The Great Iranian Low-Enriched Uranium Stockpile Panic

Jeffrey Lewis
June 4, 2015

Illustration courtesy of

Illustration courtesy of

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There is something broken about how reporters and pundits are covering these negotiations, something that wastes a lot of our time speculating about things that are knowable and reduces our conversation to little more than cheerleading for or against a deal. I am not quite sure it is the fault of either the reporters or the pundits, but collectively we’re not helping. And I include myself in this category.

[…] on Tuesday morning  […] I perused a very odd story by David Sanger and Bill Broad in the New York Times. There is nothing wrong with the article, exactly, but there are a number of interpretations in it that struck me as odd — and that speak to what I mean about how our public discourse is unhelpful. (It also triggered a minor Twitter war between David Sanger and State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf.)

A few days ago, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released one of its quarterly reports on the implementation of safeguards in Iran, which my friends at the Institute for Science and International Security placed online. The report contains lots of information about Iran’s nuclear programs under safeguards, including the size of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU). Since the last report, in February, the amount of low-enriched uranium has increased about 10 percent, to 8714.7 kilograms.

Despite Sanger and Broad’s analysis that “Western officials and experts cannot quite figure out why” this increase has happened, it’s actually very easy to see why. Iran’s program was limited for the duration of negotiations (“frozen,” if you must) to a certain number of centrifuges that are allowed to continue producing LEU. Those centrifuges produced about 800 kg of LEU since the last report. One can create a more detailed accounting of the uranium flows, but to a first approximation what happened was simply that Iran’s centrifuges that are allowed to enrich uranium enriched some uranium. (Iran has been slow to convert some of the LEU, which is in the form of a gas, to oxide.) […]

The Sturm und Drang in the New York Times story is odd because the extra 800 kg or so of additional LEU just isn’t going to matter come June 30. How the Iranians reduce the stockpile is up to them — they can ship the material out of the country, downblend it, or even sell it on the open market. The Iranians have recently made noises about not shipping the material abroad, but they will ultimately have to choose a method that balances pride with their desire for speedy implementation of sanctions relief. An extra 800 kg of LEU doesn’t really change that calculus, at least not so far as I can tell.

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