How close is Iran to nuclear weapons?

February 22, 2013

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed last week that new second-generation centrifuges, which Iran plans to start up at its Natanz uranium enrichment facility, could cut by a third the time needed to create a nuclear bomb – underlining his deadline of this summer to take military action against Iran.

Netanyahu’s prediction, however, appears to be based on some unsubstantiated assumptions regarding Iranian intentions and capabilities. Yet it can provide ammunition to the hawks in Washington and Jerusalem, who could rush us into another needless and counterproductive war in the Middle East. Netanyahu’s assertions do not stand up to technical scrutiny.

Critically, he does not mention that Iran has been converting part of its 20-percent-enriched uranium hexafluoride gaseous stockpile into metallic form, for use as fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. This conversion essentially freezes the enrichment level and subtracts from the “enrichable” gaseous stockpile used in centrifuges. It is not something that a nation hell-bent on weaponization would do.

Neglecting this fact in coming up with a hypothetical “time line to a bomb” is like balancing your bank account by registering just your income – but failing to subtract the amounts of the checks you’ve written.

Basically, whatever amount is converted to metal oxide form is not easily available for further enrichment to weapons-grade uranium, even if Iran decided to launch a weaponization effort in the future. Reconversion back to gaseous form is difficult and time-consuming and a major roadblock if a country intends to “race to the bomb.”

In addition, it is known that the Iranians are experiencing technical problems in converting their gaseous 20-percent-enriched uranium hexafluoride stockpile into metal fuel plates. If the world powers and the International Atomic Energy Agency are concerned and want to secure Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile, one way would be to offer Iran technical assistance with this conversion. This sort of technical help is a normal part of the IAEA’s official duties in member nations.

Alternatively, the world powers negotiating with Iran could agree to implement a simultaneous exchange of Iranian enriched uranium gas for foreign-produced metallic fuel plates. Indeed, if Iran received sufficient assistance with this exchange it would end up quickly retreating from the various artificial weaponization “red lines.”

Another error Netanyahu makes in his flawed time line is assuming that Iran could instantaneously install, debug and run thousands of centrifuges at full capacity. This is highly unlikely. There are almost 12,700 first-generation (IR-1) centrifuges spinning at Natanz. Installing and starting up 3,000 or so of the new second-generation (IR-2) machines will take months. It is akin to setting up a whole new facility. The latest IAEA report on Iran indicates they have installed – but not yet hooked-up ‑ just 180 of the IR-2 machines. It is not clear that they will be connected in the foreseeable future or even if they will work.

A host of engineering teething-problems are sure to ensue in starting up new centrifuge cascades; it is inconceivable that the cascades would immediately be run at full speed. Theoretically, the IR-2s work about three times faster than the IR-1s   but it could take months or even years to realize the full potential of the second-generation centrifuges.

The IR-2s would be a small step up for Iran. They are not some kind of quantum breakthrough. Even the new IR-2 machines are very old 1970-80s technology by Western standards.

And by installing any additional enrichment capacity, Iran is not doing anything  that violates its legal right to develop nuclear technology. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has been insisting on this.

“We were told by the IAEA,” Lavrov recently said in Moscow, “that they [the Iranians] will install next-generation centrifuges.” He added, “However, [Iran] is doing everything in line with their commitments under the Safeguards Agreement.”

The issue that the world powers have with Iran is a political one, not a legal one. “The IAEA will be there and will supervise this,” Lavrov said, “but I’d like to repeat that this is a legal aspect of the matter, while the political aspect is that we, along with the other Security Council members, have called on Iran to freeze enrichment operations during the negotiations.”

A recent Washington Post article said Iran is planning to build 50,000 new IR-1 centrifuges – based largely on an inquiry someone in Iran made about possibly purchasing commonplace magnets. But, as I argue in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, this thesis can be called into question. A December Associated Press account that Iran was doing research on nuclear bombs was also inaccurate, as explained in a piece I co-authored for WMD Junction of The Nonproliferation Review. AP has recently published an article laying out the inconsistencies of their original story.

The best intelligence about Iran’s nuclear program indicates that no nuclear weapons work is going on in Iran right now. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, has confirmed that he has “a high level of confidence” that no such work is going on now. This reflects the consensus view of 16 different U.S. intelligence agencies.

It says far more than merely that there is no evidence now for any nuclear weapons development work in Iran. It says there is actual concrete high-quality evidence that Iran is not making nuclear weapons, and that the leaders in Tehran have not even made a decision to embark on such a program.

Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has also weighed in: “Are they [Iranians] trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No.” Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent more than a decade as the director of the IAEA, said  he had not “seen a shred of evidence” that Iran was pursuing the bomb, “I don’t believe Iran is a clear and present danger,” he said. “All I see is the hype about the threat posed by Iran.”

In any case, if Tehran tried to “break out” and race to the bomb, this would be detected by IAEA inspectors, who check the relevant facilities roughly weekly. And all declared nuclear material in Iran, according to the IAEA, remains under the agency’s containment and surveillance.

To “break out,” either Iran would have to kick out the inspectors or the Iranians would get caught cheating. In either case, Iran would be forced to break its four-decade-long adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty  a momentous step that would likely prompt swift military action from the United States or Israel.

So if we are looking for real “red lines,” the obvious trip-wires should be either the expulsion of IAEA inspectors or the detection of diversion of nuclear material to non-peaceful uses – not some artificial red line drawn by a non-NPT member state.

The problem with casting the worst-case hypothetical scenarios as even vaguely realistic possibilities – as Netanyahu does with his artificially accelerated time line – is that they invite overly tough policies on Iran that could well provoke a hard-line Iranian response. This would only succeed in creating a self-fulfilling cycle of escalation.

One point often misunderstood about the Nonproliferation Treaty is that it is not illegal for a member state to have a nuclear weapons capability – or even a “nuclear option.” In fact, if a nation has a fully developed civilian nuclear sector – which the NPT encourages – it, by default, already has a fairly solid nuclear weapons capability. Just as you cannot be fined for having a red sports car that has the capability to go 120 mph, there is no legal issue with nations having a latent nuclear weapons capability.

For example, Argentina, Brazil and Japan also maintain a “nuclear option.” They, too, could break out of the NPT and make a nuclear device in a few months, if not less.

Argentina and Brazil, like Iran, also do not permit full “Additional Protocol” IAEA inspections. Not only for Iran, but for 50 other nations, the IAEA cannot prove the purely peaceful nature of their nuclear program.

There is a reason for that: Much nuclear technology is inherently dual-use. This is the why some of us in the arms-control community are thinking of a revised NPT to plug these glaring loopholes.

Unfortunately, Netanyahu’s latest claims about the time line to an Iranian bomb is not a one-off aberration. He has been making such assertions for decades. So it pays to take his views with a boulder of salt.

In 1992, Netanyahu, then a parliamentarian, said Iran was three to five years from a bomb. Then, as now, he was urging the United States to do Israel’s dirty work – and, perhaps, suffer the possible blowback – saying the alleged threat must be “uprooted by an international front headed by the U.S.”

Netanyahu’s crystal ball on Iran was cloudy 20 years ago ‑ and it seems still cloudy now.

PHOTO: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gestures to photographers after meeting with Indonesian counterpart Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Nusa Dua, Bali November 9, 2012. Ahmadinejad again denied Iran was trying to develop nuclear weapons. REUTERS/Murdani Usman

PHOTO (Insert): Iraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds an illustration describing Iran’s ability to create a nuclear weapon as he addresses the 67th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, September 27, 2012. REUTERS/Keith Bedford


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Really Folks there’s NOTHING that any of us here in the “WEST” can do about (IRAN) achieving a “NUKE”!!! Nothing (other than aiming ours at them) and making IRAN into a “Glass-Parking Lot” (aka. Blasting them back to the “Stone Age”!!!

Once they have a “Nuke” on a deliverable system “They’ll use it!!!”.

Posted by Middleclassman | Report as abusive

Mr. Butt appears to be a biased man with a mission and that mission is not good faith and honest debate. He would have us believe the problem before us is what says or believes. Not so. It is also not what Iran says, but what it does.

