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Chief obstacle to Iran's nuclear effort: its own bad technology

Continuing technical challenges mean Iran is still probably 3 to 5 years away from acquiring a nuclear bomb. Diplomats should exploit that leverage.

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If Stuxnet indeed crippled Iran’s nuclear program as several headlines read, it was already limping.

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To that point, senior US officials have said over the past year that, because of the technical problems Iran has been facing, the timeframe in which Iran could make a dash toward nuclear weapons has been pushed further into the future. This only repeats a familiar pattern in which the “deadlines” cited by more alarmist assessments have come and gone:

Warnings of imminent nuclear threat – from 15 years ago

In 2000, the CIA reportedly told President Clinton that Iran might already be capable of making a nuclear weapon.

In 1995, the United States assessed that Iran could have the bomb by 2003.

That same year, a book by then-Likud Party Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu said the “best estimates” placed an Iranian nuclear weapons capability at 3 to 5 years away.

Fifteen years later, Vice Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Gen. James Cartwright gave Congress the same 3-to-5 year timeframe this April.

Make no mistake, Iran’s nuclear activities are worrisome, and the threat that they pose should be taken seriously. But taking them seriously means realistically appraising the progress Iran’s nuclear program has made and how much further it needs to go before it gives Iran a viable nuclear weapons capability. A bomb’s worth of low-enriched uranium is not a viable capability.

Diplomacy takes time

The meeting between Iran and the six major powers this week did not resolve much. But a diplomatic process of this kind takes time, and requires confidence to be built between both sides. Proposals such as the “fuel-swap” deal trading reactor fuel for enriched uranium can help build such necessary confidence, as well as buy additional time for a negotiation process.

And we should be mindful of just how much time we have, before once again taking any destabilizing actions ourselves that may only worsen the threat.

Greg Thielmann is a senior fellow with the Arms Control Association and former senior professional staffer of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Peter Crail is a nonproliferation analyst with the Arms Control Association.


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