May 19, 2016


The Iran Deal: Myth and Reality (Jeremy Bernstein, 5/17/16, NY Review of Books)

My own view is that the deal has been more successful than I expected, although there are flaws.

The deal has already significantly reduced Iran's supply of both centrifuges and nuclear fuel. During the height of their nuclear program the Iranians had more than 18,000 centrifuges operating to enrich uranium. Most of these were outmoded but newer versions were being built. The number has now been reduced to about 5,000 that can be used to enrich small amounts of uranium.

Construction of the advanced models has stopped. At the time of the deal, the Iranians had enriched over sixteen thousand kilograms of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride. This is a compound that is solid at room temperature but is heated to a gas when it is fed into centrifuges. Of this about 3,500 kilograms were used to make 20 percent enriched uranium. (20 percent is the maximum allowed by the non-proliferation regime.) Some four thousand kilograms of the 16,000 were also used to create uranium oxide, which can be used to make a metal. The rest was used to make uranium or uranium hexafluoride that was enriched to less than 4 percent.

But the Joint Plan stipulates that for fifteen years the Iranians can maintain a stock of only 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, and on December 28, a Russian ship took some 11,000 kilograms of Iran's uranium stockpile--in various forms and in various degrees of enrichment--to Russia. (One of the silliest comments on this came from Trump, who tweeted: "The Iran deal is terrible. Why didn't we get the uranium stockpile--it was sent to Russia"--apparently unaware that uranium hexafluoride is both toxic and radioactive.)

The Joint Plan has removed the main rationale Iran has used for producing 20-percent-enriched uranium. For many years the Iranians were claiming that the production was necessary to fuel the small Tehran Research Reactor, but they already have enough to last for the indefinite future so this explanation is no longer tenable.

Furthermore, the nuclear deal has had a significant effect on Iran's production of plutonium--which along with enriched uranium is one of the two materials that can be used to make a fission bomb. (A hydrogen bomb uses nuclear fusion but it must be triggered by a fission bomb.) Plutonium does not exist naturally on Earth so it must be manufactured in reactors, which produce it in their spent fuel. The Iranians were constructing a reactor at Arak that seemed especially designed to make plutonium. It ran on natural uranium and used heavy water to slow down neutrons, a process that enhances fission.

For years the Iranians did not allow adequate inspections of the Arak reactor. This has now changed. The original design of the reactor has been scrapped and a more suitable reactor is being built with the aid of the Russians and the Chinese. The Russians will supply the fuel and take away the spent fuel. They have already been doing this successfully with the Iranian power reactor at Bushehr. The Iranians will ship most of their heavy water out of the country. This too is a significant advance since for many years the IAEA was never allowed to inspect Iran's production of heavy water.

The fact that the nuclear bit is working is just a side benefit.
Posted by at May 19, 2016 6:53 PM