How Close Is Iran to Acquiring Nuclear Weapons and What Has the World Done to Slow Iran’s Progress?

Remarks at the AIPAC Policy Conference

I’ve been asked to address two questions:

I. How close is Iran to acquiring nuclear weapons?

II. What has the world done to slow Iran’s progress?

I. How close is Iran to acquiring nuclear weapons? An equally important question is how close is Iran to acquiring a nuclear weapon capability, because at that point all that will remain between Iran and nuclear weapons is a decision by Iran’s leaders and a bit of time.

  • The assessment of my organization is that Iran will have limited nuclear weapon “breakout” capability by the end of this year, meaning the ability to produce fuel for one or more nuclear weapons in a short time.
  • To be clear, this doesn’t mean a nuclear arsenal by the end of the year – more work would be necessary. Rather, the basic requirements for constituting the arsenal should be in place, including material and infrastructure.
    • By May, we estimate that Iran will have enough uranium enriched to the level of 20 percent for one weapon if the fuel is enriched further to weapon grade
    • By end of this year, we estimate that Iran may have enough of this 20 percent material for a second weapon if further enriched.
    • The assumptions we use to establish these predictions are described on and are available from the homepage.
  • In both cases, further enrichment to bring the uranium stockpile from 20 percent to weapon grade would be required. But numbers are misleading. Enrichment to 20 percent accomplishes 90 percent of the work necessary to bring natural uranium to weapon grade. Little additional time is required.
  • Iran’s work to build a stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium has no real purpose in Iran’s civilian nuclear energy program. But a stockpile of several hundred kg of this material, which could be brought to weapon grade quickly, is essential for establishing the ability to “breakout” and make nuclear weapons whenever desired.
  • To constitute this stockpile, Iran is using as feed the low-enriched uranium (power reactor-grade, enriched to the level of 3.5%) that it has accumulated at Natanz. Iran now has over 5,000 kg of this material. And the Natanz plant continues to produce more of this reactor-grade uranium, at a rate of about 5.2 kg each day.
  • The bulk of this work is being done at the Fordow plant, which should be fully operational by the end of this year.
    • Fordow now has about 700 centrifuges and will have nearly 3,000 centrifuges by end of this year, all of which will be devoted to making 20 percent material.
  • Once Fordow is fully equipped, and assuming that the rate of enrichment there mirrors that at Natanz, Iran could have enough 20 percent material for 4-5 weapons by the end of 2013.
  • Fordow is a troubling and telling choice for this work.
    • It is a series of chambers built into a mountain.
    • The plant was built secretly and its existence was only revealed by President Obama in 2009.
  • Iran began enriching uranium at Fordow late last year. Fordow has allowed Iran to triple its production of 20 percent material and this development explains why there is so much attention on Iran right now.

Making weapon-grade fuel is widely accepted to be the most difficult component of a nuclear weapon program; about 90 percent of the work needed to make nuclear weapons is devoted to making the fuel. The other two components, weaponizing the fuel and delivering the weapon, are generally expected to be ready and waiting. Let’s look at where Iran is on these latter two components.

Iran’s efforts related to weaponization are as follows:

  • Iran appears to have had a structured weaponization program through 2003 and a less structured one since then. Much of this work is laboratory scale, which is not easy to detect. An example of the difficulty of detection is the Iraqi site of Al Atheer. This site was unknown to U.S. intelligence and so was not bombed by the United States during the first Gulf War. Following the war, international inspectors discovered it to be a major facility for nuclear weapon development.
  • According to allegations reported by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which the IAEA considers credible, Iran has:
    • Conducted high explosives testing simulating a nuclear explosion
    • Studied and experimented with an initiation system used in nuclear detonation
    • Developed specialized detonators used in nuclear weapons
    • Worked on making and shaping high-enriched uranium metal components
    • Has had access to an implosion bomb design
  • The IAEA concludes that the only logical application for many of these activities is nuclear weapons.
  • Concerns arising from these allegations are further heightened by the fact that Iran has refused to explain these allegations, or to work with international inspectors to help resolve questions about alleged military links to its nuclear program.
  • Just today, the IAEA director general said that his Agency has “serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program.”

What is Iran’s ability to deliver a nuclear weapon?

