Speaking before a crowd of supporters in Tehran’s Azadi Square, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced today that his nation had enriched some of its uranium to 20% uranium-235 — a significant step towards developing a nuclear weapon.
The announcement came on the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. It was delivered at a time when the current government faces a revolution of its own — claims of widespread vote rigging in last June’s general election has sent thousands of Iranians to the streets in protest.
Ahmadinejad’s statement may have been designed to strike a populist chord. Iran’s nuclear programme is overwhelmingly popular with its citizens, who view it as a sign of the nation’s scientific skill.
If true, then 20% would be a significant, though not decisive, step forward in Iran’s enrichment capability. Iran has already enriched some 1,200 kilogrammes of uranium ore from its natural level of 0.72% U-235 to around 3.5%. The first steps of enrichment are the most difficult, and getting to 3.5% represents around two-thirds of the total work needed to produce a nuclear weapon. Material for nuclear bombs generally needs to be around 90% pure.
Twenty percent would presumably get Iran much closer to a nuclear bomb. It would also allow it to gain experience in dealing with problems that can arise in later stages of enrichment (air and water inside the centrifuges can create problems at these higher levels).
The best overall analysis out there may well be from the Institute for Science and International Security, a think tank run by former IAEA nuclear inspector David Albright. Albright has some great briefing sheets on the Tehran Research Reactor, an American built 5 megawatt reactor where the 20%-enriched fuel is supposedly destined to be burned.
The ISIS report also makes what I think is a compelling case that what Iran is working towards is a “breakout capability” — that is an ability to produce a bomb very quickly in the event of war.
Ahmadinejad’s own statements seem to support that view. The New York Times reports that he appeared to address the West at one point in his address saying that "we do not believe in manufacturing a bomb. Then he added: “if one day we wanted to build nuclear bombs we would announce it publicly without being afraid of you”.