Danger Room - This
week, the U.S. and its allies will sit down with some of their
arch-nemeses: the Iranians. The meeting in Baghdad is the definition of
high stakes, as 2012 has been characterized by frequent speculation that
Israel would bomb Teheran to prevent it from going nuclear, launching a war that would inevitably draw the U.S. in. That's something the U.S. doesn't want – the Air Force chief of staff has publicly questioned the wisdom
of a bombing campaign – but big, unresolved questions persist about
Iran's nuclear program, which Iran swears exists just to produce
peaceful nuclear energy.
In particular, those questions primarily concern five installations
that trouble the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the world's
nuclear watchdog. And unless you're a nuclear wonk, you probably don't
But you should. Granting the IAEA unfettered access to these five
sites – some of which concern the IAEA more than others – is probably
the most important step Iran could take to avert a war. Getting Iran to
"Yes" will be an arduous diplomatic process that likely involves
international economic sanctions, a U.S. military buildup off its shores,
some prospect for improved relations with the world – and, arguably,
the threat of a war. And there's an additional X-factor: nuclear sites
that the IAEA doesn't know Iran even has. But watching what
happens over the following five sites, during the Baghdad talks and
afterward, will go a long way to determining if the U.S. will be dragged
into its third mideastern war in a decade.
Here's what the IAEA thinks it knows about Fordow. There are a
variety of centrifuge cascades, or arrays of centrifuges for enriching
uranium, totaling 696 centrifuges. The IAEA initially understood that
Fordow would only enrich uranium to a 5 percent standard, which is too
low for use in a bomb. But the IAEA had to confirm that the Iranians had
a change of heart, and began enriching to 20 percent.
To be clear, the enrichment process is a method to get rid of most
of the atoms in uranium, yielding the fissile isotope Uranium-235.
Twenty percent enrichment isn't sufficient for bomb-grade fuel, which is
90 percent enriched uranium. But as the Arms Control Association
clarifies, "such material can be further enriched to weapons-grade levels relatively quickly." The U.S. called the extra enrichment a provocative act of bad faith, which will almost certainly be revisited in Baghdad.
Photo: Institute for Science and International Security
Parchin, shown above, is a massive military R&D facility that
works on rocket, ammo and high-explosives tech. All of which is
important to the detonation of a bomb, so the IAEA wants to inspect the
place again, as it did early in the '00s. No luck. After January's
meeting between the IAEA and Iran, the nuclear watchdogs reported "Iran
did not grant access to the site at that time." More