‘19,000 Centrifuges Already Spinning’: Kerry Implies Iran’s Enrichment Capacity Grew Mostly Under Bush

By Patrick Goodenough | July 20, 2015 | 5:23 AM EDT

Iran has installed thousands of centrifuges at the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz. (Photo: Iran Daily, File)

(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State John Kerry said in a television interview screened Sunday that when President Obama came into office he was “dealt … a hand” of “19,000 [Iranian] centrifuges already spinning.”

In fact, most of the increase in Iran’s centrifuge numbers occurred under the current administration.  And under the just-completed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement, Iran will have the international community’s blessing to keep more centrifuges than it had when Obama entered the White House.

In one of a series of interviews taped Friday as part of the administration’s effort to sell the Iran nuclear deal to the American people and Congress, Kerry told CNN’s State of the Union that Iran has “12,000 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium, and that’s enough if they enriched it further for 10 to 12 bombs.” (Iran in fact has 12,000 kg of low-enriched uranium).

“They had it,” Kerry continued. “That’s what Barack Obama was dealt as a hand when he came in: 19,000 centrifuges already spinning; a country that had already mastered the fuel cycle; a country that already was threshold in the sense that they are only two months away from breakout.”

Kerry’s claim does not align with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) data. Its regular Iran “safeguards reports” show that most of the growth in the number of first-generation IR-1 centrifuges at Iran’s main fuel enrichment plant at Natanz occurred after January 2009, when Obama took office.

Centrifuges spin at high speeds to enrich uranium to varying degrees, providing fuel for nuclear reactors or, in the case of very high levels of enrichment, producing a key ingredient for an atomic bomb.

According to IAEA reports, the number of IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz – including those installed but not operating and those installed and being fed with uranium hexafluoride

 (UF6) – did climb significantly during the George W. Bush administration, reaching 2,132 in May 2007, and then 5,537 by the time Obama arrived at the White House in early 2009.

But within months they had increased to 7,216, and by the end of that year reached 8,692.

By Feb. 2012 the IAEA was reporting 9,156 IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz and by Nov. 2012, 10,414.

By mid-2013 the number had shot up to 15,416, and from May last year until the most recent report, in May 2015, the IAEA has reported an unchanged total of 15,420.

In addition to those centrifuges, Iran has also installed – during the Obama administration years – second generation IR-2m centrifuges at Natanz. It had 180 in place in early 2013, and expanded that quantity to 1,008 by Aug. 2013, the same number it has today.

And at the Fordow enrichment plant, the covertly-built underground facility first made public in the fall of 2009, Iran has installed 2,710 more IR-1 centrifuges, according to the IAEA.

IAEA data show the growing numbers of centrifuges at the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, Iran between 2007 and 2015. (Chart: CNSNews.com)

Those three figures – 15,420 IR-1s at Natanz, 1,008 IR-2ms at Natanz, and 2,710 IR-1s at Fordow – together account for the roughly 19,000 (19,138) centrifuges usually cited in discussions about the Iranian program today, and the figure Kerry used in the interview broadcast Sunday.

Under the JCPOA reached in Vienna this month, Iran has agreed to reduce its total number of centrifuges to 6,104 for the next ten years.

These will include 5,060 IR-1s at Natanz, where the remaining centrifuges “will be stored under IAEA continuous monitoring,” and 1,004 IR-1s at Fordow, where only one-third of them will be allowed to operate, and with restrictions.

Iran will therefore be permitted to keep more centrifuges under the JCPOA than it possessed when Obama came into office.

Six U.N. Security Council resolutions passed between 2006 and 2010 – five under the Bush administration and one under the Obama administration – demanded that Iran suspend “all” enrichment.

However, they are all due to be replaced by a single Security Council resolution enshrining the JCPOA, with a vote expected as early as Monday.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow