Policymakers in Tel Aviv and Washington could both breathe a sigh of relief this week as Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, revealed that Iran has diverted a significant amount of its highest nuclear material to fuel its medical research reactor.
According to Barak, Iranian scientists converted 38 percent of their 20 percent enriched uranium stockpile for the purpose of powering the medical plant, an action that puts off the prospect of American or Israeli airstrikes on Iran eight to ten months. As Barak told The Daily Telegraph, the decision amounts to “delaying the moment of truth.”
Even so, the Iranians retain a large bulk of highly enriched nuclear material and have some 10,000 centrifuges working around the clock to churn out more. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, and his senior commanders in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have been adamant time and again that abandoning the nuclear program is not up for discussion.
Despite Barak’s recent comments, Israeli officials remain incredibly concerned about the scale, scope and pace of Tehran’s technical nuclear capability. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks of taking military action as if it is inevitable and even the defense minister remains convinced that the Iranians will not stop without a credible threat of military intervention.
The former prime minister’s conversion with the British newspaper is intriguing, if only for the fact that Tehran apparently made its choice knowing full well that the military dimensions of its program would be set back by months. Were they so desperate to feed the medical reactor or is there something else that might explain this move?
This isn’t the first time that Iran has deliberately delayed its nuclear program. In 2007, the American intelligence community determined that Ayatollah Khamenei had ordered a halt to the military aspects of the nuclear effort sometime in the fall of 2003. At the time, the halt was attributed to the mounting international pressure and sanctions regime that was enveloping the Iranian economy, leading intelligence officials in the United States to the belief that Tehran was “more vulnerable on the issue” that they previously assumed.
Tehran’s recent conversion of uranium could be a result of a similar calculation. With the European Union no longer an export market for their crude oil and with Iranian banks struggling to finalize transactions or push trade with many countries in the global financial system, officials in Tehran may be coming to the hard realization that diverting uranium for civilian purposes would stem the pain. Or, as was suggested by Barak, the diversion could be an effort on the Iranians’ part to play for time and try to persuade the international community that they are, in fact, following the rules of the game.
No one knows for sure what the Iranians are thinking. The decisionmaking proces in the Islamic republic is often difficult to interpret, even if Khamenei has the final word on all state matters. Iran’s recent hint that it is ready for more nuclear talks makes intentions even harder to grasp. What is important now, however, is that Iran’s decision gives Israel and the United States more time consider their options.