Earlier this week Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boasted that he was about to unveil “great” new developments in the country's nuclear programme and today he duly delivered – at a televised ceremony, Ahmadinejad said Iran was now using its own home-made nuclear fuel rods at a small research reactor in Tehran. Iran also unveiled what it called a new generation of faster uranium enrichment centrifuges at the Natanz reactor south of Tehran.
Sounds impressive but does it really amount to much?
Well, what it shows is that Iran remains determined in the face of relentless international pressure to keep its nuclear programme on track. The sanctions don’t appear to be working. The nuclear fuel rods and the three thousand new centrifuges at Natanz show that it is making progress towards the creation of an independent nuclear industry.
If these centrifuges are as good as Iran says they are – three times faster than anything they have possessed until now – then Iran is set to accelerate its progress towards developing highly enriched uranium.
But does this mean it is set on making a nuclear missile?
Not necessarily. The Iranians say they have no intention of doing so and the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has gone as far as to issue a fatwa in which he said: “We fundamentally reject nuclear weapons”. They have consistently insisted that they want nuclear power for domestic energy purposes only.
And the problem is that the technology needed to enrich uranium for energy production can very quickly be used for the production of the highly enriched uranium needed for nuclear weapons.
As a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, isn’t Iran entitled to enrich uranium for energy purposes?
Absolutely. In part, at least, the problem is a serious deficit of trust. Iran hid elements of its urarnium enrichment programme for 18 years from the prying eyes of the International Atomic Energy Agency (the IAEA). And the discovery by the IAEA in 2009 of a new hitherto secret enrichment plant near Qom also came as a disturbing surprise. As a consequence, the IAEA says the onus is now on Iran to prove its peaceful intentions.
But why shouldn’t Iran develop a nuclear bomb? India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons and so does Israel.
Well, at an abstract level, indeed, why not? But remember that Iran is a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which forbids it from developing nuclear weapons (Pakistan, India and Israel are not members). And in the real world an Iran with nuclear weapons could terminally destabilise the Middle East. Iran is itself to blame because of the apocalyptic language it uses with regard to Israel. And a nuclear Iran would force neighbouring Arab states and perhaps Turkey as well to go nuclear themselves.
Iran’s top nuclear negotiator has formally notified the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, that Iran is willing to return to talks with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. Does this suggest a possible breakthrough?
You would have to be an incurable optimist to think so. Iran has done this several times in the past only to stonewall during the negotiations while its scientists forged ahead with their nuclear programme. The suspicion will be that they’re doing the same again.