WASHINGTON – For over a decade, the United States, Israel and independent
scientific experts have largely disagreed over just how long Iran has until it
becomes capable of building its own nuclear weapons.
That debate is
US and Israeli officials now discuss granting Iran a period of
months – less than half a year – to change course before considering diplomacy
exhausted and resorting to alternative measures.
According to officials,
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s speech at the UN General Assembly next month
will be treated as an inflection point, though not a deadline, by both
governments. The reason is that virtually all of the choice dictating timelines in
this slow-motion nuclear crisis – finally nearing its peak – lies squarely with
Drawing lines in the sand and calling them timelines
oversimplifies a very complex problem: there are multiple avenues Iran can take
to become a definitive nuclear state. And as the summer draws to a close, Iran’s
leaders are accelerating down virtually every one of those available
If Iran’s leaders decided tomorrow to “break out” toward a bomb,
they would be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium required for a
nuclear weapon in just one to two months. And with the installation of 3,000
new, advanced IR2m centrifuges at the underground Natanz facility, that timeline
will soon become more like eight to 10 days – too short for International Atomic
Energy Agency inspectors, who are overseeing Iran’s active and declared
facilities, to detect an enrichment breakout.
“Even if they are caught in
one or two weeks’ time, it takes time for the IAEA to react,” Olli Heinonen,
former deputy director-general for safeguards at the IAEA, now with the Belfer
Center at Harvard, told The Jerusalem Post.
That determination does not
account for the real possibility of existing clandestine facilities. US
officials are just as concerned about what they don’t know as they are about
what they do. “Our assessment is that if they were to move to highly enriched
uranium... the most likely scenario is they would do that covertly,” Director of
National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee in
It’s an assessment that Hienonen agrees with.
countries with nuclear programs work in high secrecy,” Heinonen said, “so there
are probably multiple unknowns.”
David Albright, founder and president of
the NGO Institute for Science and International Security, told the Post that he
has heard of no evidence to suggest another facility besides Natanz exists,
except for the fact that Iran has, in the recent past, explicitly stated its
desire to build one.
“Clearly, breakout at a dedicated, declared
enrichment site is only rational if you feel you can get enough weapons-grade
uranium before the sites are destroyed,” Albright said.
enrichment has long been at the core of concerns over Iran’s program for Western
military and intelligence officials. At this point, Iran has stockpiled enough
low-enriched uranium to make up to six atomic bombs. The US has identified up to
20 high-value targets directly tied to the uranium program spread across Iran’s
vast territory, not including military and government assets that would be on a
long list of targets should President Barack Obama choose to order a military
“If I take all the 3.5- and 20-percent [low-enriched] material,
and I have a secret plant to enrich it to highly enriched uranium, then all the
material they have can be converted to roughly six nuclear weapons,” said Greg
Jones, a senior researcher at the Non-Proliferation Policy Education
Iran’s centrifuges are relatively resistant to a military strike,
with 52 parallel cascades running through Natanz alone. The whereabouts and
extent of their spare centrifuge stockpiles, and their centrifuge manufacturing
plants, are not known with high confidence, Jones said.
multiple red lines. If you assume they’ve built a clandestine facility that
isn’t running, the Iranians only need 94 kilograms,” Jones
Theoretically, Iran’s new IR2m centrifuges – made with carbon
fiber and rare miraging steel, likely smuggled through China – enrich uranium
three to five times more efficiently than the model Iran predominantly uses, the
“Either intelligence officials knew the [IR2ms] were coming and they didn’t want to say anything, or it came as a surprise,” said
Heinonen. “But we really don’t know how many they have. They could have
Parallel to the enrichment program, Iran must successfully
weaponize the product. The US believes that process could add substantial time
to Iran’s pursuit.
“I think it’s a vast overestimation that they can
complete the weaponization aspects right after completing the enrichment
process,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the Non-Proliferation and
Disarmament Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The
simultaneity of the explosions is quite a difficult task to master. North
Korea’s first attempt produced a fizzle.”
As if the uranium track were
not pressing enough, a new timeline has emerged that does not rely on US or
Israeli intelligence assessing whether Iran’s leaders privately intend to break
out with enrichment.
That is because, on this separate, equally daunting
track, the Iranian government has already announced its plans.
begin fueling its plutonium nuclear reactor in Arak at the beginning of 2014, it
told the IAEA this spring, with the stated goal of operating the reactor by July
of next year. The worry over Arak isn’t that the plant will produce
nuclear-grade plutonium immediately; it would likely take over a year for that.
But once Arak goes “hot,” any bombing campaign would release radioactive
material that could contaminate nearby towns – or perhaps Arak itself, a city
with roughly the population of Washington, DC.
“The significance of it,
of course, is that once it goes online, any bombing of it would create an
environmental hazard that would make such an operation politically difficult,”
Bombing Arak before it goes hot, and not Iran’s uranium
enrichment facilities, would likely result in Iran’s withdrawal from the UN
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Tehran would also expel IAEA safeguard
inspectors. But Arak’s heavy water reactor would take several years to replace,
“If the Arak reactor isn’t stopped, it creates a clock
that highly motivates a military strike,” Albright said, adding, “I think they
fully intend on fueling it.”
Arak is being watched extremely closely by
the US and will be a chief negotiating point over the next several months.
Rouhani could cast himself a genuine partner if he announces a halt to its
And yet, over the next six months, Iran could choose to delay
the plant’s fueling for as long or as short as it likes. So long as its leaders
retain the ability to move forward, the protracted conflict will continue; Iran
will be able to fuel the facility without much notice unless there is a full
dissembling or destruction of the plant.
“It’s the reason Israel bombed
the Syrian and Iraqi reactors when they did,” Heinonen said. “Iran has chosen a
hard line, and it’s because they have strength in the numbers on their
“This will be very hard,” he added, “towards the end of the
IAEA deputy director-general Herman Nackaerts declined to comment
for this story. His office, however, pointed to the agency’s next report, due
out in mid-September, noting that their findings on Iran often speak for