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November 20, 2008

Who are we supposed to believe?

Yesterday’s IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program caused quite a stir about when Iran might reach a so-called “breakout capacity” for nuclear weapons development.  According to William Broad and David Sanger of the New York Times:

Iran has now produced roughly enough nuclear material to make, with added purification, a single atom bomb.

The nuclear material in question, low-enriched uranium (LEU), is used for electricity generation in a nuclear power plant.  It is called low-enriched uranium because it is enriched up to only 5%, as opposed to highly-enriched uranium (HEU) or “weapons-grade uranium,”  which must reach levels above 90%.
According to the IAEA, Iran’s program has produced 630 kg of LEU to date.  By itself, this poses no real problem, but if Iran were to re-enrich its LEU stockpiles into HEU, it theoretically could produce a nuclear weapon.  Obviously, that’s bad.
But here’s where it gets interesting.  Last September, the IAEA released a similar report saying Iran had produced, at that time, a stockpile of 480 kg of LEU.  Nearly every news account went on to quote an unnamed UN official as saying:

[Iran] would need 15,000 kg (33,000) [of LEU] to convert into high-enriched uranium for fuelling an atom bomb…That would be a significant quantity, one unit of HEU, and would take on the order of two years.

So which is it?  Either Iran needs 15,000 kg of LEU to produce a bomb as the UN official claimed, or it already has enough material with its current stockpile of 630 kg.
I looked into this a little further, and here’s the answer I found: neither figure is correct.
According to David Albright, Jacqueline Shire, and Paul Brannan of the Institute for Science and International Security (as well as a friend of mine at PSR who confirmed this for me), most likely Iran will need somewhere between 700 and 1700 kg of LEU to produce the 20-25 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium needed for a crude fission weapon.  The conclusion that should be reached from this fact, then, is:

Whatever the actual amount of LEU [needed for a bomb], Iran is progressing toward this capability and can be expected to reach the lower limit within a few months. The upper limit can be reached within a year with two centrifuge modules operating at already achieved LEU outputs.

Thus, if you believe ISIS’s take on things (and I do), the previously-mentioned 15,000 kg benchmark was way off.  There simply isn’t any way that’s a credible figure.  And depending on which guess you like, Iran is somewhere between a few months and a year away from being able to convert its stockpile of LEU into enough HEU for a weapon.  (That is, of course, if it decides to kick out all the IAEA inspectors, re-route its stockpiles back into its centrifuges for further enrichment, modify its missiles to accommodate a nuclear warhead, and design an actual fissile explosive device–none of which it has actually done.)
But what should we all make of this? Why would someone declare in September–when the prospects for war were actually very real–that Iran is nowhere near a breakout capacity, when the truth is it was approaching the supposed threshold?
My take is this: whoever this unnamed UN official is took it upon himself to try and calm all of us down.  At the time, if Iran had been seen as nearing the capacity to develop a nuclear weapon within months of its decision to do so, that very likely could have been the nuclear straw that broke the camel’s back.  As things stand now, though, an attack is essentially off the table, and the truth (that Iran is a few months away from being a few months away from being able to make a weapon) is less damaging.
In a perfect world, the news of Iran’s growing capacity (alongside its growing stockpiles of LEU) should serve as a warning to policymakers in the West: the longer you wait to sit down and deal with Iran over its nuclear program, the more cards Iran will have in its hand once you decide to come to the negotiating table.
And though Obama has promised to eventually sit down, one has to wonder how long it will take before he actually does.  And the clock is ticking.

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