim that Iran can meet its enriched nuclear fuel limit required under the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), saying the administration may have to allow a weaker standard that could threaten its requirement that Iran have at least a one-year breakout time to a nuclear weapon.
David Albright, founder of the non-governmental Institute for Science and International Security, is a former Iraq nuclear weapons inspector who is known for showcasing holes in the Bush administration’s contention that Iraq was close to developing nuclear weapons.
The dispute over Iran’s supply of nuclear fuel erupted June 1 when the New York Times revealed that Iran’s continuing enrichment of uranium has led it to be 20 percent above the level it was 18 months ago, when the JPA was struck. At the time, the administration claimed it had succeeded in “freezing” Iran’s program.
The State Department noted last week in response to the uproar over the piece that Iran’s levels of enriched uranium were permitted to fluctuate and would be back at the JPA “freeze” level by June 30.
But Albright, in a June 5 paper with coauthor Serena Kelleher-Vergantini, expressed skepticism and argued that State has not explained how Iran will overcome stumbling blocks that have prevented it from converting its potentially weapons-capable fuel – 3.5 percent LEU hexafluoride – into enriched uranium oxide, which could not be used in weapons and would be deployed for making nuclear power reactor fuel instead.
The problem is that Iran has had technical problems making the conversion – it claims “sabotage,” but that’s questionable – and so has converted only a sliver of what it was it supposed to. Albright does not appear to see how it can convert the remaining fuel so quickly.
Some of the 3.5 percent LEU hexafluoride is in the conversion plant but in an intermediate state – not yet oxidized into the less dangerous uranium oxide, as required under the JPA. So, according to Albright, the administration appears primed to allow Iran to meet a weaker standard – basically that of a partially converted fuel. This, he says, carries risks and would “threaten the U.S. requirement that Iran would need at least 12 months to breakout and produce enough weapon-grade uranium for a bomb.”
It is effectively ignoring a potential violation. In this case, the potential violation refers to Iran not producing the enriched uranium oxide at the end of the initial six month period of the JPA and again after its first extension. The choosing of a weaker condition that must be met cannot be a good precedent for interpreting more important provisions in a final deal. Moreover, it tends to confirm the views of critics that future violations of a long term deal will be downplayed for the sake of generating or maintaining support for the deal.
The State Department, Albright writes, “has some explaining to do.”
No doubt, the administration will insist that “peace in our time” should not be sacrificed because of a “minor technicality,” which Iran will soon fix. And then, with the sanctions fully off, Iranian violations will continue to be ignored until the ayatollahs test their very first nuclear weapon.
At which point – to throw another scientific term out there for you – we’re screwed.