Iran's centrifuge plans would undermine US policy assumptions

Flags by Shuttestock

Article Highlights

  • Iran has announced its intention to expand its ability to enrich uranium rapidly

    Tweet This

  • If Iran carries through with new centrifuges, it will undermine core assumptions of current US policy

    Tweet This

Iran has announced its intention to expand its ability to enrich uranium rapidly by installing advanced centrifuges at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant. If Iran carries through on this declaration it will undermine one of the core assumptions of current U.S. policy aimed at preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons—namely, that the U.S. will detect the start of the process of enriching to weapons-grade uranium in time to take meaningful action.

Iranian officials recently notified the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that they intend to fill a unit at the underground Natanz enrichment facility with IR-2m centrifuges. [i] A unit at Natanz consists of 18 cascades of approximately 170 centrifuges each; a fully outfitted IR-2m unit would hold just over 3,000 centrifuges. [ii] These second-generation machines have an output rate several times greater than the IR-1 machines Iran currently uses for its enrichment program. [iii]

The use of IR-2m machines would significantly reduce the time required for Iran to acquire weapons-grade uranium. Three thousand IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz can convert near-20% enriched uranium into one weapon’s worth of highly-enriched uranium in just under one month. [iv]  The same conversion using 3,000 of the advanced IR-2m centrifuges would take just 5-8 days. [v] This shortened interval has significant policy implications. In 2011, Pentagon spokesman George Little said that IAEA inspectors—who make periodic visits to Natanz but are not permanently stationed there—could detect such a move, and that “we would retain sufficient time under any such scenario to take appropriate action.” [vi] If the time between inspector visits is longer than a week, would we be able to receive warning regarding the key indicator of weaponization?

This technical upgrade has the potential to upend one of the most basic assumptions underpinning our standing policy to prevent the emergence of a nuclear Iran: that we will detect an Iranian move to enrich to weapons-grade in time to intervene. The prospect of operational IR-2m centrifuges, and with them an Iranian capability to produce weapons fuel between inspectors’ visits at known facilities or within days at smaller covert facilities, greatly increases the likelihood of policy failure.

[i] George Jahn, “Iran says it will speed up nuclear program,” The Associated Press, January 31, 2013,
[ii] The IAEA has previously observed IR-2m machines at Natanz and reported that small numbers of these machines have been intermittently fed with natural uranium. See
[iii] The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) has noted that the IR-2m is designed to enrich at a rate of 5 separative work units (SWU) per centrifuge, per year. Iran is currently operating its IR-1 machines at around 0.9 SWU per centrifuge, per year.  ISIS has estimated that the average output of these machines in production cascades would be about 3-4 SWU per centrifuge, per year. See David Albright and Christina Walrond, “Iran’s Advanced Centrifuges,” ISIS, October 18, 2011,
[iv] This estimate assumes 193 kilograms of 19.75% enriched uranium are converted into 25 kilograms 90% enriched uranium with a tails assay rate of 9.3% and SWU rate of 0.9 per centrifuge, per year.
[v] This estimated range assumes 193 kilograms of 19.75% enriched uranium are converted into 25 kilograms 90% enriched uranium with a tails assay rate of 9.3% and SWU rate of between 3.0 and 5.0 SWU per centrifuge, per year.
[vi] Thom Shanker, “Aides Qualify Panetta’s Comments on Iran,” The New York Times, December 20, 2011,

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author



What's new on AEI

Love people, not pleasure
image Oval Office lacks resolve on Ukraine
image Middle East Morass: A public opinion rundown of Iraq, Iran, and more
image Verizon's Inspire Her Mind ad and the facts they didn't tell you
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
  • 22
  • 23
  • 24
  • 25
Monday, July 21, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.
Closing the gaps in health outcomes: Alternative paths forward

Please join us for a broader exploration of targeted interventions that provide real promise for reducing health disparities, limiting or delaying the onset of chronic health conditions, and improving the performance of the US health care system.

Monday, July 21, 2014 | 4:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Comprehending comprehensive universities

Join us for a panel discussion that seeks to comprehend the comprehensives and to determine the role these schools play in the nation’s college completion agenda.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014 | 8:50 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Who governs the Internet? A conversation on securing the multistakeholder process

Please join AEI’s Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy for a conference to address key steps we can take, as members of the global community, to maintain a free Internet.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, July 24, 2014 | 9:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.
Expanding opportunity in America: A conversation with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan

Please join us as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) unveils a new set of policy reforms aimed at reducing poverty and increasing upward mobility throughout America.

Thursday, July 24, 2014 | 6:00 p.m. – 7:15 p.m.
Is it time to end the Export-Import Bank?

We welcome you to join us at AEI as POLITICO’s Ben White moderates a lively debate between Tim Carney, one of the bank’s fiercest critics, and Tony Fratto, one of the agency’s staunchest defenders.

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled today.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.