(CNSNews.com) - In a speech delivered last month to commanders and other personnel in the Iranian Air Force, whom he described as “officials who have very sensitive occupations,” Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—Iran’s Supreme Leader and commander in chief—boasted that Iran had enriched uranium to the 20-percent level.
At the same time, the Supreme Leader noted that his government had agreed to shut down its production of 20-percent enriched uranium “for a while” in its effort to reach a deal with United States and other foreign powers that would include lifting the sanctions now imposed on his country.
“It was a very great achievement to produce 20-percent uranium,” the ayatollah told a Feb. 8 Iranian Air Force gathering, according to a transcript posted on his website.
“Those who are experts on this matter know that producing 20 percent from 5 percent is much more significant than producing uranium which is higher than 20 percent,” he said. “However, our youth and our committed scientists did so.”
A report published last month by the Congressional Research Service explains why Iran’s efforts to produce uranium enriched to the 20 percent level is a problem.
“LEU used in nuclear power reactors typically contains less than 5% uranium-235,” said CRS, “research reactor fuel can be made using 20% uranium-235; HEU used in nuclear weapons typically contains about 90% uranium-235.”
“Iran’s production of LEU enriched to the 20% level has caused concern because such production requires approximately 90% of the effort necessary to produce weapons-grade HEU, which, as noted, contains approximately 90% uranium-235,” said CRS.
“Tehran argues that it is enriching uranium for use as fuel in nuclear power reactors and nuclear research reactors,” said CRS.
In his speech to the Air Force commanders, the ayatollah followed his assertion that Iran had been able to enrich uranium to the 20 percent level by accusing the U.S. and its allies of being “greedy” in negotiations for a nuclear deal and asserting that the “Iranian nation will not submit to greed and tyranny.”
The audience of Air Force commanders and other personnel responded to this with a chant, according to an English-language transcript produced by BBC Worldwide Monitoring and available through Nexis.
“Allah Akbar [God is great],” they chanted, according to the BBC transcript. “Khamenei is the leader. Death to the enemies of the leadership. Death to America. Death to England. Death to hypocrites. Death to Israel.”
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has testified in Congress that Iran has the technical capability to build a nuclear weapon and that whether it does so will be personally decided by Ayatollah Khamenei.
“Clearly, Tehran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity to produce them, so the central issue is its political will to do so,” Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 18, 2013. “Such a decision, we believe, will be made by the Supreme Leader, and at this point we don't know if he'll eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”
Then-Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin asked Clapper: “Have they made a decision, in your assessment, to produce nuclear weapons?”
“They have not,” said Clapper. “We continue to hold that they have not yet made that decision. And that decision would be made singly by the Supreme Leader.”
Clapper echoed this assessment in another Senate Armed Services Committee hearing held last week.
“Iran will face many of the same decision points in 2015 as it did in 2014,” he said. “Foremost is whether the Supreme Leader will agree to a nuclear deal. He wants sanctions relief but, at the same time, to preserve his options on nuclear capabilities.”
“We believe the supreme leader would be the ultimate decision maker here,” Clapper said. “As far as we know, he's not made a decision to go for a nuclear weapon.
“I do think they certainly want to preserve options across the capabilities it would take to build one,” Clapper said. “But right now they don't have one, and have not made that decision.”
At a background briefing sponsored by the White House on Sept. 25, 2009, “senior administration officials” explained that Iran had twice been caught secretly constructing a facility for enriching uranium—first at Natanz and then at Qom. One of the officials at this briefing explained why the administration believed the second facility appeared particularly designed to produce enriched uranium not for peaceful use but for a weapon.
“[T]he Iranian nuclear issue first became public back in 2002, when it was revealed that Iran was building a secret underground enrichment facility, which we now know as the Natanz facility,” a senior administration official said at that briefing. “Once the Iranians were caught building the secret underground enrichment facility with centrifuge machines in it, they were forced to declare the facility, to allow the IAEA inspectors to inspect the facility and to place it under safeguards.”
