Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Timeline Revisited

ABC's "Chief Investigative Correspondent" Brian Ross is reporting that Iran "has more than tripled" its uranium enrichment capability, and may have enough material for its first nuclear bomb by 2009.

Sources tell Mr. Ross that Iran has added more than 1,000 centrifuges to the array at the Natanz nuclear facility, increasing its ability to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. Former U.N. arms inspector David Kay--one of the few experts willing to discuss the matter on camera --told ABC that Iran is apparently expanding its enrichment capability at a faster pace than the U.S. had anticipated:

"If they continue at this pace, and they get the centrifuges to work and actually enrich uranium on a distinct basis," said David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, "then you're looking at them having, potentially having enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in 2009."

Previous predictions by U.S. intelligence had cited 2015 as the earliest date Iran could develop a weapon.

But is this a real journalistic scoop? In late January, a British think tank reported that Tehran is "two to three years away" from having the capability to produce a nuclear weapon, an estimate that seems to jibe with the ABC timeline. However, the U.K. expert quoted in that assessment, John Chipman, offered some of the same caveats cited by David Kay, that is "if they get the centrifuges to work, and produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) at a level sufficient for nuclear weapons. According to some estimates, Iran's current centrifuge array is producing HEU at a purity level of about 3%, good enough to fuel a nuclear reactor, but well below the 90% level needed for a nuclear weapon. In other words, the Iranians still have significant hurdles to overcome in producing their first nuclear weapon in two years' time.

Tehran has previously claimed that it will have 3,000 centrifuges in operation by the end of May--in defiance of U.N. sanctions--and it may meet that goal. But getting the array to function properly and produce required amounts of HEU is quite another matter. Mr. Chipman believes it may take Iran a year or so to get the expanded array to work correctly, once the new centrifuges are on-line. Iran had promised to announce a "breakthrough" in its nuclear program back in February, but that announcement was delayed, suggesting that Tehran may have encountered more problems with its HEU program.

We should note that most "public" estimates on Iran's nuclear program are based on limited information regarding its "overt" development efforts. There is a very real possibility that Tehran has a parallel, covert program that could produce a weapon much sooner. Technical functions associated with nuclear weapons development can be easily concealed in medium-sized nondescript buildings, which are difficult to detect with technical intelligence systems.

Speculation about covert development efforts often assume that Iran might use North Korean technology to accelerate its nuclear acquisition efforts. But even that scenario entails significant risks for Tehran. The CIA recently concluded that Pyongyang's 2006 nuclear test was a technical failure, raising doubts about the reliability of North Korean nuclear technology and weapons design.

So, what's the most likely timetable for Iran to produce its first nuclear weapon. Officially, the U.S. intelligence community believes it won't happen until 2015, but that estimate represents a "worst case" scenario for Tehran, and assumes that the Iranians will encounter significant challenges in uranium enrichment, weapons design, and fabrication efforts. If Tehran can successfully mitigate some of those factors, the timeline would be accelerated, giving Iran a nuclear capability between 2010-2012, a goal that certainly seems "achievable" on the present development path.

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