Recent reports from European diplomats have revealed a worrisome development: Iran is testing a new, more sophisticated type of centrifuge for enriching uranium. On a technical level, this demonstrates the skills of Iran's engineers, who appear to have applied "considerable technical creativity" to solve problems caused by manufacturing limitations along with export controls and sanctions. Politically, it demonstrates that Iran has, for now, no intention of bowing to U.N. Security Council demands and ceasing its enrichment activities.
Dubbed the IR-2, Iran's new centrifuge model is an Iranian-designed variant of the P-2 centrifuge used in Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. The original P-2 design, obtained by Iran in 1995 from the A.Q. Khan network, was apparently too difficult for Iran's engineers to manufacture without help. Iranian experts have reportedly succeeded in building and testing a few at Iran's enrichment plant in Natanz, but the Institute for Science and International Security believes (pdf) that Iran cannot make large numbers of the IR-2 without importing certain key items.
Even though the IR-2 appears to be easier for Iran to build, the new centrifuge maintains the same production capacity as Pakistan's P-2. Both can enrich uranium about 2.5 times faster than the P-1 centrifuges Iran has already been running at Natanz. Under optimal conditions, about 1,200 IR-2 centrifuges would need to operate for a year to make enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear warhead. The same goal would require about 3,000 P-1 centrifuges. (Natanz probably has about this many P-1s, but they have not been operating at full capacity.)
While not proof that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, perfection of the IR-2 could make a nuclear "breakout" scenario more feasible in the medium term. Iran has had some trouble perfecting operation of the P-1 centrifuges it already has, but one nuclear official said the IR-2 was "more ingenious" than the unreliable P-1. The comment implies that the new design might be easier for Iran to operate. That fact, coupled with a much higher rate of production, would make it much easier for Iran to make quick progress to high levels of enrichment (and, therefore, a nuclear weapon), if it decides to go that route. Notably, Iran was also able to develop the new centrifuge in secret. If the Iranians were able to hide development of a new centrifuge, might they also be more likely able to hide continuing weapons development?
That said, relatively little concrete information on this development is in the public domain. Watch this space for more detailed commentary when the IAEA releases its next report, hopefully at the end of the month.