Window for Nuclear Diplomacy on Iran Is Now Open but Not for Long
Having delivered its latest quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear programme to its board, the nuclear safeguards department of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) gave a technical briefing on Wednesday to an audience of ambassadors in Vienna about the same material but with some pictures to make the whole thing clearer. At such briefings, ambassadors can also ask questions to sound out the head of safeguards, Herman Nackaerts, on his impressions.
On this occasion, the main message western ambassadors came away with was that Iran appears to be just days away from starting feeding uranium hexafluoride gas into four new cascades of centrifuges at its underground enrichment site at Fordow. Those cascades, of 174 centrifuges each, are being vacuum tested which is usually the last step before piping in the uranium gas. The impression given at the technical briefing was that these new cascades would almost certainly be producing 20%-enriched uranium, which is the main proliferation concern and the leading source of international tension over the Iranian programme.
For the past six months Iran has been producing 20% uranium at the rate of 14 to 15 kg a month. It now has a stockpile of about 135 kg, while Israel has declared that 240 kg, enough to make a single warhead if further enriched, is its red line, implying it would take military action to stop Iran reaching that point. If the four new cascades work properly and starting spinning uranium, the production rate would go up to 25 kg a month, so the red line would be breached in about four months, rather than seven.