A London-based think tank estimates that Iran is at least "two to three years away" from having the capability to build a nuclear weapon.
John Chipman, Chief Executive for The International Institute for Strategic Studies, made the assessment at Wednesday's launch of the organization's annual publication, "The Military Balance." He also suggested political and economic pressure are having an effect on Tehran, and could lengthen Iran's timetable for having nuclear weapons. U.S. intelligence organizations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have indicated that it may take four years--or longer--for Iran to produce its first bomb.
Mr. Chipman believes that Tehran is on track to have a planned, 3,000 centrifuge array in operation by the end of March. The centrifuges are used to produce enriched uranium, which can then be used in nuclear weapons. However, Chipman noted--as we have pointed out--that it is "another matter" for the Iranians to get the centrifuges operating properly, a process that he believes could take up to a year. After that, it would take Iran another year to produce 55 pounds of highly enriched uranium (HEU), enough for a single weapon. And that assumes that Tehran's nuclear engineeres can attain the "purity" levels necessary for a weapon. Iran's current, 164-centrifuge array is producing enriched uranium rated at 3%; generally speaking, weapons grade uranium has a purity level of 90%--or higher.
Meanwhile, Tehran says it will announce "a major advance" in its nuclear program during the upcoming celebration of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. So far, the Iranians haven't said what that advance entails, although it could relate to the expansion of the centrifuge arrays. A few days ago, an Iranian lawmaker indicated that the array increase would soon be announced, although other government figures dismissed that claim. There have also been reports (in the British press) of increased cooperation between Tehran and Pyongyang that will result in a possible launch of an Iranian space launch vehicle, and (potentially) a nuclear test in Iran by the end of this year. Iran's test would likely be based on North Korea's partially successful nuclear test last fall.
As for the think tank's timeline, it's generally within the ballpark quoted by most experts. However, such estimates do not account for the possibility of a parallel, covert nuclear program that might be more advanced, and possibly yield a bomb sooner. That assumes, of course, that Iran has been able to overcome the technical hurdles of assembling and operating a much larger centrifuge array, and attained the purity and production levels of HEU needed to produce a bomb over the near term. Another scenario would be an Iranian weapon produced from North Korean components and HEU, or a bomb purchased outright from Pyongyang. Iran would never announce that sort of news, but North Korea's provision of key parts or finished weapons could allow the Iranians to claim a "breakthrough," and tout the work as their own.
In any case, the window for potential action against the Iranian nuclear program is closing, and closing rapidly. Tehran will likely accelerate its efforts in the coming months, believing that the U.S. is reluctant to strike (in view of our problems in Iraq), and the Israeli government is pre-occupied with domestic scandals.