The regime is rapidly expanding uranium enrichment

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Iran is rapidly expanding uranium enrichment and is retiring from the nuclear deal. Uranium traces in a secret warehouse nourish additional doubt as to whether Tehran was ever serious.

Christian Weisflog, Beirut

A satellite image from early November shows the Fordo nuclear facility, which has put Iran back into operation. (Image: Maxar Technologies via AP)

A satellite image from early November shows the Fordo nuclear facility, which has put Iran back into operation. (Image: Maxar Technologies via AP)

So far, Iran has adopted small steps from the nuclear deal. But last week Tehran increased the stroke rate significantly. They had commissioned sixty modern IR-6 centrifuges, announced the head of the Iranian nuclear authority on Monday. As a result, daily production of low-enriched uranium has increased tenfold from 450 grams to 5 kilograms. An even more efficient centrifuge is under development.

Enrichment in the underground

During the night on Thursday, Iran also filled the 1044 old gas centrifuges in the Fordo nuclear facility with uranium hexafluoride. As part of the nuclear agreement, Tehran had to transform the deep-built in a mountain enrichment plant into a research center. Now this step has been reversed. At present, uranium is enriched up to 5 percent with the fissile isotope 235, said the spokesman for the Iranian nuclear authority on Saturday, adding, "Iran has the capacity to enrich uranium to 5, 20, 60 or any other percentage."

According to the nuclear agreement, Iran can only enrich uranium to 3.67 percent. The total amount is limited to a maximum of 300 kilograms. Tehran now has over 500 kilograms of low enriched uranium. That is still little compared to the situation before the agreement signed in 2015. At that time, Iran owned about 10 000 kilograms of uranium, which were enriched up to 20 percent. In order to actually build a nuclear bomb, this would not have been enough. For this, the Islamic Republic needs enough fissile material, which is enriched over 90 percent. Experts estimate that the time it takes for Teheran to produce this weapons-grade uranium is twelve months. However, the much more powerful centrifuges shortens this break-out time.

How accurate the estimates are, however, is questionable. Because an accurate forecast requires a reliable fact sheet. And this may be missing. This is evidenced by a spring incident that has just become known. Based on information from the Israeli intelligence service, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspected a warehouse south of Tehran in the spring. Natural and processed uranium particles were found. On Wednesday and Thursday, two sessions had been held on this subject at the headquarters of the IAEA in Vienna, reported the news agency Bloomberg. Tehran hindered the search for the origin of uranium, said Massimo Aparo, Deputy Director-General, to diplomats behind closed doors.

According to Israeli data, the warehouse had 15 kilograms of radioactive material. However, according to current knowledge, the uranium was not highly enriched. Nonetheless, Iran's intransparent behavior fuels the suspicion that it has secretly been working on a nuclear weapons program.

Inspector is detained

Also on Thursday, Tehran withdrew accreditation from an IAEA inspector. In the Iranian version, the woman sounded an alarm as she passed through security at the entrance to the Natanz uranium enrichment facility. A chemical detector indicated that the woman was carrying "suspicious material". Tehran has not yet explained what the substance should be. Apparently, the inspector was held briefly before she could leave the country.

But regardless of what Iran is secretly pursuing, America's exit from the nuclear deal and Washington's painful economic sanctions seem to legitimize unlimited uranium enrichment. Iran is preparing for a quick breakout, American Foreign Minister Mike Pompeo warned in a tweet and called for a closed international response: "It is time for all states to reject nuclear blackmail and increase pressure."

Washington go out of options

Pompeo hopes that the growing danger of a nuclear-armed Iran will make sure that not only the Europeans, but also Russia and China, swerve on the hard American course. Tehran will then be forced to the negotiating table with this unified front and maximum pressure. But so far, a reintroduction of the Iranian regime seems unlikely. The reasons for this are also domestic politics: The external pressure strengthens the hardliners. They do not want to take advantage of this until the parliamentary elections in 2020 and the presidential elections in 2021.

Washington's sanctions have plunged the Iranian economy into a deep crisis. But even this does not seem to be able to break the stamina. All the more so when President Hassan Rohani announced on Sunday the discovery of a large oil field. This is to increase the Iranian reserves by a third. Also on Sunday, Iran, in cooperation with Russia, started the construction of the second nuclear reactor in Bushehr for civil power production.

At the same time, Tehran's belief has grown that it does not need to fear military retaliation from the US under President Donald Trump. So far, Iran has been able to shoot down an American drone with impunity and attack the Saudi crude oil plants. The hesitation in Washington has led the United Arab Emirates and even Saudi Arabia to temper their previously confrontational rhetoric against Iran.

The old idea of ​​a "surgical attack" on the Iranian nuclear facilities, meanwhile, hardly seems to be an option anymore. Tehran has moved its nuclear infrastructure underground to such an extent that it is questionable whether it would do any great damage to an attack. And although Iran should still agree to negotiations, a return to the status quo ante would hardly be possible. The know-how in nuclear matters, which the regime is now acquiring with the development and operation of new centrifuges, is no longer reversible.



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