Saddam Hussein played the “game” of “you don’t know what I’m doing and I won’t let you verify it for yourself”. That decision did not work our well for him, because he had already demonstrated possession of weapons of mass destruction and used them against Iran. The world, thus blind, had to presume the worst and took action based on that presumption.

The level of ignorance issuing from Tehran denying the Holocaust and threatening to “wipe Israel off the map” cannot be ignored. Accordingly, pursuit of an atomic means with which to accomplish such declared intent can be ignored only by an idiot. Iran seems to be of the mind to act first and think later, perhaps claiming such action to be a “legitimate response to the Israeli attack on a Syrian convoy of advanced weaponry headed for Hexbollah in Lebanon. The world can not turn a blind eye forever to Iran’s ongoing vocal belligerence. There are barking dogs that DO bite!

Once again, the civilized world is being forced by circumstances to take action if Iran does not demonstrate good faith and actually do some of the things Mr. Butt talks about. It is looking for action, not words, because the clock is ticking for Iran’s current “leaders” and their ambitions.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Facts are not important to hawkish thinking. The only true fact is that Americans have permitted militarists in the USA and Israel gain control of our Federal Government. Once done, we rather predictably will have war after war until we complete global conquest of until our homeland is utterly destroyed. There will always be a “good reason” to attack someone.

Unfortunately, in our so-called “elections” continued domination by these people is the only “choice” on the ballot. Will these wars ever stop? Not in my lifetime, or yours. Send your sons abroad if you want them whole.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

“That decision did not work our well for him, because he had already demonstrated possession of weapons of mass destruction and used them against Iran.”

The US gave biological weapons to Irak and Rumfield told Saddam Hussein to use them on Iran.

Denying something you do not believe in should not be a crime in the 21st century. I don’t believe holocaust happened as they told us it did. War atrocities took place as they do in every war but Holocaust is mythology. People must be free to question history especially if hey weren’t there.

It’s a lie as everything with Israel. No Iran official threatened to wipe “Israel off the map”.

“There are barking dog that do bite” Since the 90’s Nut yahoo has been barking. Enough with the barking already and fake red lines backing him against the wall. Now let’s see how you bite Iran.

Israel’s problem with Iran is not nuclear but Hezbollah, Syria and Hamas which Iran helps stand up to Israel bullying.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

I’m sorry OneOfTheSheep but the idea that Saddam inadvertenltly mislead the US into invading Iraq is laughable rubbish. In fact, Iraq filed a highly-detailed 12000 page report showing how it had eliminated its WMDs but it was obvious that the US was going to invade regardless (the “facts made to fit the policy”) Furthermore Iran did not threaten to “wipe Israel off the face of the earth” either. Let us remember, Saddam got his WMDs from the US in teh first place.

Posted by IranAffairs | Report as abusive

@Middleclassman: Is that a religious belief you have?

@OneOfTheSheep: Read Wikipedia: Ahmadinejad Israel
You will see that your “wipe Israel off the map” is propaganda.
BUT, you must know that???
This makes you look at least like a Zionist supporting propagandist!

Most people don’t persist if revealing their ignorance so clearly.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive


Facts are not important to liberals who rush to embrace ignorance before intelligence. In 1945 the United States was unilaterally supreme and unchallenged possessing atomic weapons.

We could, and SHOULD, have told Russia and anybody else that was a potential belligerent that there would be no more wars and declare mandatory worldwide disarmament with benevolent U.S, oversight as was present over destroyed homelands throughout Europe and Japan. Militarists do not control “our” federal government…idiots do. There are probably more like Fromkin already right here in the good ol’ U,S, of A. They look just like any other immigrant until they get their orders to light their fuse.

@Fromkin, Israel would have no interest in or even take notice of Iran if they weren’t constantly jumping up and down like a silly teenager yelling “LOOK AT ME” and shouting obscenities. Once Iran’s leadership shuts their mouth and starts acting in the civilized manner of other mature states they will find no one CARES what they do so long as they mind their own business. The real problem is that Iran is simply not large enough to contain the egos that reside there within it’s borders.

