Iranian Enrichment Progress Not a Surprise
By Steve Schippert | March 27, 2006
There have been few events of note occurring recently on the Iranian nuclear crisis front outside the predictable back and forth surrounding daily reports of no progress among the UN Security Council members toward reaching an agreed stance on Iran.
Of note last week, however, was a virtual firestorm of concern regarding Iran’s nuclear program, specifically in their announcement that they would be fueling a 164-centrifuge cascade in stepping up their enrichment. Vital Perspective was on top of the developments. This is certainly a troubling development.
However, it should not come as a major surprise that Iran is this far along in its nuclear development. In fact, in December, IAEA head Mohamad ElBaredei himself quietly offered the shortest known authoritative assessment of Iran’s nuclear weapons timeline, stating that the Natanz enrichment facility could be fully operational within two years and producing large quantities of highly enriched uranium. This was noted in this space at the time in The IAEA Tree That Fell and No One Heard.
This is not to pour cold water on the issue at all. This is to highlight the fact that if the head of the IAEA had offered up the shortest known authoritative Iranian nuclear timeline – mind you while attempting to ‘cool brinkmanship’ over the Iranian nuclear crisis – then all known timelines needed reassessment at that time. ElBaredei has been consistently dovish regarding Iran, going so far at times as to rebuke American and European firm stances against the deceptive Iranian posturing on their largely clandestine program.
ElBaredei’s stunningly short evaluation flies in the face of widely accepted timelines that run out as inconceivably far as ten years in America’s own National Intelligence Estimate.
First, what must be identified are some basic numbers behind what is needed to produce a highly enriched uranium bomb and what it is believed that Iran has on hand.
- According to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on International Relations report from June 2004, a crude 20 megaton nuclear weapon would require 20kg of highly enriched uranium.
- It is believed that about 1500 of the Pakistani-quality centrifuges Iran is known to have would produce enough highly enriched uranium per year for one bomb’s worth.
- The IAEA estimates that Iran has about 1200 of these centrifuges.
Each of the above items are estimates and have varying degrees of flexibility, most notably any estimated equipment count by an IAEA that knows little more through their own investigations than what the Iranians want them to know. With near certainty, Iran has more equipment hidden, including centrifuges bought or built, than the IAEA has been allowed to see. To assume otherwise is a fool’s game.
Also, the better any Iranian nuclear design, the less uranium that would be required for an equivalent 20-kiloton yield. It should be noted that, whatever the Iranian bomb design, they would certainly not use less uranium and toy with the physics, but rather net a higher yield.
And, while it has been said that the biggest problem Iran has with their program is regarding the Pakistani centrifuge design, if they manage(d) a more effective design, it would require fewer operational centrifuges to net the same yield.
So what to make of all of this?
First, Iran is indeed pushing its program. Ahmadinejad himself nearly halved ElBaredei’s assessment - and shortened the NEI prediction by a factor of almost ten(!) – when he declared last week that Iran would fully go nuclear with the current Persian year.
Yet, it is unclear just how close Iran is to producing enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon, but considering the known factors, it appears it is not necessarily imminent (a very relative term).
But the prevailing perspective should be that, regardless of whether Iran is 3 months or 3 years from nuclear weapons production, neither can be tolerated and that the most urgent timetable should be assumed without hard evidence one way or another.
But, even more important to the debate is the acknowledgement that Iran is at war with the United States, is deeply involved in fomenting violence in Iraq, funds Sunni terrorist groups (Hamas, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades) and Shi’ite terrorist groups alike (Hizballah and Islamic Jihad) and admitted to previous housing of (and almost certainly currently still houses) many of the top al-Qaeda leadership. Truly, wherever the arm of terrorism has its reach throughout the world, is the foremost state sponsor of global terrorism has few – if any – degrees of separation.
Whether the nuclear window is three months or three years, the regime must be defeated and eliminated, from within or without.
The nuclear crisis adds an critical exclamation point, but the regime itself warrants confrontation even without the added nuclear fear. While no one wants warfare, the conflict avoidance currently being employed at the UN and elsewhere will eventually result in an exponentially more painful conflict in the coming months or years.