First as Tragedy, Twice as Farce: Decoding Iran’s Resumption of Enrichment at Fordow and Advanced Centrifuge R&D at Natanz.

It’s said even the best laid of plans go awry, and alas the plan was to write up about North Korea’s last KN-25 MLRS/guided tactical missile flight test prior to moving on to other topics. However, this week’s developments regarding the situation with Iran and the JCPOA have put paid to those plans. I should say, at any rate, there is a connection here to North Korea which is where we’ll conclude this post.

The Iran crisis is a direct function of Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA on the most spurious grounds. So much so that “the Iran crisis” or “the Iranian nuclear crisis” and the like are deeply misleading labels. What we have is a generalised “Trump crisis” of which the situation with the JCPOA is a specific part.

Iran this week announced three reversals of its commitments under the JCPOA. Firstly, the introduction of another 30 IR-6 advanced gas centrifuge cascade at Natanz making a total of 63 IR-6s installed in total (another 30 machine cascade and a standalone cascade of 3). Secondly, the announcement of advanced work on a new IR-9 centrifuge with a reported 50 SWU kg per year separation capacity (50 times more powerful than the IR-1) and today’s news, which has attracted a lot of attention, that Iran will begin to enrich uranium at Fordow. The last has made a bigger splash than the first two, however I submit the action should be with the more advanced centrifuges.

These moves were well telegraphed in advance. They didn’t just come out of nowhere.  On May 8 Iran announced it would reduce its commitments under the JCPOA at bimonthly intervals and on October 31 the Iranian foreign ministry stated it would take its fourth step in early November. On October 8 Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, stated Iran in the coming period would introduce another 30 IR-6 centrifuge cascade at Natanz, which meant this was always going to be part of the fourth step. What we’ve seen this week is the graduated unveiling of that fourth step.

According to the reports I’ve seen Iran has announced each of these moves are reversible. So, what we are seeing here is a carefully calibrated process of incremental escalation to compel the Europeans to cushion the blow of US economic sanctions, the snapback of which are massive violations of the JCPOA. The Europeans have agreed to do this as a remaining party to the JCPOA but have thus far not delivered on their end of the bargain. When reading mainstream media reporting on the JCPOA you are left with the impression that it consists of only one Annex, the Nuclear Related Measures Annex. However, there are more for example we have in addition Annex Two Sanctions Related Measures. Both these annexes are the guts of the Agreement, not just the first nuclear related alone.

The snapback of economic sanctions, including secondary boycotts that use the special position of US capital markets in the global economic system, have had a significant impact on the Iranian economy. According to the IMF Iranian GDP will decline by 9.5% for 2019, higher than the 6% forecasted, which is a massive recession by any measure. According to the IMF world oil prices would need to hit $194.6 a barrel for Iran to balance its budget. The IMF forecasts that Iran’s economy will stabilise next year, but that’s predicated on there being no additional measures taken against it. This week President Trump announced new financial sanctions against Iran. Washington will, most likely, continue to put the squeeze on. The above linked Reuters report on the IMF study states, “the IMF forecast Iran’s exports of goods and services to drop to $60.3 billion this year from $103.2 billion last year, and to fall further to $55.5 billion in 2020.” The Europeans are not compensating Iran for this massive external shock to its economy, as they have pledged to do. That’s why Iran has adopted a policy of phased reduction in its commitments to Annex One of the JCPOA. It’s an escalatory process to compel the remaining parties to the JCPOA to ensure Annex Two remains in effect.

The Iranians have claimed each of their phased measures, including the phase four measures, are reversible (a point to which we return). Now consider some of the reported effects the snapback of sanctions has had on Iranian society. According to a Human Rights Watch Report those sanctions “have drastically constrained the ability of Iranian entities to finance humanitarian imports, including vital medicines and medical equipment.” Further, “While the US government has built exemptions for humanitarian imports into its sanctions regime, Human Rights Watch found that in practice these exemptions have failed to offset the strong reluctance of US and European companies and banks to risk incurring sanctions and legal action by exporting or financing exempted humanitarian goods.” When you read the Human Rights Watch report you get the distinct impression these humanitarian impacts are intended. That makes them, quite simply, crimes against humanity. Should a sick person die as a result that would make for an irreversible affect of Washington’s massive violation of the JCPOA.

Although the corporate media is awash with Iran’s calibrated reduction of its commitments under the JCPOA the effects of the far more significant violations of Annex Two go largely unreported.  The differences between Tehran’s actions and Washington’s are beyond comparison, and this is a small example of the corporate media’s servility in the Trump era. Both Trump’s worshippers and his liberal critics labour under the illusion the corporate media has taken an implacably hostile stance toward the Trump administration.

That said, let’s take a wee look at Iran’s phase four reduction of its JCPOA Annex One commitments. I’m not going to do this in order. I’ll start with Fordow, move on to the IR-6, and conclude with the IR-9.

