The official mantra of the recent nuclear conference in Tehran was ‘Nuclear energy for all, nuclear weapons for none.’
But this wasn’t the real message that the Iranian government wanted to convey. Had the Iranian government been more honest and open about its real goals for the conference, it would have chosen the mantra ‘We crushed the opposition, our nuclear programme is going full steam ahead, no matter what the West says.’
The fact that Iran convened its own conference so soon after last week’s nuclear summit in Washington also shows that when it comes to international consensus over the Iranian nuclear programme, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei still sees the international community as weak and divided. This was evident in the repeated statements by Iran’s media that 60 countries took part in Iran’s nuclear conference, compared with the 47 who attended the US-sponsored summit.
Khamenei’s view is right, up to a point. Although it does seem that China and Russia are going to back further sanctions against Iran, we’re still not sure how solid their support will be, nor do we know how far they are willing to punish Iran in the next round of sanctions. This worries Western leaders—and especially Israel—greatly. Jerusalem wants crippling sanctions to be imposed as soon as possible, but this is unlikely to be realized soon. Although another round of sanctions are under discussion, it’s extremely unlikely that they would be strong enough to stop Iran’s nuclear programme in its tracks.
So is a nuclear Iran a foregone conclusion?
Despite all the bombastic claims regarding ‘giant strides’ being made by Iran over its nuclear programme, in reality, Tehran is facing severe problems that are hampering its goals to make a nuclear bomb.
First, there’s Iran’s centrifuge production capabilities.
According to a recent study by the Institute for Science and International Security from May to November 2009, the number of centrifuges enriching Uranium at Iran’s main Natanz enrichment centre actually fell from 5000 to 3900. This is due to the outdated design of existing centrifuges, as well as sanctions that are hampering Iran’s capability to import the necessary parts, such as special magnets, which are required to produce centrifuges.
Furthermore, doubts remain regarding the quality of Iran’s newly-introduced ‘third generation centrifuges.’ According to Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, these new centrifuges ‘will have a gas-separation power of nearly ten, which is six times more than the first generation of centrifuges.’
However, according to Salehi’s own admission, these new centrifuges haven’t yet been tested with uranium hexafluoride (UF6), the gas that is spun in the centrifuges for the production of enriched Uranium. According to nuclear experts David Albright and Jacqueline Shire, such testing is ‘a fundamental step in establishing the viability and enrichment performance of the machine.’ As testing is a thorough process that usually requires new changes in design and manufacturing stages, it could take months, if not a full year, before this stage is completed. It’s therefore far too early for the Iranian government to declare major strides in the application of these new centrifuges, when they haven’t even been road tested yet.
Once that’s over, the problem of mass production still remains. Such centrifuges are of little use if produced in small batches. As Iranian nuclear expert Dr. Reza Taghizadeh stated in a recent interview with BBC Persian TV: ‘Iran has also produced a new generation of fighter aircraft. However, they were all experimental models, produced in single units. Iran was unable to produce them on a mass scale due to sanctions. The same is also likely to apply to these new centrifuges, which are more sophisticated design and require quite a number of parts which need to be imported.’
In addition to UN sanctions, Western intelligence agencies have played a vital role in preventing Iran from acquiring key technical parts as knowhow for Iran’s nuclear programme. And it will continue to do so, when it comes to Iran’s capabilities in acquiring the required parts and expertise to turn enriched uranium into a bomb.
In fact, some Iranians wonder whether foreign intelligence agencies might even have infiltrated the ranks of Iran’s leadership.
Judging by some of the recent domestic decisions made, one has to seriously wonder whether some Iranian leaders are paid by foreign agents to cause maximum damage to the Islamic Republic. This is most in evidence by the recent decision taken by the Iranian government to reduce at least $20 billion worth of public subsidies.
Once implemented, this new programme will cause steep price rises for everyday essentials such as food and energy for the Iranian consumer. These measures will create more misery for the Iranian consumer and cause more damage to the Iranian economy than UN sanctions could in the short to medium future. And the advantage of these measures for the West is that the Iranian public will blame their leadership for the damage, and not them.
Furthermore, the subsidy reduction programme that Ahmadinejad is pushing through is likely to create further infighting within the regime, as the change is likely to reduce demand for products that IRGC companies have been supplying. When it comes to their business interests, many such companies are very protective of them.
The combination of problems facing the Iranian nuclear programme and the worsening economic situation in the country are weakening Iran’s hands in its dealings with the West. A nuclear Iran is by no means a foregone conclusion.
Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst and the co-author of ‘The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and The State of Iran.’ He runs The Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Company (www.meepas.com).