At least our so-called “leaders” are smart enough to keep necessary conflicts OUTSIDE of the U.S. in the here and now rather than allowing things to deteriorate to the point that “we, the people” have to deal with Islamist radicals personally in the streets of our own country, states and towns. Instead of Cowboys and Indians the game will be rednecks and (radical) muslims.

xcanada: I’m not a jew nor a “Zionist supporting propagandist”, but I DO admire any country that makes their desert bloom when all those surrounding them seem able to offer the world is ignorance and racial hatred. If a choice need be made, that one’s pretty simple.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Mr. Butt is living in a world that was just born yesterday. There are countries like France and Britain who have nuclear weapons, Israel and the US have no problems with their maintenance of those weapons because they don’t go around threatening other countries of making them extinct. Iran is a belligerent country with transparent ties to terrorist organizations that hurt innocent civilians to whom it supplies weapons, advisors and any other necessary hardware. If there are any “colonialist” expansion motives, Iran has them with its neighbors and establishing itself as a mid east power. But, this is not a peaceful aim of just having influence. When a country outright threatens another at annihilating it and stating it does not have a right to exist as a member of the community of nations you need to listen. That country acquiring weapons of mass destruction and then outright showing its quick advancement to applying those weapons by developing long range missiles should be a sign to any doubter.
Israel did not make any threats against Pakistan when it was developing nuclear weapons because it does not threaten Israel with destruction. If policy makers propose action against another country based on both its policies, actions and statements and are considered hawkish so be it. We are in a world, where part of the world is extreme and feels violence serves their purpose well. We would be fools to stand idly by and allow there plans to go forward. The Iranians are laughing at western diplomacy, they know how to tie western hands for another twenty years by playing games so they can achieve their goal – nuclear weapons. Don’t underestimate Israeli intelligence, it uncovered and destroyed a syrian nuclear weapons ambition, the Iraqi nuclear ambition and is now warning of the same danger coming from yet another belligerent country. It doesn’t take a war to destroy these reactors, Israel never engaged in a war with any of those countries for more than several hours it took to destroy the imminent threat!! Anyone proposing that having jets go in on a solitary mission to destroy these reactors that are usually hidden in mountainous terrain and protected with anti aircraft defenses requires a war may need to take a lesson from Israel. Just a point about the dual use of nuclear technology. If Ahmedinejad was so peaceful and just wanted cleaner nuclear energy there is no reason he would secretly build additional reactors that can enrich uranium beyond the amounts he needs for civilian purposes nor keep the IAEA out of it, so please don’t take us for fools Mr. Butt. You are falling prey to the Iranian propaganda or are part of it. The IAEA cannot prove the peaceful nature of some nuclear programs but that is in countries that do NOT threaten others, and they certainly don’t try to play games with the international community of hide and seek with their facilities. Give us a little more credit that we are intellectual enough to read through the dumb excuses the Iranian regime is throwing at the international community!

Posted by Hank22 | Report as abusive

Iranians are far less evil than America or Israel.

For many years the US lived with the Soviet Union in possession of thousands of nuclear tipped intercontinental ballistic missles, aimed right at American cities.

The Soviet press, for example the official newspaper Pravda, routinely published major editorials calling for the destruction of imperialist America, the capitalist exploiter of mankind.

Yet Russia for all its rhetoric, was run by human beings, and as human beings do, even fanatical communists, they considered their own interests, and their families. They never used any of their thousands of nuclear weapons on anybody.

The same with Chinese communists. They have nuclear missles. They, too, have families and children they care for. And so too with Iranians Moslems. They too have families and children they love.

But the cleverest Hollywood script writers and propagandists on Earth reside in Israel, and they have the world believing that Iran, who has invaded nobody, would immediately use a nuclear weapon if it had one.

Israel itself, constantly threatening to strike Iran, is driving the world toward war. Israel, the great criminal nation, steals more land from defenseless Palestinians every day, while cleverly diverting our attention by pointing their finger at Iran.

Israel, who every day steals land, who bulldozes homes, cuts down olive tree groves, who kills Palestinian children with tanks and helicopters. This same Israel cleverly points their finger at Iran, who steals nobody’s land, and invades nobody.

