Enough slicing and a salami ends up like this.

What happens when a government with a nuclear program systematically works itself into the position of being “a ‘screw turn’ away” from building a nuclear weapon? On one hand, let’s say this government wants to preserve its relations with a great power ally that arms it and shields it from sanctions; on the other hand, its leaders compete to be more pro-nuclear, aiming to win the favor of the military, the scientific establishment, and the public.

The balance can be hard to maintain. With enough jostling, it could tip.

To get a sense of the problem, take a few moments to read this declassified memorandum from the U.S. National Security Council staff in 1987, previously described by Mark Hibbs in the December 28, 2009 issue of NuclearFuel. Titled, “Dealing with Pakistan’s Nuclear Program: A U.S. Strategy,” it expresses the difficulties faced by the White House in persuading the Government of Pakistan (GOP) to stay within certain “nuclear red lines” — including no enrichment beyond 5% — while trying to assure Congress that the situation was still under control.

Substitute “Iran” for “Pakistan” and “the West” for “Congress,” and you could almost imagine memos like this one being written over the last couple of years in the Kremlin and Zhongnanhai.

As it happens, Pakistan seems to have crossed the enrichment “red line” during or shortly after an armed crisis with India in early 1990. (Senior Pakistani diplomat Abdul Sattar hinted as much at a 1994 event sponsored by the Stimson Center — see p. 42 of this edited transcript.) Afterward, the White House would no longer certify to Congress that Pakistan did not possess nuclear weapons, sanctions kicked in, and nothing remained of the alliance for an entire decade.

Which Brings Us to Now

In his first full-scale report Iran report as IAEA Director-General (GOV/2010/10), Yukia Amano is pretty direct about “possible military dimensions”:

The information available to the Agency in connection with these outstanding issues is extensive and has been collected from a variety of sources over time. It is also broadly consistent and credible in terms of the technical detail, the time frame in which the activities were conducted and the people and organizations involved. Altogether, this raises concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile. These alleged activities consist of a number of projects and sub-projects, covering nuclear and missile related aspects, run by military related organizations.

The concluding summary of the report opens with another crisp statement:

While the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran, Iran has not provided the necessary cooperation to permit the Agency to confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.

That’s a non-certification if there ever was one.

The Bad News

We don’t know what red lines Moscow and Beijing might have communicated to Tehran, if any — although Iran’s own decision to enrich “up to 20%” may have triggered this response from the Russians.

Among other provocative actions described in GOV/2010/10, the Iranians also rushed to commence the re-enrichment process without waiting for IAEA safeguards inspectors to show up — an incident that occasioned an unusual short report to the IAEA Board of Governors last week.

The Iranians have now relocated nearly their entire stock of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP), where re-enrichment has begun. Yet GOV/2010/10 documents no progress toward setting up process lines to make new fuel assemblies for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) — the ostensible reason for re-enrichment. Nor is there word of any work on a process line to convert the re-enriched UF6 gas from PFEP to the uranium oxide needed for the fuel.

The report does record that, as of last November, a process line has been completed at Iran’s Uranium Conversion Facility to produce “natural uranium metal ingots” for R&D purposes. And if that weren’t good enough, another process line is planned to make metal from 19.7% enriched UF6 — basically what’s now being produced at PFEP. Again, that’s for R&D purposes.

As many readers will know, U metal — enriched to 80% or more — is the stuff of which bombs are made. Iran may not have the Bomb, but it has acquired a complete salami-slicing kit, and knows how to use it.

(At least we can’t say that we had no warning at all. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) publicly signaled interest in making U metal ingots as early as 2005. The idea was reiterated as recently as last April.)

The Good News

Amid the mounting fatalism and hand-wringing, what separates Iran in 2010 from Pakistan in 1990 is too easily overlooked. Iran is an NPT member state. Its nuclear facilities — the declared and operational ones, anyway — are under containment and surveillance, meaning that what happens there is visible to the world in short order. Also, these facilities can’t be defended effectively against the determined actions of one or more Western military powers — something Pakistan never had to contemplate. If push ever came to shove, the Iranians would have to start over again, and under very different circumstances.

For these reasons, withdrawal from the NPT would be a dicey business. And trying to sneak around the NPT, as the Qom/Fordow experience teaches, is not as easy as it once might have seemed.

While a diplomatic solution remains out of reach — and a military solution, if it can be called that, remains the option of last resort — vigilance and firmness can still keep the screwdriver from turning.