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Why Iran Might Want to Enrich Uranium, Even if They Don't Want a Bomb

04/07/2015 08:36 am ET | Updated Jun 07, 2015
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As negotiators return from Lausanne with an outline for a nuclear framework in hand, the fate of a deal now shifts to a U.S. Senate that remains baffled at Iran's dogged defense of their enrichment program. Our back-of-the-envelope reasoning typically proceeds as follows: Iran can buy reactor fuel on the international market for cheaper than what it costs to enrich it. Thus, the only reason for Iran to enrich is to produce fuel for a bomb.

But this detached calculus is made possible only by a radical ahistoricism that seems to pervade nearly all discussion of the Iranian nuclear program. Understanding Iran's nuclear history is crucial for interpreting key aspects of the emerging deal.

First, some techno-economics. Nuclear power reactors represent towering investments. Most are designed to last 40 years, and their lives are often extended to 50 or 60. Meanwhile, the price of fuel makes up less than 30 perfect of their operating cost. Hence, to an Iranian decision-maker hoping to protect Iran's nuclear investment, it probably doesn't much matter whether the Russia of today agrees to sell them nuclear fuel. Iran will need secure access to fuel for the next half-century or more, and the history of Iran's scuttled efforts to seek peaceful nuclear cooperation would loom large in any assessment of future prospects.

That history begins with the revolution in 1979. Construction of the Bushehr reactor had begun under the Shah, but after the revolution the German construction firm backed out of the project. This left Iran with a multi-billion-dollar reactor that was 80 percent complete, and many sources indicate that pressure by Washington fomented the withdrawal. In any case, U.S. pressure was certainly involved in 1983 when the International Atomic Energy Agency ceased cooperation with Iran's peaceful nuclear program, and when France, China and Argentina backed out of fuel-supply and technology-transfer arrangements during the '80s and '90s. Given these events, why would Iranians ever rely on the international community for nuclear fuel in the coming decades? It was during this time that Iran reverted to self-reliance, seeking enrichment technology from A.Q. Kahn's clandestine network.

Westerners often ask: If Iran's enrichment program could be justified for peaceful purposes, why did they keep their enrichment program secret for so long?

This is a silly question. If the U.S. were able to persuade important nuclear states not to cooperate even with Iran's fuel-fabrication efforts (which have no weapons application), then a declared enrichment program would be out of the question. Clandestine procurement of centrifuge technology was probably Iran's only option. Even the more recent Fordow enrichment facility -- ominously hidden in a mountain -- can be seen as a shrewd insurance plan when considered alongside the danger to their other facilities. Iran's much larger Natanz enrichment plant has been under persistent threat of Israeli airstrike to "take out" Iran's uranium route to a bomb. As fellow nonproliferation analyst Ivanka Barzashka and others have pointed out, the existence of the Fordow plant removes this option since it would be invulnerable to an airstrike. In fact, if Iran can simply continue enriching at Fordow, then destroying Natanz is even worse than pointless, since it would likely change Iran's calculus in favor of weaponization.

Well played, Iran. Well played.

I cannot speak for Iran, but these considerations might help us understand their sticking points. For instance, it may seem mysterious that Iran is willing to limit centrifuge numbers below an industrial scale, yet still insists on continuing to enrich. But keeping a small fleet of running centrifuges allows Iran to maintain their centrifuge expertise in a healthy and advanced state. This way, if the deal falls apart and they lose access to fuel from abroad, they can quickly expand to industrial scale and avoid shutting down their reactors like they did in the '80s.

Now, our best intelligence indicates that, prior to 2003, Iran did have a program to design a bomb alongside their enrichment activities. That same intelligence tells us that the bomb program was halted in 2003, and has not continued since. What has continued is the progressive isolation of Iran by the West, and the clear need for Iranian self-reliance for all things nuclear. And lest we congratulate ourselves that "harsh sanctions have finally brought Iran to the negotiating table," let me go ahead and pop that little bubble: Iran came to the table in 2003, before sanctions were escalated, with a better deal than we could possibly imagine today. We eloquently responded "you're evil, go away." Since then, they have done the rational thing and become excellent enrichers of uranium so they will never again be without fuel for their reactors.

No one wants to see Iran break out of the nonproliferation treaty. In our efforts to prevent this, we tech-savvy nonproliferation analysts have focused on monitoring their technical capabilities as if our funding depended on it (disclosure: it does). But consider that roughly a dozen nations could easily break out of the treaty, yet only one has. As a predictive variable to indicate impending nuclear proliferation, "technical capability" has been an abysmal failure. On the other hand, we discover a much more promising predictor when we note that the one NPT breakout nation, North Korea, was also the most politically and economically isolated. Isolated countries like bombs. Now as we consider the least-worst alternative to an agreement with Iran -- more sanctions and isolation -- let us hope that a final deal is reached this summer. And further, lets hope our embarrassment of a Congress stays the hell out of the way.

Chris Lawrence is a nuclear scientist who works on nonproliferation issues at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation.