Iran is giving mixed signals, but the West really seems to be highly overreacting to an Iranian announcement that it is going to upgrade uranium to 20%....for medical purposes, a process that will take about a year an that will fall far short of the 90% enrichment that is needed to make a bomb..
But the story is somewhat complicated. Iran is zigzagging. In October there was a deal whereby Iran would send most of its low grade uranium abroad and was to receive it back processed as fuel for its nuclear plants. Iran however backtracked. Untill last week, when Iranian president Ahmadinejad as yet appeared to go with the deal when he, shortly before the launch of a new Iranian satellite, said that his collegues were worried that Iran would never see the uranium back, but that he himself did not have a problem with the swap. It seemed that - maybe - the deal was going to be through after all
But next in the chain of events was an anouncement, also by Ahmadinejad, that he had ordered the enrichment plant at Natanz to start upgrading uranium to a level of 20%. Iran currently enriches uranium to a level of 3.5% but requires 20% enriched uranium for its research reactor in Tehran, which produces isotopes for medical puposes. A bomb would require uranium enriched to at least 90%.
Ahmadinejad visits the factory in Natanz
Iran's highest nuclear authority, Ali Akbar Salehi, anounced that the process in Natanz would begin as off today. In the same breath he mentioned that Iran is going to build another ten enrichment plants in the coming period. Experts of the International Atomic Energy Agency are present at the site in Natanz. It is expected that enriching to 20% using the 2,000 centrifuges at Natanz. would take about one year.
The news immediately drew angry reactions from the West. The US and France reacted by saying that the time had come 'for the adoption of strong sanctions', while the British government described Iran's new position as deeply worrying. Russia signalled its disapproval. 'Actions such as starting to enrich low-enriched uranium up to 20% raise doubts in other countries and these doubts are fairly well-grounded,' Nikolai Patrushev, head of Russia's security council, was quoted as saying. 'Political-diplomatic methods are important for a resolution, but there is a limit to everything,' he said.
Only the Chinese were more careful and said that more talks are needed in order to solve the matter.Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu refused to comment directly on sanctions at a press conference on Tuesday and said to hope that 'the relevant parties will step up efforts and push for progress in the dialogue and negotiations.' As a UN Security Council member, China's support would be needed for any new round of sanctions against Iran.
The Western reactions are somewhat exxagerated when one realizes that it will take one year to enrich ranium to a grade of 20%, that Iran at the moment does not even have the possiblities to enrich to a grade of 90%, and that everything is taking place under the eyes of inspectors of the IAEA. Apart from that, as Juan Cole mentions on his blog:
The list of other countries capable of producing LEU of 19.75% includes Brazil, China, France, Germany, India,Israel, Japan, Holland, North Korea, South Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. There would be nothing extraordinary about Iran joining this list, and none of the others on it except N. Korea is being sanctioned-- and that is for constructing a bomb, which Iran is not doing. Argentina was sanctioned neither for enriching to 19.75% nor for selling that stock of LEU to Iran! And South Korea was never sanctioned for secretly enriching to 77%, near bomb grade, something Iran has never been accused of.So why apply such different standards to Iran? The fact that it has a goverment that is despised by at least half of its population and by us here in the West, is not enough reason. And maybe that the zigzagging of this government is highly irritating and confusing, but those Iran watchers who declare that Ahmadinejad's unstable movements between yes and no may have to do with the fact that he does not want to be seen by the hardliners in Tehran as too soft and too easily accomodating to Western demands, may have a point. Just one more it of evidence for such an assumption was presented to us today, when Salehi, the boss of Iran's nuclear program, said that Iran could drop the 20% enrichment drive if the West would guarantee that t could have this upgraded uranium from elsewhere.
So let's hope that the Chinese approach will prevail and that cries (like those from Netanyahu in Jerusalem) for 'crippling sanctions to be applied right now' will fall on deaf ears. .