The weekend and Monday saw senators, analysts, and journalists raise increasingly pointed concerns over rumors that the West may accept a deal that would leave Iran with either enriched uranium up to 3.5% purity or the right to continue enrichment. Observers fear that any amount of enriched material or enrichment capacity, given advanced centrifuges that Iran has installed in the last year, would leave the regime with the option of following North Korea’s example and sneaking across the nuclear finish line.
Statements and leaks had indicated that Iran would propose exactly such a deal, offering to limit some of its future enrichment capabilities while retaining all of its already-enriched material. This morning The New York Times piled on previous skepticism, explaining that the proposed deal was just flat out outdated:
Iran is expected to make an offer on Tuesday to scale back its effort to enrich uranium, a move that a year ago would have been a significant concession to the West. But Iran’s nuclear abilities have advanced so far since then that experts say it will take far more than that to assure the West that Tehran does not have the capacity to quickly produce a nuclear weapon…
In 2003, when Iran struck its only nuclear deal with the West, it had a relative handful of somewhat unsophisticated centrifuges. Today, Iran has at least 19,000, and 1,000 of those are of a highly advanced design and have been installed but are not yet being used to enrich uranium.
That is more than enough, experts say, to transform low-enriched uranium to weapons grade from the 3 percent to 5 percent range in a few months. That would provide Iran with a so-called breakout capability that is unacceptable to the West and Israel, even if, as expected, Iran proposes a moratorium on enrichment to 20 percent. “Ending production of 20 percent enriched uranium is not sufficient to prevent breakout, because Iran can produce nuclear weapons using low-enriched uranium and a large number of centrifuge machines,” said Gary Samore, a senior aide on nonproliferation on the National Security Council in President Obama’s first term.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations nuclear watchdog, has documented how over the last year Iran has installed more centrifuges, and more advanced centrifuges, significantly shortening the window it would take the regime to go nuclear. The regime’s scientists are now able to use even low-enriched uranium of 3.5% purity to get to weapons-grade levels along a dramatically shortened timeline.
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