How close is Iran to a bomb?
President Ahmadinejad's bellicose rhetoric has raised concerns about Iran's intentions. Whether or not he is reelected Friday, here's what Western policymakers now need to consider.
In Friday's election, Iranians will show whether they support President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's bellicose rhetoric – particularly on key issues such as the country's nuclear program. Just before North Korea's defiant nuclear test on May 25, Iran conducted two successful tests of long-range missiles, including one that Tehran says is more accurate than previous models and can reach Israel.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
How close is Iran to a bomb?
Officially, Iran's nuclear program is for developing nuclear power, and a 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concluded that they abandoned their weapons program in 2003. But given the Islamic Republic's past secrecy about the extent of its activities, many are suspicious of its assertions.
Here's what is publicly known:
Key sites include a uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz; a plant at Arak to produce heavy water, which can be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium; a nuclear power station at Bushehr; and a uranium conversion plant at Isfahan.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says Iran has provided full access and allowed monitoring at many sensitive sites, but has denied it access to areas involved with centrifuge production, uranium-enrichment research, and uranium mining.
If Iran wants to develop a bomb quickly, it could probably get one within a few years, assuming it acquired enough highly enriched uranium. Iran has flouted international efforts to stop its production of low-enriched uranium (LEU), an intermediate step to producing weapons-grade fuel.
According to a May report by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "There is no sign that Iran's leaders have ordered up a bomb." But Iran could produce one in as little as a year, concluded a team of US and Russian scientists in a separate May assessment. However, it would take six to eight years for Iran to produce a bomb that could be delivered by ballistic missile. That matches the 2007 NIE, which concluded Iran could develop a bomb by 2015.
What are the technical obstacles for Iran?
Iran's key site for enriching uranium is at Natanz, where the Iranians say about 7,000 centrifuges for making nuclear fuel are housed deep underground. The IAEA says that only about 4,000 of the centrifuges are actively enriching uranium. Iran says its short-term goal is to have 50,000 centrifuges.
At the moment, the Iranians are making only LEU, which is enriched to less than 5 percent – the amount suitable for nuclear power plants. About 2,000 pounds of LEU, enriched to 90 percent, can produce enough fuel for a single bomb; the IAEA estimated earlier this year that Iran has about 2,400 pounds.
Given IAEA monitoring, Iran could not start producing weapons-grade fuel at Natanz without being noticed. Some worry Iran might obtain fuel abroad.
Another concern is that Iran will acquire so-called "dual-use" material – technology that can be used for civilian or military purposes. The Foreign Relations Committee report said Iran is "operating a broad network of front organizations" to get such technology.
New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau indicted a Chinese businessman in April for using US banks to conceal transactions with subsidiaries of the Iranian Defense Industries Organization. Among material sent was 15,000 kilograms of a specialized alloy "used almost exclusively in long-range missile production," and 400 gyroscopes and 600 accelerometers, which improve the accuracy of missiles.