Fordow

In its last (August 2019) report on the implementation of the JCPOA the International Atomic Energy Agency stated that Iran had no more than 1,044 centrifuges installed at Fordow and that no nuclear material during the reporting period was introduced to the facility. Under Section 44 of Annex One Fordow “will be converted into a nuclear, physics, and technology centre and international collaboration will be encouraged in agreed areas of research.” Thus Section 45 “Iran will not conduct any uranium enrichment or any uranium enrichment related R&D and will have no nuclear material at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) for 15 years.” Iran is now violating those provisions. Fordow was to be devoted to stable isotope production for research, industrial and medicinal purposes. Under section 46.2 of Annex One that was to be limited to two IR-1 centrifuge cascades, “two cascades that have not experienced UF6 before will be modified for the production of stable isotopes. The transition to stable isotope production of these cascades at FFEP will be conducted in joint partnership between the Russian Federation and Iran on the basis of arrangements to be mutually agreed upon.”

This is where the reported use of the term “reversible” in the announcement of the phase four measures becomes important. As can be seen the JCPOA stipulates stable isotope production is reserved for two cascades that were not feed with UF-6 prior to Implementation Day (the day the agreement came into force). UF-6 is a nasty and highly corrosive gas, centrifuges that have enriched uranium previously are not optimal for isotope separation other than for UF6 thereafter, and usage of “reversible” means that Iran has just announced it is going to feed UF6 into IR-1 centrifuges at Fordow that were fed UF6 in the past. That leaves the two centrifuges stipulated for stable isotope separation under the JCPOA still devoted to this task. It is only on this basis that the announced measure renders as reversible. That makes the Fordow measure a carefully calibrated measure. If the other parties ensure Annex Two holds Iran can return back to the Annex One provisions on Fordow. That’s assuming the reports regarding reversibility are accurate, something to watch out for in the coming period.

IR-6

This one is interesting. That’s because feeding UF6 into either 30 machine IR-6 cascade or both has been set by the Europeans as a “redline.” For that reason, it would be a major step that could lead to a significant escalation of the crisis. Under Section 32 of Annex One “Iran will continue to conduct enrichment R&D in a manner that does not accumulate enriched uranium.” Under Section 37 regarding the IR-6 specifically “Iran will continue testing of the IR-6 on single centrifuge machines and its intermediate cascades and will commence testing of up to 30 centrifuge machines from one and a half years before the end of year 10.” At phase three of the reduction of its commitments under Annex One Iran announced to the IAEA, as per the Agency’s report on the matter,

“On 7 September 2019, Iran informed the Agency that it intended to install and test, with natural uranium, additional advanced centrifuges at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) in Natanz. On the same day, the Agency verified that the following centrifuges were either installed or being installed at PFEP. 22 IR-4, one IR-5, 30 IR-6 and three IR-6s.4 All of the installed centrifuges had been prepared for testing with UF6, although none of them were being tested with UF6 on 7 and 8 September 2019.”

The 30 IR-6s put Iran at odds with Section 37 and the latest announcement doubles that up. This opens up the prospect of experimenting with IR-6 centrifuges in cascades greater than 30. The IR-6 has a reported 10 SWU kg/yr separative capacity.

The business regarding Fordow has dominated the airwaves, not so much the matter regarding advanced centrifuges. That’s because discussion of Iran’s activities has always been, and continues to be, dominated by breakout scenarios where accumulation of enriched uranium (even LEU) is all important. I’ve never been too fussed by that. I’ve always been more interested in Iran’s ability to develop small clandestine enrichment plants using more powerful centrifuges. The more Iran experiments with advanced centrifuges, and the more it puts under cascade, the more knowledge and capacity it acquires to do this. Alexander Glaser’s crude breakout scenario involving the A.Q. Khan origin IR-2 (5 SWU kg/yr in his calculation) assumes 987 machines in a maximum cascade of 106 machines. Recall the IR-6 has a reported 10 SWU kg/yr separative capacity.

Work on more powerful centrifuges in larger cascades provides for a type of epistemic breakout, and Trump’s insanity is facilitating this. The JCPOA clearly wanted to place curbs on that by limiting Iranian Research and Development and by having Iran accede to the Additional Protocol to the IAEA Model Safeguards Agreement, which is designed to detect clandestine plants through more open ended inspection and environmental sampling.

The reports I have seen suggest Iran has not introduced UF6 into any of its 30 machine IR-6 cascades, but this too is something worth monitoring closely over the coming days and weeks. It could lead to a breakdown.

