Iran announced last week that it would start feeding its first IR-8 centrifuges with uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6). The 2015 Iran nuclear deal states that Tehran’s breakout time (the time needed to enrich uranium enough for a nuclear bomb) is one year, but that is based on Iran only using the first-generation, less-efficient IR-1 centrifuges. With more powerful IR-8s and other advanced centrifuges, Iran could enrich uranium for a weapon much faster. In three to four years, the country could be able to deploy large numbers of advanced centrifuges – if it can convince the international community that its nuclear program is peaceful and that it should be treated like any other nation, without restriction on its nuclear and enrichment activities.
The nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), adopted by the P5+1 negotiators allows testing of more advanced centrifuges under the rubric of enrichment research and development. However, while Iran submitted its uranium enrichment R&D plan to the IAEA, and the P5+1 endorsed the plan, the information has not been made public. As a result, independent experts cannot evaluate the implications of Iran’s uranium enrichment R&D program, nor estimate if (and when) Iran would be in a better position to break out from its nuclear commitments. Such a plan should be compatible with Iran's future needs of enriched uranium for its civilian nuclear power program.
Using past cases as a guide, if Iran continues its current rate of testing, the country will be able to field a demonstration plant in three or four years that will have triple the capacity of its currently installed IR-1 centrifuges. With this plant, Iran’s breakout time would drop to three or four months.
Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, confirmed that it is Tehran’s intent to build up enrichment capacity: “We can very easily snap back and go back … not only to where we were, but a much higher position technologically speaking.” In another interview, he stated that Iran can, in a single year, install a capacity of 100,000 SWU – 20 times its current capacity.
As Iran tests IR-8s, the nuclear deal also permits it to test IR-2m centrifuges. Tehran is already technically able to deploy IR-2ms in large numbers but is prevented from so doing by the deal’s terms. In three to four years, Iran will have two potential paths to greatly enhance its enrichment capabilities: with IR-2m centrifuges that have already been tested, and, if successful, with an IR-8 demonstration plant.
In December 2015, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors closed the investigation into the Possible Military Dimensions (PMDs) of Iran’s nuclear program. PMD investigations and establishing a credible baseline of past nuclear activities are important in understanding the full scope of Iran’s nuclear program. In prematurely closing the PMD file, the IAEA might verify the correctness and completeness of Iran’s nuclear declarations under its safeguards agreement and reach a so-called “broader conclusion” – certifying that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful – within four years. That would be half the number of years anticipated by the JCPOA. Such an early conclusion has been something Tehran has been publicly pushing.
This would be a game changer not only in Iran, but also for the region, as all United Nations non-nuclear sanctions will be lifted, including the ban on ballistic missile testing and conventional arms embargo. Additionally, exporters will no longer be required to receive advanced approval to deliver nuclear single- and dual-use items to Iran.
JCPOA restrictions do not permit the Islamic Republic to start larger-scale manufacture of centrifuges at the time of the broader conclusion. Nonetheless, Iran will be in strong position to argue that it should be permitted to do so.
Iran claims that it intends to build six to eight nuclear power reactors in 15 years. Even with that number of reactors, the kind of enriched uranium production output Tehran aims to have is both unwarranted and excessive. The fact also remains that the international market has an oversupply of both uranium and enrichment services – meaning that Iran could purchase enriched uranium more cheaply than it can produce it domestically.
It appears that alongside achieving technical industrial capacity with a short breakout time, Iran is planning to use its uranium enrichment capacity as a strategic tool to achieve political goals. Its proclamations about plans to develop nuclear propulsion in retaliation for Washington’s extension of existing sanctions were a demonstration of this intent.
The P5+1 should provide Tehran assurances on supply of fuel for all power and research reactors – eliminating any need for Iran to produce fuel domestically – and require that all spent fuel be returned to the supplier nation for the entire lifetime of the plants. In return, Iran would have to restrict uranium enrichment to R&D for the next 14 years. It would also have to make public the deal’s R&D parameters, including the maximum enriched uranium inventories it has, and any exemptions granted for wastes, scrap material, and hold-up. The R&D plan would become part of a public White Paper on Iran’s nuclear energy for a 15-year period. It would need to be reviewed by the Joint Committee, which was set up by the deal, in five-year intervals to accommodate developments in energy plans and international nuclear fuel markets. These steps would go some way to alleviate international concerns about Iran’s future capabilities.
The Trump administration will need to act quickly. Once Iran is technically able to construct an IR-8 demonstration plant, and once the IAEA reaches a broader conclusion, rolling back Tehran’s enrichment capacity will no longer be in the cards. Instead, Iran will have an expanding nuclear program with increasing uranium enrichment capacities – with all of the dangerous ramifications for the region and the world that such a scenario would bring.
Dr. Olli Heinonen is a senior advisor on science and nonproliferation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is the former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and head of its Department of Safeguards.
 This estimate is based on based on a calculation of 1,000 IR-8 centrifuges with an enrichment capacity of 16,000 SWU. The Institute for Science and International Security estimates the IR-8 maximum enrichment capacity at 16 SWU per year. Iran’s IR-1 capacity at Natanz is about 5,000 SWU. David Albright, “Technical Note: Making Sense out of the IR-8 Centrifuge,” The Institute for Science and International Security, September 23, 2014. (http://isis-online.org/isis-reports/detail/technical-note-making-sense-out-of-the-ir-8-centrifuge/8)