Thursday, April 13, 2006

Iran: Crossing the Redline?

Iranian officials are trumpeting a major advance in their country's nuclear program. Here is what it means -- and does not mean. READ MORE


Former Iranian President and Chairman of the Expediency Council Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani announced April 11 that Iran has successfully completed an enrichment cascade using 164 gas centrifuges, Kuwaiti state news agency KUNA announced. Such a cascade would empower Iran to produce a richer fissile blend of uranium for use in nuclear power plant fuel or perhaps a nuclear weapon.

Technically, the announcement means that Iran has established its ability to enrich uranium in something other than very small amounts. The Iranians are, however, not yet at the point that they can make weapons or fabricate nuclear fuel to run a reactor. A weapons program will require several of these cascades, and a power program requires dozens of them. Establishing enrichment cascades on that scale is still -- at bare minimum -- several months off. And even once that is achieved, enriched uranium would need to be fabricated into fuel for a reactor, or go through a weaponization process if it is to have military value. Neither process is simple, quick or cheap.

Politically, however, this step has immediate implications. In Europe, enrichment of any kind, much less on an industrial scale as the Iranians are clearly aiming for, is a redline. Once the Iranians move past enrichment, information on their nuclear weapons program can be garnered only through intensive intelligence efforts. Iran's announcement means that European states that see a limited reason to participate in such intelligence efforts no longer feel they have any leverage in negotiations. Europe will now simply put its relatively disinterested diplomatic efforts behind the United States and let Washington run the show. It is not carte blanche -- the Europeans still do not want military action -- but it is close.

For Israel, the issue is more complex. As noted above, enrichment does not automatically equate to weaponization. Israel, unlike Europe, has a deep and abiding interest in directing intelligence efforts against Tehran. Thus, Israel's picture of the Iranian nuclear program is more complete than Europe's. As one would expect, this deeper awareness and interest translates into a different redline, likely somewhere in the weaponization process. The world can be certain that Iran has not yet stepped over Israel's redline; after all, Tehran is still a city, not a crater.

But ultimately the Iranian announcement is about the United States. Iran and Washington are currently -- for the first time in a generation -- engaged in direct talks, officially about all topics Iraqi. This revelation, like the U.S. leaks over the weekend that nuclear strike options against Iran had been drawn up, are all part of the ebb and flow of those negotiations.