The IR-9

Oh, I want my mummy. Ali Akbar Salehi also announced this week that Iran was working on a prototype of an even more powerful centrifuge than the IR-6 called the IR-9. Salehi claimed it’s 50 times more powerful than the IR-1. That means the IR-9 is to have a 50 SWU kg/yr separative work capacity.  Under the JCPOA, again Section 32, “for 10 years and consistent with its enrichment R&D plan, Iran’s enrichment R&D with uranium will only include IR-4, IR-5, IR-6 and IR-8 centrifuges. Mechanical testing on up to two single centrifuges for each type will be carried out only on the IR-2m, IR-4, IR-5, IR-6, IR-6s, IR-7 and IR-8. Iran will build or test, with or without uranium, only those gas centrifuges specified in this JCPOA.” That makes no mention of the IR-9.  The separative work capacity of a centrifuge primarily increases with the length of the rotor wall and the rotor wall velocity, and greater rotor wall velocity is achieved through increasing the strength to weight ratio of the material used to manufacture the rotor. The Iranians seem to be riding the learning curve quite nicely here. If there’s the curve of binding energy, then this is the curve of separating energy.

It takes 232 SWU kg/yr to produce 1 kg of highly enriched uranium. The significant quantity of nuclear material for a modern implosion nuclear weapon whose fissile core is highly enriched uranium is about 12 kg. That makes 2,784 SWU kg/yr to produce enough HEU for one modern implosion device. One IR-9, recall, has a 50 SWU kg/yr separating capacity. The more powerful the gas centrifuge the lower the footprint of a clandestine enrichment plant, which would make it harder to detect especially using technical means at a distance. Here’s a pic of the IR-9 in some of its glory (this comes from an Iranian TV news report uploaded to YouTube by Ali Javid).

North Korea

Okay, so what’s the deal with North Korea? Well, North Korea has been at this game longer than Iran and, you’d think, has made more progress than Iran. So, if the Iranians are getting a prototype of an IR-9 what makes you think North Korea doesn’t have a machine with a similar capacity, if not a machine with more separative capacity? Now remember that 2018 CNBC report, citing US intelligence officials, claiming North Korea has multiple clandestine enrichment sites

“U.S. intelligence agencies believe North Korea has increased production of fuel for nuclear weapons at multiple secret sites in recent months and may try to hide these while seeking concessions in nuclear talks with the United States, NBC News quoted U.S. officials as saying.”

Further,

“The network cited U.S. officials as saying that the intelligence assessment concludes that North Korea has more than one secret nuclear site in addition to its known nuclear fuel production facility at Yongbyon.”

Subsequent to that report one of those was fingered by analysts at the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, namely the Kangson enrichment plant near Chollima. It is the oldest North Korean enrichment plant, and reportedly its location wasn’t fixed by US intelligence until 2010 (although it appears to have been operational since 2003). So where are the others? They haven’t been publicly disclosed nor pinpointed by researchers.  They (or it) could be hard to find because North Korea has installed them (or it) with advanced centrifuges as the plants (or plant) which house them have a relatively small footprint. It’s not clear that the US intelligence assessment is based on technical intelligence gathering as opposed to human intelligence either.

The North Korean angle, I submit, shows you what research and development into powerful centrifuges can lead to. The mushrooming of clandestine enrichment plants that cannot be permanently bombed out of existence even when detected. The epistemic genie is then well and truly out of the bottle. This is more significant than traditional breakout scenarios.  

Now consider the possible state of play in 2020. Iran completely withdraws from the JCPOA and the diplomacy with North Korea has collapsed. North Korea, prior to entering that process, stated it would not sell any of its nuclear technology to potential foreign buyers. It’s quite possible, then, that North Korea might arrange a little A.Q. Khan type advanced centrifuge package for Iran (or another buyer) in which case you’ll get a working cascade or two or three of IR-9 centrifuges sooner than you think.

Which just goes to show how much of a dickhead Trump is.  Reports in the mainstream press in the past week have repeated the usual canard that Trump withdrew from the JCPOA because it doesn’t limit Iran’s missile programme and because of Tehran’s actions in the Middle East. That’s so much bullshit. Trump withdrew from the JCPOA because it was negotiated by Obama so therefore had to be destroyed, and secondly because, for Pompeo and co especially, its reflective of a regional strategy that seeks to create stability by creating instability. Stability is a technical phrase meaning adherence to US plans and preferences. Iran does not have a sufficiently servile foreign policy, which is contrary to stability, so in order to create a more servile Iran Washington must sow instability.  

That’s not too dissimilar to the last time the Reaganites were in power. Then the Bush administration policy was AOC, Anyone Other than Clinton. Because the Agreed Framework with North Korea was associated with Clinton it had to go. That played no small role in the advent of the Kangson enrichment plant. Now we’ve got Anyone Other than Obama, and so we’re heading toward another Kangson this time under the sands of Persia.

First as tragedy, twice as farce.

Finally, before I conclude this post which has exceeded my planned word length (the best laid and all that) I upload this selection of traditional Iranian music. I played it in the background as I was working on this. I offer it as a reminder that there’s more to Iran than missiles and centrifuges.

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