By Emile El-Hokayem – The debate over Iran’s nuclear activities is certain to heat up in coming months, so it is useful to shed some light on the technological aspect of its programme and separate speculation and disinformation from fact.
It is easy to fall for the former when the world is bombarded with contradictory information about Iran’s nuclear progress. Just last week, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, claimed that Iran may have enough nuclear material to make a bomb, while the defence secretary, Bob Gates, had a much less dire assessment: “Iran is not close to a stockpile. They’re not close to a weapon at this point.”
Then the US intelligence chief, Dennis Blair, weighed in with: “Iran probably has imported at least some weapons-usable fissile material but we still judge it has not obtained enough for a nuclear weapon,” in apparent contradiction of Amos Yadlin, the Israeli military intelligence chief, who said: “Iran has crossed the technological threshold.”
The bickering will continue, partly because grandstanding and alarmism are part of the diplomatic game, but also because there are many unknowns about Iran’s nuclear policy.
Iran’s nuclear programme precedes the establishment of the Islamic Republic and has an undeniable civilian dimension, with the Russian-built Bushehr reactor coming online later this year to eventually produce 1,000 megawatts of much-needed energy. But the problem with every civilian nuclear programme is that it can be diverted for military purposes. To prevent that, the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) imposes safeguards and monitoring on countries that have signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in exchange for access to nuclear technology, and bodies such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group oversee the transfer of such technology.
Strategic and moral considerations aside, a military nuclear programme is no small affair: it takes time, talent, technology, infrastructure, national commitment and resources, and, in the case of violators, deception. Has Iran engaged in that? Troubling facts suggest so: it has hidden the extent of its programme from the IAEA, obtained technology on the black market (including from the infamous AQ Khan network) and has resisted IAEA and UN demands for greater transparency. None of this amounts to evidence that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon, but it raises legitimate concerns.
So how technologically close is Iran to nuclear status?
Building a bomb has three stages. The first one is required for both civilian and military purposes and, importantly, the most difficult: obtain fissile material, enrich it to the level needed and, finally, turn it into weapons grade. The plutonium route entails removing plutonium from functioning reactors and reprocessing it. Iran does not yet have this capability. The other route requires enriching uranium through cascades of centrifuges to 90 per cent or more. Iran is currently enriching uranium to less than five per cent, but is accumulating enough of it to produce weapons grade material eventually. The science of enrichment is the most complex technological hurdle on the way to the bomb, and once a country is able to enrich to low levels, it becomes easier to move to weapons-grade level.
The second stage is the delivery system. Iran prefers the missile route, in which it has invested heavily with some success. The concern is that while conventional missiles need great accuracy to be usable, missiles with an unconventional payload need lower accuracy because the damage they do is more extensive.
The last stage is weaponisation, which refers to the design and assembling of weapons-grade material into a bomb. This, contrary to what the name suggests, can be a relatively easy task and there are indications that Iran already owns design plans.
All this brings us to the famous December 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate, which found that “Tehran has halted its nuclear weapons programme”, thoroughly unnerving US and Israeli hardliners. And not just the hawks: most intelligence services and proliferation experts, hardly Israel’s poodles, have joined the chorus of critics of the NIE. Several western intelligence services have more dire assessments of Iran’s nuclear progress than the US intelligence community.
Why is that? Because the analysts behind the NIE defined “weapons programme” in the narrowest possible sense. As they make clear in an important footnote: “By ‘nuclear weapons programme’ we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponisation work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.” So, in essence, the NIE maladroitly underestimated the first and most important stage, and the analysts behind the paper were on the receiving end of a broadside from everyone.
To the question: “Does Iran want a nuclear weapon?” the only possible answer today is: “No one knows, and Iran’s own leaders have probably not made up their minds.” Iran is certainly moving closer to the capability to build nuclear weapons. Once it has enough low-enriched uranium in stock its status will be one of nuclear ambiguity, but experts disagree on how soon this will be: a few months to six years. This concerns not only Israel, but every country in the world.
If Iran decides to lift that ambiguity it will have to go through several hoops: kick out IAEA inspectors, withdraw from the NPT and quickly enrich to 90 per cent under the angry watch of the whole world. The ultimate step would be testing the weapon, an immensely symbolic act as well as a display of technological achievement. Even then, Iran may not have enough material to build enough bombs and will be a giant with too few stones in its hands.
This worst-case scenario may never happen. A nuclear Iran will become a pariah against which many countries will coalesce. Iran’s leadership will soon be shown two paths, one of which will constrain Iran’s enrichment capability.