Following on from the US exit from the nuclear deal and ahead of meetings between European leaders and the Israeli prime minister, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has called for Iran to step up production of advanced nuclear enrichment.
Speaking at a commemoration to mark the 29th anniversary of Ayatollah Khomenei’s death on June 4, the Supreme Leader told the country’s Atomic Energy Organization that it “must make the necessary arrangements to reach 190,000 SWUs within the framework provided by the nuclear agreement.”
Separative Work Unit (SWU) is the standard measure of the effort required to separate isotopes of uranium (U235 and U238) during the enrichment process in nuclear facilities. It applies to the number of centrifuges and their efficiency. For example, one thousand AR1 centrifuges with the efficiency of 0.9 translates into 900 SWUs, whereas 225 AR2 centrifuges with an efficiency of 4 translates into 900 SWUs.
Khamenei first raised the subject of SWUs on July 7, 2014, while nuclear negotiations were still going on. “Our officials say that we need 190 thousand SWUs,” he said. “Perhaps we will not need it this year or two years from now or five years from now, but the country definitely needs it, and what the country needs must be done.” His decision to speak on the issue while negotiations were still underway was a surprise to many.
This comment was erroneously interpreted by many in the West as meaning that Iran would require that number of centrifuges. But the next day, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, explained the difference between SWUs and centrifuges and said: “According to estimates, we need this many SWUs to fuel Bushehr nuclear power plant. If we had three power plants like Bushehr then we would need three times 190,000 SWUs…We would need this amount eight years from now when our contract for [buying fuel from outside] for Bushehr power plant runs out. By then we should be able to supply the fuel ourselves.” If Salehi is correct, then four years from now, that is in 2022, Iran must have the enrichment capability that Khamenei has demanded.
During the nuclear negotiations Iranian officials first said that 190,000 SWUs was the minimum that Iran could accept. But little by little they pushed this condition aside. In the end, they did not insist that this specification be included in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear agreement signed on July 14, 2015 is officially known.
Tit for Tat
But on October 13, 2015, the Iranian parliament took steps to address this omission. Article 3 of “Equitable Actions by the Government of Islamic Republic in Implementing JCPOA” legislation, which was passed on that day, declares that “the government is tasked with carefully monitoring any violation by the other side in the area of effective lifting of the sanctions, re-imposition of those sanctions or the imposition of new sanctions and take reciprocal actions to enforce the rights of the Iranian nation. [In such case] it must stop voluntary cooperation [with the other side] and must act to quickly expand the peaceful nuclear program of the Islamic Republic of Iran in a way that within two years the country’s enrichment capability would reach 190,000 SWUs.”
The parliament’s act, however, made the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) responsible for ensuring the government took action on this matter. It ordered the government to submit its plan for approval to the council within four months. And, in a letter to President Rouhani on October 21, Ayatollah Khamenei reiterated that a step-by-step project for reaching 190,000 SWUs within 15 years must be drawn up by his government for careful scrutiny by the SNSC.
In turn, the SNSC passed this responsibility to the JCPOA Implementation Supervisory Board. And on July 31, 2017 the board announced that it had adopted a 16-point decision for dealing with potential violations of the JCPOA. However, until Khamenei’s recent announcement, there had been no indication that the question of 190,000 SWUs was part of this decision.
Khamenei’s June 4 speech effectively bypassed the JCPOA Implementation Supervisory Board and the Supreme National Security Council. He issued his own order — and revealed his dissatisfaction with the way these bodies were carrying out JCPOA-related tasks. They failed to convey his demands so he took the decision to announce them himself in a public speech.
So what Khamenei announced about SWUs was not new. He repeated what the parliament had decided and was careful enough to say that “for the moment” any action must take place within the framework of the JCPOA — meaning that the Atomic Energy Organization must tread carefully so that Iran cannot be accused of violating the JCPOA. But the fact that he made the announcement at all is significant.
So How Long Will it Take?
But it’s important to look back to statements by Ali Akbar Salehi in July 2015, in which he explained how Iran could reach its goal within the framework of the JCPOA. “At the end of the eighth year [after the JCPOA goes into effect] we will start manufacturing 200 IR6 and IR8 [centrifuges]…After the 11th year we will have a chain of 164 IR6 centrifuges and a chain of 80 IR8 centrifuges. We must prepare for this…After the 13th year we will accelerate our work to reach 190,000 SWUs by year 15. Or perhaps we can do it sooner, by the 14th year.”
So, according to Salehi, Iran would be able to reach 190,000 SWUs by around 2029 or 2030, although some hardliners dismissed these claims as propaganda, insisting that, within the framework of JCPOA, it would take Iran 40 years to reach this.
In either case, Khamenei’s order for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization to begin stepping up the country’s enrichment could mean that Iran is preparing to exit the JCPOA. At the very least, the Supreme Leader is threatening Europeans that Iran is ready to do so.
But assuming this threat is serious, what are the chances that Iran can carry out such a plan? In July 2015, Salehi told Iranian critics of the JCPOA that their demands for reaching 190,000 SWUs in a short time were wishful thinking. “Suppose that, by a miracle, we possess the capability of having so many SWUs right now,” he said. “We lack the raw material to keep the 190,000 going forever and we would run out of [raw material] after two years. Then what do we do?... This can be done only if we can domestically produce raw material for 200,000 SWUs per year so that the work will not stop. This needs seven or eight years to achieve.”
On June 4, Salehi was in the audience, listening to Khamenei’s speech. The look of astonishment on his face showed that he still believes in what he said earlier. However, for the moment, it is unlikely that he is ready to say anything about it.
More on the aftermath of Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear treaty with Iran:
President Rouhani's Plane on the US Sanctions List, June 1, 2018
The Nuclear Deal: Will Khamenei Get What he Wants?, May 29, 2018
Khamenei’s Eight Conditions for Talks with Europe, May 25, 2018
Revolutionary Guards Respond to Pompeo’s “Empty Bluff”, May 23, 2018
The 12 Demands of Pompeo's New Iran Strategy, May 21, 2018
When Will US Sanctions Hit Iranian Oil Sales?, May 18, 2018
The JCPOA: A Missed Opportunity, May 17, 2018
Khamenei’s “Heroic Flexibility 2.0”, May 9, 2018