Of all the nations that possess nuclear arms (Israel, America, France, England, India, Pakistan, Russia, China) Iran would be a safer bet to be responsible and rational.

It was only America who has used its nuclear weapons on fellow humans, when we dropped two of them on Japan after she was already defeated, at the end of WWII. General Eisenhower was very much against it.

The world will be better off if Iran does have a nuclear deterrent. Iran is a huge country with 73 million people. The sooner Iran has nuclear missles to defend itself, the sooner the threat of war will recede.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

@Adam Smith, you hit right on the nail.
The only country to have every used Nuclear Weapons is the USA. Sorry, but if they past is any indication, the only religious fanatics right now are the governments of America and Isreal.

@OneoftheSheep, Netenyahoo barks like a mad dog. But being that you are either an Isreali or a Zionist, Im sure you will say that he is champion of freedom and democracy, after killing so many Palestinians.

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

Who cares if they have a nuke, are planning to build one or are even able to do so?
It`s only about a (PR) usable reason to sell a preemptive strike and “bring democracy and state-building” (=occupation) for Iran.
And the game is not about safety*. It`s about money and therefore about resources.
Well, yes, there are plenty of resources in Iran.

*If it were about safety, even if Israels Iron-Dome would miss an iranian Nuke… plenty of israeli and US Nukes would be ready to retaliate… and that is how the nuke game allways was played: MAD, mutually assured destruction, deterrence… do not do it, because otherwise we will do much more… There is no safety reason! Iran would never use a nuke. Even if it had one.

Posted by EuropeanPatriot | Report as abusive

If anything the violently lunatic comments here by people wishing to nuke innocent men, women, and children in Iran over some imagined “threat” is indicative of their moral and intellectual sickness. Only a madman would actually think it’s a good thing to kill people because they can’t let go of their war mongering bias. And I’m not talking about Iranians because the most blood thirsty lot sit in D.C. and Tel Aviv.

Posted by DoctorFix | Report as abusive

@MiddleClassMan, Can you possibly be so ignorant and evil as to believe your tripe?

Posted by DoctorFix | Report as abusive

Obama pretty much needs a war at this point to distract his profoundly ignorant supporters, pretty scary stuff really. You can pretty much bet the farm on it now. Barry will give the wink to Israel to make a pre-emptive strike and the USA will be ‘forced’ to support their bestest buddy in the whole wide world. Coming soon to a 24 hours news feed near you.

Posted by stambo2001 | Report as abusive

Mmmm! Seem to be an awful lot of people commenting here, who seem to think that presenting certain uncomfortable facts is actually opinion. Thiw no doubt arises as a result of lower cognitive abilities showing a complete inability for abstract-reasoning.

Then there are obvious hasbara activists members of an apartheid nation with serious mass psycopathy, also bedeviled by lower cognitive abilities, but whose sole aim is to spread false malicious lies in the comments sections of major news media organisations for which they can get paid up to $2000, such as ‘Oneofthesheep’ (a truly Freudian slip of a handle by the way)…

Posted by Sketchley | Report as abusive

Brazil was also accused of possibly be creating weapon’s grade uranium in the past, while obviously this was not really happening, and there was a reason for that.

They had developed their own system of centrifuges, and they are independent when comes to enrich nuclear material for medical and research use.

Although they have allowed IAEA to review all the installations and almost the complete processes involving the enrichment, they reserved themselves a certain amount of information to protect their intellectual property when comes to their developed systems. The disclosure of the methods in use is also a disclosure of a method that competes with the techniques utilized in the rest of the planet.

Iran probably is also suffering partially from such problem, while they are developing their system, they are being deterred by the unwillingness of human cooperation and massive violent drive from Israel and other countries that support Israel (because it is not only the US) killing their scientists, avoiding the cooperation from other countries and so forth, and all os this due to spurious and almost malignant nature of western intentions on the are, which involves geopolitical power, oil and possibly other things also in the game.

While no humanity can be recognized as a group, due to these political cravasses between neighbors, truth is a shady enigma disputed between associations of peoples who are pursuing money and stop for nothing.

Posted by spectroman | Report as abusive

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