So, who’s up for another round of graphs showing that Western diplomacy, sanctions, and technology have yet to out-maneuver Iran in the mullahs’ push for a bomb?
A long-time IAEA expert, Olli Heinonen, predicted this past week that, using her newer, advanced centrifuges, Iran could produce enough high-enriched uranium (HEU) for a first nuclear warhead in as little as two weeks from making the decision to go for the “breakout.” (See here also.)
For clarity, this does not mean Iran is “two weeks from a bomb.” It means that once Iran decides to take the final enrichment step, it could take as little as two weeks to bring enough of her current stock of 19.75-percent-enriched uranium to HEU purity, or above 90 percent. That estimate shortens the already brief month or so projected by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), one of the chief think tanks tracking Iran’s nuclear progress. (The longer projection assumes Iran would use the older centrifuges that form the backbone of her current mass-scale enrichment effort.)
When might Iran make the “breakout” decision? We don’t know. We do know that the three graphs below, which bring us up to date on Iran’s enrichment activities, are bracketed by intelligence on Iran’s nuclear-weapons and missile programs. Let’s review it briefly.
As early as 2004, the U.S. had intelligence indicating Iran had worked with designs for an implosion-type nuclear warhead, and had probably done high-explosive testing for a detonation device at Parchin, southeast of Tehran, in the early 2000s. Additional intelligence at the time indicated design studies for fitting a nuclear warhead on a Shahab-III type medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM).
As early as 2006, Western analysts identified an underground missile-silo complex being constructed at Tabriz. Construction began at least as early as 2003, but may have started even earlier, in the 1990s. (See pp. 28-30 of this Congressional Research Service report from 2012.)
Recent campaign statements by new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003-2005, indicate that Iran’s installation and use of centrifuges for uranium enrichment were much more extensive and advanced during that period than the UN’s IAEA monitoring agency knew. In fact, IAEA’s knowledge appears to have been at least two years behind the timeline laid out by Rouhani. This should give us pause in viewing all subsequent assessments, including the ones reflected in the graphs below, which derive their information from IAEA inspections.
Rouhani has made a point of boasting that slow-rolling the West in nuclear negotiations was the key to buying time for Iran to violate UN sanctions and deceive the UN. (See the interview summarized here for another take by Rouhani on the same theme.)
During the period reflected in the graphs below, Iran has advanced her satellite program, including a first space launch in 2009, with potential rocketry applications for achieving an ICBM capability. Also in 2009, Iran conducted her first launch of a solid-fuel MRBM, an advance that allows her to keep such missiles – which can range Europe and Central Asia as well as the entire Middle East – in a constantly ready status. (Liquid-fuel missiles have to be fueled just before launch, adding to their response time.)
In May 2011, British intelligence reported that Iran had conducted three secret tests of nuclear-capable MRBMs in 2010 and 2011 (see pp. 32-33 of the CRS report linked above). The implication is that these attempts tested the missiles in question with a payload like a nuclear warhead – that being the purpose, as opposed to testing for range with these launches. Assuming the UK intelligence is valid, these launches would mark the first known live testing of Iranian MRBMs with simulated nuclear-warhead payloads.
We now turn to the graphs, which show Iran’s progress with enriching uranium since 2007. The original graphs were produced by ISIS in its continuing series of analyses performed on the IAEA’s inspection and monitoring reports. The most recent IAEA report was published on 28 August 2013. The ISIS analysis is here.
Overlaid on each graph are the measures taken during the timeframe reflected, to deter or thwart the Iranian nuclear program: UN sanctions, US and EU application of sanctions (i.e., periodic tightening of measures), and special programs like the introduction of the Stuxnet worm in Iran’s centrifuge-array controllers.
It should be obvious that the net effect of these measures over time has been, to say the least, unimpressive. In the larger context of all that has happened in the last decade, and what we have known throughout that period, the claim that they have had a meaningful effect on Iran’s nuclear program would be irresponsible.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has been lobbying Congress to hold off on another round of sanctions against Iran, eyeing the next round of talks between Iran and the “P5+1” group of UN Permanent Security Council members, plus Germany. Those talks are to take place in November, and presumably will continue the pattern of Iranian stalling to buy time.
Reportedly, P5+1 diplomats who met with Iran’s foreign minister in Geneva in mid-October were sympathetic with the bout of back pain from which he was suffering. Weirdly – or perhaps not – Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif traced his attack of back pain to the Iranian press “misquoting” him on the topics of the Obama-Rouhani phone call in September, and the length of his own meeting with U.S. counterpart John Kerry. Reportedly, an Iranian media outlet “misquoted” Zarif to the effect that that meeting went too long. Apparently, he’s subject to psychosomatic manifestations.
Or maybe Zarif is faking an injury at the end of an unsuccessful third down, when his team needs time in the fourth quarter and has no official time-outs left to call. That (admittedly facetious) interpretation would be in character with the Iranians’ modus operandi in the talks. But the truth is that if it’s the fourth quarter, it’s not Iran that’s on the short end of the score. Iran is holding onto a narrow lead in this game, hoping to keep us out of the end zone and pull off one of the biggest upsets in history.