A long way from the Bomb
Iran still has a long way to go to manufacture a nuclear bomb. The announcement by its leaders that a uranium enrichment test was successful constitutes a declaration of intention more than containing any practical significance at this stage. And the announcement was not unexpected. For eight months Iran has been engaged in activities related to uranium enrichment, from converting natural uranium into gas to assembling centrifuges, checking 22 centrifuges and now, according to its announcement, running 164 centrifuges and enriching uranium in them. But this was apparently enrichment to 3.5 percent, suitable for operating a power plant but not for obtaining fissile material that would enable the production of a nuclear bomb. That would require enrichment to 90 percent.
Iran still does not have enough centrifuges. Manufacturing nuclear weapons takes between 1,500 and 3,000 centrifuges at least, and these must be operated in a systematic, consistent manner for a long period - and all this assuming there are no malfunctions. But Iran's achievement should not be dismissed. It managed to prove to the world that it already has the technological capability to manufacture centrifuges, install them, check them during the trial and testing period and run them. Clearly, if Iran insists on persevering, it will be able to improve that ability until it manages to manufacture nuclear weapons.
The big question is whether Iran really wants to obtain nuclear weapons and the answer to that is not categorical. There are disputes on the matter even among its political and religious leaders. Another open question is how long it will take Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, should it wish to do so.
On the time question, Western opinion is split between three years (according to Israeli intelligence) and five to 10 years (according to intelligence communities in Western Europe and the United States). In any event, the options available to the West, in particular, and the international community, in general, to prevent Iran obtaining nuclear weapons remain unchanged. On the agenda right now is a diplomatic move - a debate at the end of this month by the United Nations Security Council. But the debate is not expected to yield decisions, and certainly not any staunch ones, as the U.S. is demanding, not to speak of sanctions.
Russia and China and the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, are still hoping that a diplomatic way out will be found that will make it possible to persuade Iran to suspend uranium enrichment and resume negotiations over its nuclear program.
But even if their hopes are not fulfilled, it does not look like the U.S. is about to deliver a military blow to Iran's nuclear facilities in the near future. Reports did appear last week in the American media of discussions at the Pentagon on this matter, about increased intelligence gathering, but, on the other hand, there are also reports of disagreement in the administration, about Congressional opposition and also about doubts among Pentagon planners regarding the ability, viability and especially the anticipated results of a military strike.