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The End of Obama’s Vision of a Nuke-Free World
Posted on Feb 16, 2010
By Scott Ritter
Iran’s stores of foreign-procured UF6 are nearly exhausted. So is the stock of UF6 that Iran produced using foreign supplies of natural uranium. What is left for Iran is UF6 produced from indigenous sources of natural uranium. However, these stocks are believed to be contaminated with molybdenum, a metallic substance the presence of which creates destructive mass-distribution problems when Iran’s centrifuges are spun up to the more than 60,000 revolutions per minute needed to extract enriched uranium from the UF6 feedstock. If Iran cannot come up with the means to extract the molybdenum from its indigenous UF6, then short of finding an outside supplier of natural uranium or clean UF6 (activities that would have to be declared to the IAEA), the Iranian enrichment program will halt.
This would not prevent Iran from using its existing stocks of 3.5 percent enriched uranium as the feedstock for any effort to produce 19.5 percent uranium. Reconfiguration of its centrifuges to conduct this higher level of enrichment is likewise well within the technical capability of Iran. The ultimate testament to the failure of U.S. nonproliferation policy when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program is the reality that, in an effort to retard any Iranian nuclear breakout scenario that saw Iran rapidly converting its low-enriched stocks to high-enriched fissile material, the United States has actually facilitated such a scheme. Had the U.S. sought to lock Iran’s enrichment infrastructure in at a 3.5 percent capacity, any deviation from that level would have been viewed with suspicion. However, by creating the conditions that have Iran now seeking to build enrichment facilities capable of 20 percent enrichment, the Obama administration has significantly reduced the threshold of detection and prevention which was in place when all Iran produced was 3.5 percent enriched uranium.
The number of centrifuges required to step up enrichment of 20 percent uranium to higher levels is significantly smaller than the number needed to step up from 3.5 percent to 20 percent. Furthermore, any Iranian breakout scenario that starts at 20 percent enriched feedstock will reach its end objective of 90 percent enrichment far quicker than a similar program that starts at 3.5 percent. The Obama administration has not only made it easier for Iran to hide a covert nuclear weapons enrichment capability, but also made it far more efficient. That there is no evidence of any such program in existence does not matter in the minds of those who had given Iran such a capability to begin with. When dealing in a universe driven by the theoretical, the U.S. fumbling of the nuclear fuel swap with Iran has simply made the breakout theory more viable. And since U.S. nonproliferation policy toward Iran is more driven by faith-based analysis than it is by fact-based analysis, one can all but guarantee that the U.S. response to this new fiction will be real, and measurable, and have nothing but negative results for the Middle East and the World.
The unfolding crisis concerning Iran’s nuclear program represents but one of several nonproliferation failures perpetrated by the United States that, in combination, bode poorly for the upcoming NPT Review Conference scheduled for May. In May of 2009, at the conclusion of the preparatory committee for the NPT Review Conference, there were high hopes for the possibility of progress in reaching international consensus on nonproliferation issues, and reshaping the NPT to capture this consensus. Much of these hopes were derived from the statements and rhetoric of the Obama administration about nuclear disarmament and arms control. Unfortunately, rhetoric never caught up with reality.
Not only has U.S. policy toward Iran been exposed as operating in total disregard to the provisions of the NPT (Iran, after all, is permitted to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes under Article IV of that treaty), but the cornerstone commitments made by the Obama administration as a prerequisite for a successful NPT Review Conference in May 2010—movement toward ratification of the CTBT, agreement with the Russians to extend the verification mechanisms inherent in START while achieving even deeper cuts in their respective nuclear arsenals—have failed to materialize. There is almost no chance of the CTBT being submitted to the U.S. Senate for ratification, let alone being actually ratified. The failure of the administration to extend START past its December 2009 expiration date has not only left the U.S. and Russia with no arms control verification vehicle, but has reignited dormant Cold War-era tendencies in both nations, with the Russians deploying a new generation of intercontinental ballistic missile and the U.S. talking about nuclear warhead modernization.
President Obama had hoped that the 2010 NPT Review Conference would pave the way to a global consensus on multilateral approaches toward nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. Instead, its looming demise only accelerates the existing trend in the United States to reject international agreements and instead embrace a unilateralism sustained by the false premise that security can be achieved through nuclear supremacy. One only needs to examine the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the ongoing fiasco that is America’s global war on terrorism to understand the fallacy of that argument.
The policy of the U.S. toward Iran’s nuclear program is to blame for much, if not all, of this failure. Had the administration used the fuel swap agreement as an opportunity to bring Iran back into the fold of the international community—not by excluding its uranium enrichment efforts, but rather legitimizing them through enhanced IAEA inspections and Iran’s agreement to participate in closely controlled regional fuel bank programs that kept its enriched uranium stocks under stringent international controls—there would not have been the policy floundering which occurred in the fall of 2009.
Fears about a phantom Iranian nuclear weapon would have dissipated, and with it the illogical U.S. insistence on ballistic missile defense initiatives that have fatally undermined the current round of U.S.-Russian arms control negotiations. Had the Obama administration remained consistent with its September 2009 decision to terminate the controversial Bush-era missile defense plan involving the stationing of interceptor missiles and radar systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, there would be a START treaty today. But the sleight-of-hand approach, in which one program was terminated only to be replaced by another, triggered concerns among Russian military leaders about the real policy objectives of the Obama administration.
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