On the eve of international talks in Geneva about its nuclear program, Iran upped the ante once again on Sunday, declaring that it is now self-sufficient throughout the entire nuclear fuel cycle. “Today, we witnessed the shipment of the first domestically produced yellowcake … from Gachin mine to the Isfahan nuclear facility,” Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi said on state television on Sunday. Yellowcake is a uranium concentrate, the raw material that represents step one in a complex refining process in which fissionable U-235 is separated and concentrated from the more common, non-fissionable U-238. The ability to produce yellowcake internally means that Iran is no longer dependent on outside sources for any part of its nuclear production program. Thus the rogue Islamic state now has the infrastructure in place to produce low-grade refined uranium used in nuclear reactors and the high-grade (90%+ U-235) refined uranium used in weapons of mass destruction. Western nations hoped that Iran was running low on yellowcake, a claim Iran has denied, but this announcement would appear to make the issue moot. Most of Iran’s previous stock of yellowcake was obtained from South Africa by the Shah in pre-revolutionary Iran, although Western sources strongly suspect that China supplemented that inventory to some extent.
Clearly, the timing of this announcement is no coincidence. Iranian representatives will meet with delegations representing the so-called P5+1 nations today and tomorrow. The P5+1 nations are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia and China – plus Germany. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was once again hopeful that the talks would bear fruit. “This is an opportunity for Iran to come to the table and discuss the matters that are of concern to the international community — first and foremost, their nuclear program,” she said. From the West’s perspective, this is an opportunity to wring some concessions and safeguards out of Iran before pushing for sanctions that could, if enforced, result in severe repercussions for Iran’s economy. For its part, in addition to the opportunity to engage in the usual saber-rattling of which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is so fond, the yellowcake announcement strengthened the Iranian hand as it prepared for this latest round of talks. Iran thus appears to be following the North Korean model of dealing with the West: threaten as much as you can, for the more that’s on the table, the less you have to give away — and besides, you know that you’ll be able to do whatever you want at the end of the day, anyway.
The ideal way to end the threat of Iran’s nuclear ambitions without resorting to a military strike is to continue to obstruct and delay the program, as the West works to destabilize the nation’s current regime at the same time. As former President George W. Bush has said, solving the Iran problem in a peaceful way is essentially a two track issue. On the one track, you have Iran’s timetable to build useable warheads, and on the other track, you have a timetable for regime change. The more you do to stretch out the former and accelerate the latter, the better chance you have to avoid a military confrontation.
As pathetically ineffective as the West’s history of imposing and sticking with meaningful sanctions to influence rogue regimes is, there is real opportunity in Iran. There are two areas in which Iran appears especially vulnerable: crude oil production and gasoline refining capacity. A detailed study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released earlier this year summarizes Iran’s weaknesses in these two areas.
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