Experts agree that if Iran's claims about its ability to produce higher-grade enriched uranium are true, the country could have weapons-grade uranium within six months. What does this mean for the West?
In the wake of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's proclamation that Iran has now become a nuclear state, some governments, such as the United States, were dismissive.
"We do not believe they have the capacity to enrich to the degree to which they now say they are enriching," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
But that hasn't stopped scientists from speculating about the degree of validity in Ahmadinejad's claims, nor an international wave of condemnation, accompanied by calls - led by the US - to step up sanctions against Iran.
Until the International Atomic Energy Agency releases its next report on Iran's nuclear program, due out next week, what's known is that on Wednesday, the IAEA said in a report that Iran would start producing 20 percent enriched uranium "within a few days." But just one day later, as the country was marking the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Ahmadinejad triumphantly announced that scientists had already produced their first batch.
"We're most likely talking about very small amounts," said German physicist Wolfgang Liebert of the working group for science, technology and security at the Technical University of Darmstadt in an interview with German news agency DPA. "Iran has centrifuges in operation, and if these were to be activated together, it would be possible to make the leap from low grade uranium to 20 percent-enriched uranium."
The 20 percent benchmark
But scientists concur that it is a significant leap. Uranium enriched to a degree of 20 percent sounds harmless enough given the fact that weapons-grade uranium must be enriched to 85 percent or above. And yet 20 percent is a significant figure - anything below this is still considered low grade, while anything above counts as high grade. Turning natural uranium, which contains only 0.7 percent of the U235 isotope required to start the reactions needed in nuclear processes, into uranium enriched with 3.5 percent U235 is already a huge step, say experts at the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. To generate power, for example, uranium enriched to four percent is needed.
"Producing 3.5 percent enriched uranium is about 70 percent of the way to weapons-grade uranium in terms of enrichment efforts," ISIS members David Albright and Jacqueline Shire said in a report released on February 8. "If this is the case, Iran would require only a small enrichment capability of between 500 - 1,000 P1 centrifuges, assuming significant inefficiencies in its centrifuges, to produce sufficient weapons-grade material in a breakout scenario in six months."
In an interview with DPA, Hamburg physicist Goetz Neuneck, deputy director of Hamburg University's Institute for Peace and Security Studies, said it was realistic to believe that, in six months' time, Iran could be well on the way to having enough material to build a nuclear bomb.
Tehran says it needs the enriched uranium to power its research reactor, which provides medical isotopes to Iranian cancer patients. But ISIS says that Iran already possesses much more high-grade uranium than it needs to power the reactor.
Western powers to discuss more sanctions
The West has long accused Iran of secretly aiming to build nuclear weapons, an accusation Ahmadinejad again vehemently denied on Thursday. Nonetheless, his speech once again has politicians in the West calling for a tougher stance on Iran.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said that if Iran remains steadfast in the way it is pursuing its nuclear goals, the international community will have no choice but to discuss further measures. "These could include expanding economic sanctions," Westerwelle told Reuters in Berlin, adding that while Iran has every right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, it must provide more transparency about its nuclear program.
Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb said that the European Union could announce "very strong sanctions" against Tehran within days or weeks. Speaking at a press conference in Ottawa where he was meeting his Canadian counterpart, Stubb said that the UN Security Council should take the lead on sanctions, but that if it were not successful, "we'll do it through the EU."
China and Russia have veto rights in the UN Security Council, and there are concerns that China in particular could block attempts by the US and others to pass tougher sanctions on Iran. But White House spokesman Robert Gibbs says he's convinced China will continue to play a constructive role in the discussions about Iran.
"We believe and I think they believe it's not in their interest to have a worldwide arms race. It's certainly not in their interest economically to have an arms race in the Middle East," Gibbs said.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has also urged international unity over sanctions against Iran. "Iran wants to divide us, and the European Union, the United States, Russia and China need to remain united," Frattini said.