Iran centrifuge news increases risk

By Cliff Kupchan

News that Tehran is reportedly planning to deploy faster centrifuges at a hardened site and intends to triple production of highly enriched uranium increases somewhat the risk of Israeli strikes, if Iran can follow through. If these steps are successfully implemented, Iran would have the ability to make a nuclear weapon more quickly. However, Tehran frequently overstates its capabilities, and the degree of looming threat is uncertain. Observers will need to watch future International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) statements carefully.

If Iran places both advanced generation machines and a large stockpile of 19.75 percent uranium at the hardened Fordo site near Qom, the threat of dash to a bomb would significantly increase. Even using very conservative assumptions, Iran could make a bomb in 12-18 months, depending on how many advanced machines are deployed, their efficiency, and other factors. The possibility that Fordo may not be vulnerable to air strikes increases the chance an Iranian breakout could succeed.

There are doubts, however. First, Iran's ability to make and operate advanced machines that work well, individually and in cascades, is uncertain. Second, Iran may not have enough component material to make large numbers of advanced machines.

Several explanations are possible for why Iran is, rhetorically at least, again emphasizing its nuclear program. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei may now feel the need to boost the regime's domestic legitimacy and international influence, for two reasons. The Iranian regime is concerned about the effect of Syrian President Bashar Assad's possible fall on its regional clout, and may seek to augment that clout through progress on the nuclear program. In addition, Khamenei faces the prospect of a low turnout from a disaffected population at parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012 and 2013, and could be seeking to preempt a loss of legitimacy through nuclear advances. Finally, Iran may have made at least enough progress on advanced centrifuges to deploy two cascades and reap the political benefits of doing so.

The central question is how quickly Iran is able to move forward. Several signposts in quarterly IAEA reports will be telling. The reports will reveal how quickly Iran deploys the two test cascades and then how quickly, in what quantity, and with what efficiency Tehran deploys these machines at Fordo. Finally, these documents will provide information about how much 19.75% material is being accumulated.

The chance of Israeli strikes remains now very low for now, as Israel has been pleased with the effect of covert action and sanctions. But Israeli officials have revealed increasing concern over these issues. Progress by Iran on the above agenda will increase the chance of strikes; movement of advanced centrifuges into Fordo would be especially provocative. Unless Israel believes it could successfully attack the hardened site, it will face a very tough decision point. This more dangerous scenario would very likely rattle markets.

Cliff Kupchan is a director with Eurasia Group's Middle East practice

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