At the base of Iran's nuclear program is the material. At the larger facility of Natanz, revealed to the IAEA in 2002, we're seeing the enrichment of uranium to relatively low degrees -- Natanz likely enriches materials to 3.5% and use this as the feed to centrifuge cascades. Fordow was forcibly announced in 2009 and, though much smaller, is more equipped to enrich uranium to high degrees; the enrichment of uranium to 20%, likely the degree to which it's being enriched at Fordow, is an indication of Iran's interest in nuclear weapons; this, combined with the fact that the program could, in no way, be economical for the country, indicates that they are almost inevitably seeking nuclear weapons.
Iran has many hundreds of centrifuges running and many months of work is required to enrich the uranium to a degree high enough for weapons-grade materials. As gaseous uranium is introduced to the centrifuges, it is quickly spun and the heavier particles are essentially scraped from the sides. This process, known as cascading, is repeated many hundreds of times but, logically, as the uranium becomes more concentrated, the amount of time required to separate the heavier atoms becomes shorter. Though uranium must be enriched to degrees at or in excess of 90% in order to yield a clean nuclear weapon, 90% of the work has been completed by the time 20% enrichment has been reached.
If Iran continues to enrich their material to degrees that surpass civilian needs much longer they will certainly need to decide on a firm excuse for the unusual activity. I've been asked about the repercussions of an attack on these Iranian facilities; first and foremost it's important to note that these compounds are underground and, in the case of Fordow, actually buried beneath civilian cities -- Qom in this case.
But not only will a crude attack on these facilities be ineffective at very most, it would undeniably be considered illegal by the UN Security Council as there are currently no official grounds to attack Iran or its program -- vastly similar, in fact, to the US and UK's invasion of Iraq, in which Bush cited the transaction of uranium between Iraq and Niger, proven fictitious by Joe Wilson, as intelligence. Worryingly, we would also see support for a government that is otherwise dwindling in popularity, similar in effect to the rally around the flag seen for George W. Bush after 9/11, creating an enormously potent drive to achieve nuclear dominance of the Arab world.
So, in my opinion, an attack on Iran's program would, in fact, exacerbate their interest in acquiring functional WMDs and prove both dangerous and detrimental in the long run. And though officially condemned by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, I expect we will see more covert warfare on the part of Israel, who has recently been targeted as the entity responsible for the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists.
On the other hand, the consequences of Iran's program being successful and unhindered are just as tragic -- the rival countries, notably Saudi Arabia and likely Turkey, would vehemently seek to acquire nuclear weapons. A nuclear arms race in the Middle East, especially considering that the regimes of these states are so disconnected from the people living within a state's borders, and considering the presence of Israel, a Jewish nuclear power in an Arab world, could have staggering consequences.
Concerning the role of the United States, they've already committed to a world free of nuclear weapons; Israel's program, ironically, is also one of the world's worst kept secrets. Their nuclear program consists of 100-200 weapons. In comparison, Iran's capabilities and scale -- 250kg of HEU by 2012 -- while using 20% enriched uranium as the feed into the cascades could yield only 4-5 nuclear weapons. So when Helen Thomas asked President Obama if any countries in the Middle East had WMDs, you can see why he gave her a vague response of "I don't know."
So what's the solution?
I recently spoke with Dr. Hans Blix, former head of the IAEA and UN monitoring, inspection, and verifications on the subject of Iran's nuclear program. I was comforted to see he shared my opinion: the most feasible solution is diplomacy. Many argue for increasingly tight economic sanctions, but my opinion has developed in a dissenting way -- personally, I believe these sanctions have worked very little and continue to do nothing more than antagonize the country; if they've got the material (they do) and if they've got the scientists (they might,) we're looking at a virtual nuclear power -- and certainly bombing a country with the nuclear technology will not end the program.
Iran, however, has incentive to drop its nuclear weapons program; with support from the international community, Iran could convert their stockpiles of HEU to material usable for nuclear energy. Fortunately this is something that, under the Non-Proliferation Treaty of which Iran is a part, is perfectly legal.
Dr. Blix noted that, after consideration by the international community, this material could be used in the Tehran Research Reactor as well as a new nuclear power facility provided by the United Nations as an incentive to change the course of the Iranian program.
This is, in my opinion, the safest and possibly ideal solution to relieve the current tension caused by Iran's ambitions, not to mention would be a supreme addition to the power grid in Iran and offer the quickest way to produce energy which could be used to expand medical capabilities and infrastructure. Conveniently for those who advocate for a world free of nuclear weapons, a recent poll of Israeli Jews shows that the majority would favor a Middle East free of nuclear weapons if the second option were two Middle Eastern states with a nuclear capacity. With this in mind, it's truly the best climate for diplomatic action -- we've got to seize the opportunity to offer incentives which persuade Iran's interests and draw them from prestige to economic development.