  • Iran has fielded several hundred Shahab 3 liquid-fueled missiles, which have a range of between 1,300 and 2,000 km. This is far enough to reach Israel and U.S. forces in the region.
  • There are credible allegations that Iran has worked on a warhead design for this missile, which is large enough to accommodate a nuclear payload.
  • Iran has also tested successfully a solid-fuel missile called Sejil, with a range of about 2,200 km, which is also large enough to accommodate nuclear warhead.
  • All Iran’s missiles are regularly tested and publicly displayed.
  • Iran has been working to ensure survivability of its missiles: they can be mounted on mobile launchers and Iran has also built silos.
  • So, it is safe to assume that if Iran builds a nuclear weapon, a delivery system will be ready and survivable against preemptive strikes.

Thus, when we look at this work on weaponization, this progress on a delivery system, and the nearing ability to fuel one or more warheads, we should not be particularly reassured by the U.S. intelligence assessment that Iran has not yet decided to build nuclear weapons. The facts on the ground speak for themselves.

II. What has the world done to slow Iran’s progress? All of Iran’s enrichment work is being done in violation of several binding U.N. Security Council resolutions. Iran has also been found in non-compliance with its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

What has the world done in response to Iran’s defiance? The response has been a combination of diplomacy and sanctions. So far, this two-track approach has not yielded the desired result. It has not convinced Iran to forgo nuclear weapons, despite the increasing economic and political cost sanctions have imposed.

Diplomatic efforts have been ongoing since 2003:

  • Britain, France, and Germany (the “EU-3”) managed to negotiate two temporary freezes of enrichment work, in 2003 and 2004. The United States was occupied in Iraq at the time and did not support these efforts, which eventually failed.
  • P5+1 (the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany) then tried to strike grand bargain with Iran, offering political and economic benefits in exchange for a temporary halt to enrichment and other nuclear activities.
  • Beginning in 2009, President Obama made an effort to reengage with Iran that lasted a year and a half, during which efforts to pressure Iran were suspended. It was all for naught. Iran rejected the olive branch.
  • There was also a narrower effort to forge agreement in the form of a nuclear fuel swap deal.
  • Other countries (Brazil and Turkey) have tried to broker limited compromise.
  • It now appears that Iran and the P5+1 may return to the negotiating table.
  • Overall, nothing offered during past negotiations has satisfied Iran.

A sanctions regime has been implemented in tandem with diplomacy. These sanctions started out narrowly, being aimed at Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, and have been progressively broadened to target Iran’s economy.

  • One aspect of sanctions has been an asset freeze on entities, and a travel ban on key individuals. Initially, these penalties were targeted at firms and individuals linked to proliferation. More recently, the penalties have targeted banks, insurance companies, shipping companies, oil and gas companies, and entities linked to the Revolutionary Guards. At this point hundreds of entities have been blacklisted by the United States, and also by the European Union, Canada, South Korea, Japan, and Australia.
  • Restrictions have also been placed on Iran’s access to sensitive technologies. The list of banned goods has been expanded over time and now includes all nuclear and missile related items, plus advanced conventional weapons.
  • Most recently, sanctions were broadened to include:
    • penalties against firms that invest in new energy development projects in Iran
    • penalties against firms that support Iran’s energy sector, including those that facilitate the sale of Iranian oil, or buy oil or petrochemical products from Iran, or are involved in any transaction with an Iranian bank, including the Central Bank and including oil purchases.
    • Europe is preparing to implement an embargo on Iranian oil in July.
    • Additional measures are under consideration in the U.S. Congress to further isolate Iran from the global economy.

These energy sanctions are causing hardship for Iran’s population, and they are having a crippling effect on Iran’s economy. But given the Iranian regime’s human rights record, it is safe to say that worsening the daily living condition of the population will only be important to the regime if it threatens the regime’s survival.

Sanctions must convince Iran’s leaders that the cost of continuing their illicit nuclear program exceeds its value. But the program has now “grown roots.” It is a symbol of strength for the regime, and the regime may well see a nuclear weapon capability as a lifeline to survival. The program is also close to the finish line. The cost of giving it up is now greater than ever. Therefore, any additional sanctions that could further raise the cost to Iran should be applied now. Once Iran has a breakout capability, the decision to build nuclear weapons will largely be in Iran’s hands.