Analysis | Bomb Scare |

As Iran Nears Nuclear Capability, the West Needs to Prepare

ISIS forecasts Iran is just weeks away from its first nuclear warhead. Doubters may be underestimating Tehran's haste.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The Institution for Science and International Security, one of the most reliable independent sources of information on Iran’s nuclear program, has updated its projected timetable for Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. According to a new forecast from ISIS head David Albright, Iran would require four to six weeks between making a decision and stockpiling enough enriched uranium to produce its first nuclear weapon.

This forecast is based on the amounts of enriched uranium that the Iranians have accumulated so far and on the number of fast centrifuges that have been installed recently. The projection also assumes the Iranians will choose the shortest available path.

The new forecast cuts the previous estimate made by ISIS in half.

The Institution provides no forecast regarding the next stage in weapons production, namely the development of the technology required to compress the nuclear material into a warhead mounted on a surface-to-surface missile such as the Shahab 3. However, according to American experts, the critical step is manufacturing the bomb itself. Production of warheads is carried out at several sites that are unknown to the international community. It is likely that the Iranians can complete this step without being discovered.

Albright’s forecasts are usually harsher than those of similar research institutions or those made by Western intelligence agencies. The Obama administration believes that it will take Iran a year to produce a nuclear warhead. Last summer, Israel’s military intelligence estimates, presented to political echelons, were that Iran would require three to four months to produce a bomb, and up to a year to produce a warhead.

The experts will continue to debate the different timetables, as well as what constitutes a nuclear threshold state. The bottom line, common to all assessments, is that Iran is very close to acquiring nuclear capability. If it chooses this course, which carries with it significant risks, all that is needed is a declaration of such capability, or a demonstration through the explosion of a subterranean nuclear device, as was previously carried out by North Korea in order to establish its new standing.

It is now clear that Iran has come a long way since it set out at the start of the last decade. Back then, it only had 130 older centrifuges, the operations of which stalled from time to time following mysterious technical faults. Today, it possesses 18,000 centrifuges, some of which are advanced and high-speed. The American assessment that the whole process, up to production of a warhead, will take a year depends on two assumptions. One is that operations will proceed in series and the other is that Iran will insist on the highest professional standards. Both of these assumptions can be contested. Some of the work can be done simultaneously, rather than in sequential steps, thus shortening the time required. In terms of standards, Iran may compromise on the quality of the final product in order to produce a warhead as quickly as possible.

Undoubtedly, pressure on Iran can still be applied successfully, as demonstrated by Iran’s return to negotiations led by its new president Hassan Rohani, after international sanctions paralyzed its economy. The claims made by Israel’s leaders that agreement can be reached to limit uranium enrichment, even at a level of 3.5 percent, are unrealistic. Israel’s problem is that in view of the recent conduct of the Obama administration, it doubts whether even a reasonable partial compromise can be attained. It is not surprising that the main supporter of Israel’s criticism of U.S. policy is Saudi Arabia, Iran’s worried neighbor. Its decision to turn down an offer to sit on the UN Security Council stemmed not only from anger at the U.S. approach to Syria, but also out of concern that the Americans will abandon Saudi interests when making a deal with Iran.

Albright’s new report comes before the opening of a new round of talks in Geneva in ten days. The U.S. Congress is resuming discussions geared to widening the sanctions, which the administration opposes. The next few months will see a concentrated effort to reach a deal, which experienced experts give a 50 percent chance of being concluded. In the absence of an agreement, the decision will return to Obama, and the question of what he is willing to do to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear capability will surface once again.

Poster depicting an American negotiator at a negotiating table, dog at his side, displayed in Palestine Square, Tehran.Credit: AP
At the Arak heavy water nuclear facility, near Arak, 250 kilometers southwest of Tehran, Iran, January 15, 2011.Credit: AP

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