TIMMERMAN: Holding the line on Iranian nuclear weapons

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Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday that negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran will “test” Tehran’s nuclear intentions, and impose “fully verifiable” steps to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons. And yet, he has already given in to Iran’s most significant demand: that they be allowed to continue enriching uranium.

This is a fatal negotiating mistake, which could have deadly consequences.

Iran enriches uranium hexafluoride gas in fast-spinning centrifuges. Spin the centrifuges for a certain period, and you get low-enriched uranium, which can fuel a nuclear power plant. Spin them a bit longer, and you get weapons-grade uranium to make a bomb.

As long as they have the centrifuges and the enrichment plants, there is no inherent stopping point in the technology to prevent Iran from spinning up to weapons-grade uranium. It’s a bit like giving a teenager the keys to the Mustang on a Saturday night and asking him not to push it beyond 30 mph. Are you kidding?

Just like the teenager, all the Iranians have to do is step on the gas, and they will turn the corner to becoming a nuclear weapons state in little time. They don’t need to make any changes in their existing technology.

Over the past two years, Iran has made great strides in its enrichment capabilities. According to the latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, the regime now has 19,000 centrifuges, including several thousand high-performance, new-generation machines they are still testing.

To date, they have produced more than 10,000 kilograms (22,000 pounds) of low-enriched uranium. With further enrichment, by most estimates, that is enough for roughly 10 bombs (or “significant quantities,” as the agency calls the amount of highly enriched uranium needed to make a crude, Hiroshima generation weapon). If Iran used a more efficient bomb design, it would be enough for many more.

One of the most respected nongovernmental experts on Iran’s nuclear programs, former Atomic Energy Agency inspector David Albright, has consistently argued that technological and management bottlenecks have slowed the Iranian bomb program considerably. Just two years ago, he questioned whether Iran’s main enrichment plant at Natanz was for real, or just an expensive “boondoggle.”

Now Mr. Albright thinks the program is for real, and that Iran has the capability of producing enough uranium hexafluoride for a bomb in less than one month.

His Institute for Science and International Security released a report Thursday that examined the various estimates for the amount of time Iran would need to produce weapons-grade uranium at its declared enrichment facilities, and at a covert facility using the new-generation centrifuges. He concluded that the only way to prevent an Iranian “breakout” capability would be to require that Iran dismantle at least half of its 19,000 centrifuges.

Given Iran’s record of cheating and dissimulating its capabilities from international inspectors, I think allowing Iran to retain any enrichment capability would be a mistake.

The Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty grants nonnuclear powers access to civilian nuclear technology only if: 1) they open all their facilities to international inspection, and 2) they foreswear all nuclear weapons research or activities.

The Islamic republic of Iran has been caught violating the treaty on both counts, and has been sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council five times because of these violations. Thus, Iran has no “right” to nuclear technology, period.

Rep. Trent Franks, Arizona Republican, recently introduced the United States-Iran Nuclear Negotiation Act (H.R. 3292), which would set negotiating parameters for the administration, including a ban on enrichment.

The bill also calls for the United States to demand a halt to Iran’s illegal pursuit of a heavy-water plutonium production plant in Arak. This nuclear reactor, incapable of producing much electricity, is nothing but a bomb plant.

Iran’s foreign minister and lead nuclear negotiator, Javad Sharif, reiterated in Geneva the long-standing positions of his government. For Tehran, the “right” to enrich uranium is a “red line” they do not intend to cross. So is completion of the Arak bomb plant.

While talking about talks — which is all the Geneva talks were about — might satisfy some deep-seated need in the psyche of career diplomats, Mr. Kerry must place a clear time limit on how long he will allow the Iranians to procrastinate. Every day we continue the talks, the Iranian centrifuges are spinning. Every day they continue to spin, Iran gets closer to nuclear capabilities no international agreement will be able to control.

Kenneth R. Timmerman is the author of “Shadow Warriors: Traitors, Saboteurs and the Party of Surrender” (Three Rivers Press, 2008).

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