“So the obvious option for Iran would be to build another secret underground enrichment facility, and our intelligence services, working in very close cooperation with our allies, for the past several years have been looking for such a facility,” said the senior administration official. “And not surprisingly, we found one. So we have known for some time now that Iran was building a second underground enrichment facility. And as the president mentioned this morning, it's located [at Fordo] near the city of Qom, a very heavily protected, very heavily disguised facility.”
“Our information is that the facility is designed to hold about 3,000 centrifuge machines,” said this senior administration official. “Now, that's not a large enough number to make any sense from a commercial standpoint. It cannot produce a significant quantity of low-enriched uranium. But if you want to use the facility in order to produce a small amount of weapons-grade uranium, enough for a bomb or two a year, it's the right size. And our information is that the Iranians began this facility with the intent that it be secret, and therefore giving them an option of producing weapons-grade uranium without the international community knowing about it.”
Another problematic Iranian nuclear project is a heavy-water reactor it is building at Arak.
“Iran is constructing a heavy water-moderated reactor at Arak, which, according to Tehran, is intended to produce radioisotopes for medical use,” said the CRS report published last month.
“The Arak reactor is a proliferation concern because heavy water reactors produce spent fuel containing plutonium better suited for nuclear weapons than plutonium produced by light water moderated reactors,” said the CRS report.
In his speech last month to his Air Force commanders, Ayatollah Khamenei first stressed that he supported a nuclear deal that is “workable.” He then went on to praise Iran’s achievement in enriching uranium to the 20 percent level and hailed the construction of the Arak reactor and the Fordo uranium enrichment facilty.
“I want to say that first of all, I consent to an agreement that is workable,” said the ayatollah, according to the translation of his speech posted on his official website. “Of course, I do not mean a bad agreement. The Americans constantly repeat, 'We believe that making no agreement is better than making a bad one.' We too have the same opinion. We too believe that making no agreement is better than making an agreement that is to the disadvantage of national interests, one that leads to the humiliation of the great and magnificent people of Iran.”
In mentioning that the Arak and Fordo facilities had been closed—which was done as part of the temporary agreement (or “Joint Plan of Action”) that Iran made with the United States, France, the United Kingdom, German, Russia and China, the ayatollah stressed that these facilities were closed “for now”---according to the translation posted on his own website.
“The Iranian side has done whatever it could to reach an agreement,” the ayatollah said. “It has done many things: it has stopped developing enrichment machines. Well, it deemed it necessary to stop these machines for a while. It has stopped producing 20-percent uranium which is a very great feat. It was a very great achievement to produce 20-percent uranium.”
“Those who are experts on this matter know that producing 20 percent from 5 percent is much more significant than producing uranium which is higher than 20 percent,” said the ayatollah. “However, our youth and our committed scientists did so.
"In any case," he said, "the Iranian side stopped this because negotiations required it. The Iranians have closed the Arak Factory--which was a very great achievement and a very important innovation in the area of technology--for now. They have closed--for now--Fordo which is one of the best innovations made by our domestic forces for the sake of ensuring the security of our centrifuges. They have achieved so many great tasks. Therefore, the Iranian side has acted in a reasonable way. It has acted according to the requirements of negotiation."
Toward the end of his speech, the ayatollah indicated that his over-arching goal is to have sanctions lifted from Iran.
“Everything that is done is for the sake of taking the weapon and option of sanctions away from the enemy's hands,” he said.
“However, if they fail to make such an agreement, the people of Iran, officials, the honorable administration and others have many different options,” the ayatollah said.
“By Allah's favor,” he said, “the people of Iran will show on the 22nd of Bahman, that those who want to humiliate the people of Iran will face their counterblow.”
According to the BBC, 22nd of Bahman—or February 11—is the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution.
At this point in the BBC transcript of the speech, the audience of Iranian Air Force commanders and other personnel repeated the chant they had made earlier in the speech: “Allah Akbar. Khamenei is the Leader. Death to the enemies of the leadership. Death to America. Death to England. Death to hypocrites. Death to Israel.”