In a rare move for any government, Iran released photographs of the most recent inspection tour of its nuclear facilities by top IAEA officials and inspectors. These images included pictures of its new generation of centrifuges that it hopes to use to enrich uranium, a complex technology to master and machines that are very hard to manufacture except in highly industrialized societies.

Normally details regarding these machines are kept highly secret, and to date only the IAEA inspectors have visually inspected them. However, for whatever reason Iran is proudly displaying them for all the world to see, as well as openly discussing the difficulties it has had in producing working centrifuges:


The sprawling site, known as Natanz, made headlines recently because Iran is testing a new generation of centrifuges there that spin faster and, in theory, can more rapidly turn natural uranium into fuel for reactors or nuclear arms. The new machines are also meant to be more reliable than their forerunners, which often failed catastrophically.

On April 8, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the desert site, and Iran released 48 photographs of the tour, providing the first significant look inside the atomic riddle. […]

“I don’t see anything to suggest this is propaganda,” Houston G. Wood III, a centrifuge expert at the University of Virginia, said in an interview. “They seem to be working on an advanced machine.”

Such judgments rest not only on the photographic clues, but also on the Iranian record of successful, if limited, enrichment, as well as the reports of international inspectors, who have tracked Iran’s effort to develop the new centrifuges. […]

In great secrecy, Iran began its centrifuge program in 1985, according to inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency. It copied a Pakistani design, known as the P-1. {…]

In recent years, Iran has tried to move ahead in sophistication with a newer centrifuge design based on Pakistan’s second-generation model, known as the P-2. Its rotor is made of superhard steel that can spin faster, speeding the pace of enrichment while lowering the risk of breakdown.

But Iran had great difficulty building the machines and obtaining the special steel. Mostly in secret, it instead developed its own version, the IR-2. It is partly indigenous, signaling that the Iranians have achieved new levels of technical skill. If perfected, the IR-2 could accelerate Iran’s production of fuel for reactors or bombs.

A European centrifuge expert who closely follows the Iranian program, including the evaluations of international inspectors, said difficult work remained on the IR-2. “They obviously have months, if not a year, of test work to do before they can consider proceeding with mass production,” the expert said, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity. […]

Given the high stakes and international jitters, why did Iran release the photos? Analysts cite everything from a spirit of cooperation to blasts of disdain.

“Maybe it’s an invitation for engagement, or maybe it’s just to show off their achievement,” said R. Scott Kemp, a centrifuge expert at Princeton.

Okay, what does this really mean? To me, it means first and foremost, that Iran’s current centrifuges, the ones that the Bush administration and the Israeli government have been hyperventilating about for so long are simply not very reliable. If they were, would Iran have invested so much time, money and effort into developing and producing a more advanced design? Of course not. Its current centrifuges must work flawlessly over a long period of time to produce enough enriched uranium for reactor fuel, and even longer to produce highly enriched uranium suitable for nuclear weapons.

Mr. Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security said that in one year 3,000 flawlessly running P-1 centrifuges could produce enough weapon-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon. Or, he added, the same could be achieved with 1,200 IR-2 machines.

The key word above is flawlessly. And Iranian officials have openly admitted before that they have had trouble with the current centrifuges they employ. If they were working so well now, would there be a need to produce a more advanced design of centrifuges? No.

Second, I believe that the primary reason for releasing these photographs is for domestic consumption. Iranian officials already know that the IAEA was aware of their work on these centrifuges, and they probably assume that anything the IAEA knows is immediately made known to Western intelligence agencies. So from their perspective releasing these photos is not a particular concern from a national security standpoint. On the other hand Iran’s President Ahmadinejad faces a tough election contest next year.

Iran faces just as many internal issues regarding its economy as any other country in the world today. Some of that economic distress may be due to increased UN sanctions related to its nuclear program, but most is not. Iran was badly damaged in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s and has never really recovered the economic position it had during the reign of the Shah. Its standard of living is lower than most if not all of the developed world, and lower than many of it its fellow Persian Gulf states who also produce oil. If you think the Iranian public is not aware of this fact, you are sadly mistaken.

Therefore, there is much to be gained for President Ahmadinejad’s regime from publicly proclaiming its nuclear accomplishments. Its a very astute political move to focus public attention away from Iran’s social and economic woes. It’s an appeal to Iranian patriotism, and we all know here in America how well such appeals can work to cause people to vote against their own economic interests.

Finally, despite all the purple prose and the portentous tone of the NYT article regarding these photographs and Iran’s nuclear program, the most relevant issue still is whether Iran poses an imminent danger to the United States or to other countries in the region as a result of its nuclear program. And buried deep within the Time’s story is the answer to that question:

American intelligence agencies say the earliest Iran could make a nuclear weapon is 2009, but consider 2010 to 2015 a more likely time frame. Iran insists it wants to make only reactor fuel for producing electricity.

So no nuclear weapons are likely to be produced by Iran for another 2 to 7 years. And that assumes that Iran is actively working on a secret nuclear weapons program in addition to its publicly admitted and openly transparent nuclear program to enrich uranium for electrical power generation at Natanz. We know that the last National Intelligence Estimate on Iran claimed that Iran suspended its clandestine nuclear weapons program in 2003. To date, I haven’t seen any reliable information to contradict that consensus view by our own intelligence community.

So is Iran’s nuclear program a matter of concern? Sure, but then so are the nuclear programs of Israel and Pakistan, both of whom already possess nuclear weapons. If I were one to worry, I’d be far more concerned about Pakistan than Iran. Pakistan, ag=fter all, is the home to some of the most radical Islamic extremists in the world, including Osama bin Ladin. But then I’m not Dick Cheney or John Bolton or President Bush or a member in good standing with our major news media in America who always willingly to parrot the Bush line regarding the dangerous threat Iran poses to our national security.

If anything, Iran’s willingness to openly provide the IAEA and the world with information about its nuclear capability is refreshing, and lessens my concern about that program, not increases it. Too bad we still have to sweat out another eight long months of the reign of Our Dear Leader before we can rest easy in the knowledge that the Commander in Chief guy isn’t about to give the order to bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb another oil producing country that had nothing to do with 9/11.

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