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.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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:

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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.

President Ahmadinejad says Iran's program is for peaceful purposes, but his rhetoric is aggressive. "Now we have 7,000 centrifuges and the West dare not threaten us," he said in May.

What are the diplomatic options?
In April, the US said it could sit down with Iran and other key parties – Russia, China, France, Germany, and Britain – and offered a freeze on new sanctions in exchange for a freeze on uranium enrichment.

But Ahmadinejad said last week that "The nuclear issue is a finished issue for us."

With elections on June 12, Ahmadinejad himself may not be in power much longer. At least two rivals have criticized his posturing as harmful to Iran.

"The bellwether of how this is resonating in Iran is the election itself," says Wayne White, a former South Asia intelligence expert with the State Department.

Mr. White, who is convinced that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon at a steady pace, says decision-making on this issue lies with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In May, he took a hard line that may have been a warning to more moderate presidential hopefuls, says White.

"He's saying ... 'if you win, you'd better be hard-nosed in your negotiations with the West. We're not going to give away the store, no matter who wins the election.' "

What about the military option?
Before his election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised that he would do "everything necessary" to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The US has worried about the prospect of a unilateral Israeli strike. Vice President Joe Biden warned in April that such a step would be "ill-advised."

On June 1, Israel's military intelligence chief, Brig. Gen. Yossi Baidatz, alleged that Iran would have enough enriched uranium to make a bomb by the end of the year and said, "The Iranian clock is ticking faster than the clock of international dialogue." Israel sees a nuclear bomb in Iranian hands as an existential threat. But would military action, by Israel or by the US, be effective?

White, now a scholar at the nonpartisan Middle East Institute in Washington, thinks not. He says Iran's dispersed program and expertise would mean that any strike of the sort Israel could muster would be a temporary setback, and convince the Iranians that they need a weapon – fast.

"It would stimulate a surge toward a nuclear weapons capability," he says.

The US, able to launch missiles from warships in the Gulf and to fly bombers from both carriers and bases at places like Diego Garcia, is another matter.

"If the US acted, the known sites would be splattered in an air campaign of 1,000 to 2,000 sorties. But after that, we'd effectively be at war with Iran ... an unacceptable outcome for the tiny chance the Iranians would ever launch a first strike," White says, noting such action would severely damage US interests.

A May report by the RAND Corp., "Iran: Dangerous But Not Omnipotent," argues that Iran may not pose as big a threat as many assume. It says the US should temper its hostile rhetoric and increase international pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear program.r

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