In January of this year, Olli Heinonen declared that "it would take half a year [for Iran] to go from 3.5 percent enriched uranium to weapons-grade material for the first nuclear device." Well let's sound the all-clear: there is no hint whatsoever that Iran will have a nuclear device this summer, and its enriched uranium stockpile continues to be under the watchful eye of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
In a new but equally breathless and alarmist account, Heinonen parades a litany of technical facts about Iran's uranium enrichment to 20 percent that worries him. Oddly, he then goes on to characterize Iran's offer to suspend enrichment to this allegedly highly dangerous level as Iran only offering a "pawn ... in exchange for the queen -- the lifting of oil sanctions."
Which is it? Is 20 percent enrichment merely a "pawn," or is it the imminent and mortal threat that Heinonen describes?
If it is merely a pawn, why bother negotiating about it?
If, however, Iranian enrichment is seen as a serious issue -- a "queen," say, in chess parlance -- then it requires serious reciprocity such as some significant relief on sanctions, perhaps even involving the EU oil embargo that is set to begin in July.
Heinonen makes a big deal about the IAEA's recent detection of uranium particles enriched to 27 percent at the Fordow underground enrichment plant in Iran. While this is well above the declared 20 percent enrichment level at the facility, the discovery is, in all likelihood, a technical glitch and not indicative of any sinister ploy. Indeed, the very detection of these particles is heartening in a way; that the IAEA could pick up "trace" amounts of such material should lend great credence to the IAEA's role as the "tripwire" for any serious diversion or over-enrichment of nuclear materials in Iran. As Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies recently stated, "There are good reasons to worry about Iran's enrichment work but this probably isn't one of them."
But how could such a technical glitch have happened? There are several possibilities. When a cascade of centrifuges is started up, only a small amount of uranium hexafluoride gas is fed through the system at first. Because the system is only doing work on a small amount of gas, this material gets over-enriched, but only temporarily. When the remainder of the gas is added, the overall enrichment level gets blended down to the target figure -- in this case 20 percent (19.75 percent, to be technically precise).
Importantly, this issue has cropped up before in Iran, and also wasn't a big deal then. In 2010, the IAEA detected "a small number of particles" at Iran's Natanz facility enriched as high as 7.1 percent when the target level there was 5 percent. At that time, the IAEA noted that the detected over-enrichment refers to "a known technical phenomenon associated with the start-up of centrifuge cascades."
Of course, such transient anomalies need not occur only when firing up centrifuges. In fact, the possibility of over-enrichment exists any time the uranium hexafluoride gas feed is reduced, or any time centrifuge speeds are increased beyond normal levels. This latter scenario, of course, is exactly what the Stuxnet virus is reported to have brought about in the hopes of destroying the centrifuges. Just recently, a new and powerful virus called Flame was detected in the Middle East. While it's unlikely, we can't rule out the rather ironic possibility that viruses that alter centrifuge speeds may also play a role in producing such over-enrichments.