Drawing timelines in the sand on a nuclear Iran

US, Israeli officials discuss deadline for Iran to change course.

The Arak reactor, 190 kilometers southwest of Tehran 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
The Arak reactor, 190 kilometers southwest of Tehran 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
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 over.
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 Iran’s government.
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 paths.
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 April.
It’s an assessment that Hienonen agrees with.
“All 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.
Uranium 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 strike.
“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 Center.
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.
“There are multiple red lines. If you assume they’ve built a clandestine facility that isn’t running, the Iranians only need 94 kilograms,” Jones added.
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 IR1.
“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 6,000.”
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.
Iran will 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,” Fitzpatrick said.
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, experts agree.
“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 fueling.
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 side.”
“This will be very hard,” he added, “towards the end of the year.”
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 themselves. •