Diplomatic Courier (DC)
Concerns over Iran’s nuclear capabilities are inextricably linked to the country’s ambiguous energy intentions. But experts say it would take Iran at least two years to produce a single nuclear weapon, and that a comprehensive diplomatic strategy is key to limiting the nuclear program’s reach.
Iran has created policy – rooted in religion, law, and the still-fresh memory of a gruesome war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq - against nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and cites peaceful reasons for harvesting questionable quantities of highly enriched uranium (HEU), a key component needed to produce a nuclear weapon.
Iranian leaders, however, have tried to keep harvesting efforts under wraps, which raises questions about the credibility of the “strictly peaceful” rationale. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted multiple times during his trip to New York for the United Nations General Assembly that the enrichment level remains below the 20 percent needed for a nuclear weapons. For the past 25 years, since work on uranium enrichment first originated in the mid-1980s, capabilities in Iran have increased, though production progress has been disproportionately slow.
The US, conversely, adhered to a much stricter timeline nearly 70 years ago when it created The Manhattan Project, an American research program backed by Canada and the UK that produced the first atomic bomb during WWII, and rapidly created two nuclear weapons in three and a half years.
Mark Fitzpatrick, Director of the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said, “I have huge confidence that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon, and to claim otherwise by stringing together a series of worst case scenario assumptions is bordering irresponsible.” Fitzpatrick added, “A nuclear armed Iran is not inevitable, but they are capable.”
The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a politico-military conflict think tank headquartered in London, released a recent report titled, Iran’s Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Capabilities: A Net Assessment, that stated, “Iran seeks a capability to produce nuclear weapons should its leaders choose to take this monumental step.”
According to the IISS, this step could be carried out in two ways: by using plutonium, a radioactive chemical that tarnishes when exposed to air, or, by combining highly enriched uranium, a component that was used in the first Atomic bomb in 1945, with other chemicals. Experts suggest Iran is likely to pursue both options, although uranium-enrichment technology provides a more plausible path, mainly because Iran does not have the capability, right now, to separate the plutonium from the reactor’s fuel, which must happen in order to create a weapon.
According to the IISS, uranium-enrichment technology, used to generate enrichment program based in the central Iranian city of Natanz, raises the most significant proliferation concern, although the program’s capabilities are limited by a lack of access to foreign materials that countries such as France and Argentina can deliver. The same report by the IISS stated, “Iran claims it must enrich uranium to nearly 20 percent in order to produce fuel for the aging Tehran Research Reactor, which eight years ago was nearing the safety limits for which it had been designed.”
But that’s not to say greater access to raw materials could not develop over time.
“It is extremely important that we use this time well,” Greg Thielmann, Arms Control Association Senior Fellow who specialized in political-military and intelligence issues for more than three decades, said. “If we can’t force Iran to give up nuclear weapon aspirations, how can we dissuade them?"
Iran’s uranium enrichment program has undergone rounds of proposed sanctions from the US and other international actors to address worst-case scenarios, but no official timeline has been agreed upon. IISS officials continue to factor in time to reach a negotiated solution, but diplomacy efforts have strings attached.
“The diplomatic situation has worsened,” Thielmann said. “Bilateral relations with Turkey have deteriorated and close Syrian relations have worsened from the turbulence [in the region].”
If Iran were to move ahead with weapon plans by producing HEU, however, timing would play a critical role in the plan’s execution. The first bomb would take the longest to make, and each subsequent bomb, inevitably, would take more than seven months to create – the amount of time it would take to produce enough HEU to function properly. This means that further secrecy – inside the plant and within the countries that Iran would obtain materials from – would further hinder diplomatic efforts, and cause the US to seek other strategic options.
“We have to broaden the pursuit of our diplomatic efforts with no pre-conditions on the table,” Former Congressman and Admiral Joe Sestak, said. “The military option should never be off the table, but that option is not a responsible one.”
Sestak added it’s important to first consider if US actions will create a lasting impression, and if the country has pursued all other reasonable non-military options first. “Time is often a stiff milestone,” he said Monday afternoon. “In the art of diplomacy, it is often priceless.”
Daryl G Kimball, Arms Control Association Executive Director, said, “An Iranian nuclear weapon is neither imminent nor inevitable, and although diplomacy has been difficult to pursue in the past, it is the best option.”