Tuesday, May 22, 2012

5 Nuclear Sites That Could Launch War With Iran


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 understand them.

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.

Fordow (Qom)

Fordow is a uranium enrichment facility not far from the clerical hotspot of Qom. (That's why the facility is often referred to as "Qom.") Under construction since 2009, when Iran was already under tight IAEA scrutiny, the existence of the facility was a secret until Western intelligence agencies uncovered it. Not surprisingly, in a November report, the IAEA said that "additional information from Iran is still needed in connection with this facility."

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