By Elise Labott
Iran's announcement Wednesday about the status of its nuclear program may say more about the defiance of the regime in the face of escalating sanctions than signaling any significant nuclear advances.
Before Wednesday, the question foremost on people's minds was whether the announcement would signal Iran was moving closer toward getting a nuclear weapon, crossing a red line which could force Israel to take a preemptive military strike.
That question got a lot of eye-rolling post-announcement.
"Israel was expecting a major announcement," said Fred Fleitz, managing editor of the intelligence forecasting service Lignet.com and a former nonproliferation official under President George W. Bush. "This is it? Israel is not going to be worried about this. But it does suggest they aren't willing to change and it's certainly not going to encourage anyone to negotiate with them."
But negotiations could be the name of the game. Just as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was placing fuel rods into Tehran's research reactor to great fanfare, the regime was sending a letter to European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton about resuming nuclear talks with world powers. Coincidence? Unlikely.
Ahmadinejad's show may have merely been staged for public consumption, designed to wrap the regime in a nuclear flag and rally them in the face of crippling sanctions. Iran's nuclear program is still an issue of national pride and one rare point of consensus among Iran's fractured regime, which Ahmadinejad could use to his advantage in next month's parliamentary elections.
Or it could, as some experts believe, be meant to suggest that Iran is willing to negotiate with the West about its nuclear program.
Tough sanctions on the regime have begun to trickle down to the Iranian people, and the suffering is sure to intensify once curbs against Iranian oil exports take effect in June. By responding to an invitation for talks from so-called P5 Plus 1 (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany) on the same day it declares nuclear advances, Tehran may be saying it expects to come to the table from a position of strength.
But that might be wishful thinking on the regime's part. The announcement fell flat in Washington, with State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declared it "not terribly impressive."
Simply put, the nuclear revelations didn't live up to the hype. Tehran's claims that it had inserted its domestically produced fuel rods in its nuclear reactor and that it had a "new generation" of centrifuges at its Natanz facility capable of more rapidly enriching uranium were neither alarming nor surprising, experts say.
Iran had already announced last month it had produced the fuel rods for its Tehran Research Reactor, which is used to make medical isotopes. The reactor, which was running out of fuel, was the subject of a proposed deal between Tehran and the P5 plus 1 powers in which a Western country would provide fuel for the reactor in exchange for Iran giving up a majority of its low-enriched uranium stockpile. Even with the fuel rods, the reactor is not considered to be a significant proliferation risk because it uses a small amount of fuel, making it too difficult and time-consuming to provide weapons-grade uranium.
It's unclear whether Iran even has the technical expertise to produce quality fuel rods capable of operating the research reactor or - more important - its Bushehr reactor, which is far more powerful and has the capability to produce weapons-grade uranium. Currently, Russia makes the fuel rods for Bushehr.
What's more, U.S. officials and nonproliferation experts alike have challenged Iran's claims about the capacity and sophistication of its centrifuges. The 9,000 centrifuges spinning at its Natanz plant since 2009 have given Iran's nuclear experts all sorts of trouble. They haven't worked well or produced great amounts of uranium, but they've eaten up precious raw materials that Tehran is finding in increasingly short supply due to ever stronger sanctions. It's unclear whether the new advanced ones they rolled out Wednesday are operable yet or even capable of working.
"None of this is a big technical accomplishment," says David Albright, a leading nuclear expert with the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS).
Tehran, Albright suggests, chose its accomplishments carefully. That Ahmadinejad did not mention the enrichment at the Fordow nuclear enrichment facility, which is built deep into a mountain near the city of Qom and is considered a major flashpoint for Israel, could actually suggest a willingness to be engage in negotiations.
"They could have announced that they plan to install 1,000 advanced centrifuges at Fordow or further increase production of 20 percent enriched uranium," Albright said, referring to Iran's advanced state of enrichment, which has caused international concern. "The fact they didn't is a positive."
But he notes even Iran's modest accomplishments constitute slow progress that the international community can't ignore.
"Iran continues to make progress on its nuclear program" Albright warns. "So the problem of dealing with Iran hasn't been eased by today."