Iran’s bomb

Yesterday, Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN interviewer John King that he thinks Iran has enough fissile material to make a nuclear bomb. He said:

“We think they do, quite frankly.”

Meanwhile, on NBC, Defense Secretary Robert Gates apparently said the opposite:

“They’re not close to a stockpile, they’re not close to a weapon at this point

Politico noted the discrepancy.

What’s going on here?

The LA Times story about the interviews mentions a recent IAEA report finding that Iran has a bit more than a ton of “enriched uranium.” Additionally, the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control estimates that Iran actually had enough of this particular “low enriched uranium” to make a bomb by December 2008 and will have enough for a second one in October 2009.

As Mark Kleiman clarifies on his blog, however, low enriched uranium is not the same substance as highly enriched uranium (HEU), which is the weapons-grade material needed to make a bomb (without plutonium anyway).

In his 2005 Nuclear Terrorism book Graham Allison explained (see pp. 99-100) that it would take a substantial effort using a cascade of 1500 centrifuges operating for about one year to yield the 35 to 100 pounds of HEU that a state would need to manufacture a single nuclear bomb. The state needs the smaller amount only if it has mastered the technology and developed a beryllium reflector. Otherwise, it needs the larger amount.

Iran currently has close to 4000 centrifuges operating at the Natanz facility (and is heading to 6000), which means they could theoretically create HEU in months. However, the IAEA and the world would notice that kind of enrichment — at least at Natanz.

Granted, the technical barriers to an Iranian bomb are falling, but some stories about Mullen’s remarks definitely make it sound as if Iran has made a political decision to construct a bomb. After all, this is the sentence following the one I quoted above:

And Iran having a nuclear weapon I’ve believed for a long time is a very, very bad outcome for the region and for the world.”

Yet, there’s no publicly available evidence that Iran has moved to make a bomb.

The late 2007 NIE said

We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.

My blog post from that time quoted additional skepticism from the NIE.

Arms Control Wonk has been complaining about the panicked reporting on Iran’s technical achievements for some time.

The different apparent messages from Gates and Mullen certainly suggest that the administration is not trying to sell an Iran war to the American public. Or, if they are, they’re not as good at it as the Bush people were.


Iran, the IAEA and the US

Once again, I was recently contacted by an Iranian journalist for Fars News Agency.

Kia Kojouri asked 2 questions, which I have slightly reworded:

1. While IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei says that there is no evidence that Iran is building nuclear weapons, the US and Frence are claiming that Iran seeks nuclear weapons. They have not presented any documentation for their claims. What do you think about that?

2. The IAEA declares that outstanding issues between Iran and the IAEA will be solved during the next few weeks. What’s your assessment about that?

This is my reply:

1. El Baradei says that Iran likely cannot build nuclear arms for 3 to 8 years, even if it is secretly seeking them. Indeed, the IAEA leader plainly admits that because of this basic fact, he is trying to tone down the hostile rhetoric against Iran so as to reduce the risk of war and allow ongoing diplomacy to work. El Baradei and others acknowledge that many questions about Iran’s nuclear program remain unanswered.

Then again, after the IAEA reported its worries about Iran’s nuclear program to the UN Security Council in 2006, that body twice imposed sanctions on Iran. El Baradei has previously told interviewers that coercive levers can help promote diplomatic success. Thus, the US and France are highlighting threats that do not currently worry El Baradei, but they may make his job easier by keeping the pressure on Iran to cooperate with the IAEA’s diplomatic efforts.

2. A number of IAEA officials have praised Iran for its diplomatic cooperation. At some point, however, the UN Security Council’s chief concern has to be addressed. If the UNSC views Iran’s enrichment program as a threat to international peace and security, then the diplomacy has to yield both technical and political results. Any IAEA deal that allows Iran to continue its enrichment program seems likely to displease various western states.

Indeed, the world may well be on the road to conflict if the IAEA fails to halt the Iranian enrichment program. At that point, the US and a “coalition of the willing” (or perhaps Israel) might take hostile action even without explicit UNSC authorization. Potentially, it is a very dangerous situation.

I certainly hope that Iran and the IAEA can reach a deal that satisfies all the major concerned parties.


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