An Arms Race We’re Sure to Lose

The New York Times
September 29, 2008

THE coverage of the latest bombastic tour of Manhattan by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran may have obscured the fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency has released its latest report on Tehran’s nuclear program, and it contains some unpleasant news: By the time we inaugurate our next president, Iran is likely to achieve “virtual” nuclear weapon status. This means that it will be able to produce, within a few months of deciding to do so, enough weapon-grade uranium to fuel a bomb.

But how is that possible? After all, about the only thing the Bush administration and our European allies seem to agree on regarding Iran is that there is a lot more time for diplomacy and sanctions to work before the ayatollahs can cross the nuclear line. Unfortunately, that’s no longer the situation.

Since last December, Iran has been feeding uranium into its bank of rapidly spinning centrifuges at an increasing clip. Out has come a growing stockpile of what scientists call “low enriched” uranium, which is ideal for fueling a reactor. However, if you re-circulate this material through the centrifuges, it becomes highly enriched bomb fuel. By Aug. 30, according to the atomic agency’s Sept. 15 report, Iran’s stockpile had reached 1,060 pounds of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride, and it was producing a little more than 100 pounds a month.

At this rate, Iran will have produced at least 1,500 pounds by mid-January. Re-circulated, this could produce 35 pounds of weapon-grade uranium, enough for a bomb. (In fact, this was about the amount called for in the implosion device that Saddam Hussein’s scientists were trying to perfect in the 1980s; according to intelligence sources, the Iraqi design has circulated on the nuclear black market and could well be in Iranian hands.) It would take about two to three months to raise the enrichment level to weapon-grade — meaning Iran could potentially present the world with a bomb by Easter.

There is a ray of sunshine here. Experts and diplomats have long assumed that no country would want just one bomb. It would want a first bomb to test (proving its nuclear capacity) and three or four more to deter attack. If Iran follows this line of thinking, it pushes the magic date farther down the road, but not much. Iran is adding centrifuges, so it could probably produce enough highly enriched uranium for a second bomb within a year from now. By February 2010, it should have enough for a third, and the rate will only increase as the number of centrifuges goes up.

Nonetheless, simply having enough material on hand to make a single bomb is bound to make a difference in how Iran sees the world. Our new president and his allies will be trying to negotiate with a country that could decide at any time to escalate its nuclear threat. In effect, Iran can say, “If you don’t like what we’re doing now, how would you like it if we kicked out the international inspectors and made a few bombs’ worth of weapon-grade material?” This threat alone would put the West into a diplomatic corner.

This holds true even though no one knows for sure whether Iran has the rest of the components needed for a bomb, or whether the bomb would work. Making these components is far easier than making the fuel, and there is a lot of evidence that Iran has been working on them. It would be dangerous to assume that the other components would not be yet available by the time enough fuel for a bomb had been produced.

The best time to stop the Iranian nuclear program was from 2002 to 2006, after its illicit nature was discovered but before it gained its present momentum. But the Bush administration, paralyzed by the war in Iraq, mounted only a haphazard and absent-minded policy. At first, it refused to back Europe’s negotiations with Iran, without offering any viable alternative. Then, when the administration finally joined Europe’s effort, it was too late.

Now, it will be necessary to perform a diplomatic miracle. Just as Iran is about to reap the fruits of its nuclear program, America and its allies must convince the mullahs that they would be better off without it. This will require more than the weak sanctions achieved so far. No less than a credible threat of international economic and diplomatic isolation — of making Iran a pariah state — will cause Iran to blink. It’s still worth a try, but time is shorter than we thought.

Gary Milhollin is the director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control and the executive editor of the Web site Iran Watch.