Location: People's Republic of Madison, Wisconsin

Monday, December 25, 2006

A very Mullah Christmas

In the spirit of the season, I'll be writing about a couple of things the come naturally to mind at Christmas: uranium enrichment and the strategic petroleum reserve. In response the the laughably weak UN Sanctions, Iran has announced that it will accelerate work on its uranium enrichment program:

TEHERAN - Iran will on Sunday start putting in place 3,000 uranium enriching centrifuges at a key nuclear plant in an immediate response to a UN sanctions resolution, top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani told the hardline Kayhan newspaper.

“Our immediate response to the UN Security Council is that, as of today, we will start the activities at the site of the 3,000 centrifuge machines in Natanz and we will go ahead with full speed,” Larijani told the paper.

Natanz is the plant where Iran carries out uranium enrichment, a process the West fears could be diverted to make a nuclear bomb, a charge vehemently denied by Iran.

“We will accelerate our programme to install the 3,000 centrifuges” in response to the resolution, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the influential head of parliament’s security commission, told state radio.

Installing 3,000 centrifuges would be an important step for Iran towards enriching uranium on an industrial scale. So far it has two cascades of 164 centrifuges at its uranium enrichment plant in the central city of Natanz.

Iran has maintained that it wants to have the new centrifuges installed by March and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said the Islamic republic will be able to celebrate its “nuclearisation” around that time.

The exact meaning of this can vary tremendously depending on assumptions, as I showed earlier. The article does not mention whether these 3000 centrifuges are to be the old P-1's, or the faster P-2 centrifuges that Iran claims to possess. Nor does it speculate on how quickly the whole cascade can be brought online (the Iranians themselves probably aren't sure). If we assume that they will add 3000 P-2 centrifuges over a three year period, then the Uranium Enrichment Calculator says that they would have enough material for a bomb in less than two years. Even that may be a bit optimistic. The Calculator assumes that Iran will be making a gun-type bomb, which would require 50kg of Uranium. An implosion-type bomb (the design for which may have been passed from Pakistan) would take only about 1/3 as much. In other words, under reasonable assumptions, Iran could have enough material for an atomic bomb before the end of 2007. Once the 3000 centrifuges are all operational, the mullahs could crank out another atomic bomb every three months.

It is beyond obvious that Iran needs to be bombed flat before this can happen. Destroying the known facilities will set the mullahs back only a few months or years. The bombing campaign must also target Iran's ability to rebuild, by cratering its economy, wiping out its electrical and transportation systems, and targetting the scientists and engineers who are the most important part of the infrastructure.

None of this will happen. In a world where the UN spends months wrangling over some truly meaningless sanctions, we can't expect anyone to go Old Testament on Iran's ass. The fallback might be sanctions, or a naval "quarantine". The mullahs like to flex their muscles over the cutoff of oil, but the fact is that the Iran is in a very weak position in that regard. First, it has very little refining capacity. Without foreign imports, Iran would run out of gasoline in short order, causing some regime-threatening unrest. Heck, the Iranians get grumpy when the price of gas hits 50 cents a gallon.

Even with respect to oil exports, Iran's strength is overrated. It is estimated that 50% of Iran's national budget comes from oil exports. How long could the regime survive without any exports? Probably not more than a few months. The counter argument has always been that such a cutoff would affect dramatically affect the world economy. It just isn't so. In 2004, Iran exported 2.55 million barrels of oil per day. This amount could easily be covered by our Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which is currently near its full capacity of 700 million barrels of oil. If the Reserve replaced half of Iran's exports, the United States could endure an 18-months showdown with Iran.

The mullahs would be swinging from the lampposts long before our reserves ran dry.


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