Iran could have enough weapons-grade uranium to fuel one nuclear bomb with a 15-kiloton yield by the end of August, about the time the US presidential race will kick into high gear, according to a new report.
And if anything is likely to replace “jobs, jobs, jobs” at the top of the list of campaign issues, it’s the arrival of a nuclear-capable Iran.
The report, the result of research by the Critical Threats Project at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, is careful to underscore that its findings assess “technical feasibility” only and do not delve into the question of Iran’s motivations behind its advancing nuclear program.
The report “does not assess Iran’s intentions to weaponize or to pursue break-out scenarios,” says Maseh Zarif, the Critical Threat Project’s Iran team leader. “It is intended solely to inform the policy community and the American public about the nature and progress of the Iranian nuclear program.”
Iran insists that its uranium enrichment program is aimed at producing fuel and materials for civilian power and medical research purposes. But the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Western powers, including the United States, suspect that Iran’s recent acceleration of uranium enrichment to about 20 percent purity suggests Tehran could be planning to “break out” as a nuclear weapons power.
In his report, Mr. Zarif says Iran would need 85 kilograms of about 20-percent low-enriched uranium to deliver the 15 kilograms of 90-percent high-enriched, or weapons-grade, uranium to build a bomb.
Using information gleaned from IAEA reports and other technical sources, Zarif says Iran could have the needed amount of 20-percent low-enriched uranium, which it is producing at two known facilities, Natanz and Fordow, by June. To convert that into the 15 kg of weapons-grade uranium needed for a bomb, would then take about another 10 weeks.
That is, if Iran decided to take such a “break-out” step. So far it is only known to be producing the 20-percent enriched uranium.
The Zarif report differs from the conclusions of other nuclear experts, some of whom have estimated Iran to be at least a year away from amassing enough fuel to provide the basis for an eventual nuclear weapon. Others have put a “break-out’ date even farther off, based on Iran’s known and repeated technical difficulties – not to mention the certain and virulent international reaction that any signs of a shift to producing high-enriched uranium would trigger.
But some researchers estimate that Iran could be even closer to the nuclear threshold than Zarif concludes.
Gregory Jones, in a December report for the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, said that an “all-out effort” by Iran could result in a bomb within two to six months.
Shifting from a technical appraisal to an analysis of “intentions,” Mr. Jones predicted that Iran would avoid that kind of reaction-causing “all-out effort” but would instead “continue on its current course, producing an ever growing stockpile of enriched uranium and carrying out additional research to produce non-nuclear weapons components.”
Jones also concluded that the debate over Iran’s intentions may be moot. “Though it could be many years before Iran becomes an overt nuclear weapon state,” he said, “it is already close enough to obtaining a nuclear weapon to be considered a de facto nuclear country.”
Zarif doesn’t make that kind of judgment in his report. But he does offer one conclusion that could resonate as US policymakers wrestle with the Iran issue over the coming months.
He says that all the measures taken by known and unknown actors against Iran since 2009 – economic sanctions, targeted killings of Iranian nuclear scientists and engineers, and computer viruses that have sent Iran’s uranium-enriching centrifuges spinning out of control – “have not significantly derailed the Iranian enrichment program.”