United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Solving the Iranian Nuclear Puzzle

            Iran is still years away from developing nuclear weapons, according to a new report by the Arms Control Association. Evidence suggests that the Islamic Republic has not decided whether or not to build a weapon. But in the meantime, Tehran is building up its technological base and gathering materials needed to produce a weapon. The report warns that Iran could produce enough enriched uranium for one nuclear bomb by the end of 2013.
            The report also explores potential ways to solve the nuclear issue. It argues that sanctions alone cannot halt Iran’s program. A military strike would only set back the program and could close the door to diplomacy, or spark a regional war. But a deal that satisfies the needs of Iran’s nuclear power plants, combined with more extensive U.N. safeguards, could guard against a nuclear-armed Iran. The following are excerpts from the report with a link to the full text at the end.

            Iran has been engaged in efforts to acquire the capability to build nuclear weapons for more than two decades. Although it remains uncertain whether Tehran will make the final decision to build nuclear weapons, it has developed a range of technologies, including uranium enrichment, warhead design, and delivery systems, that would give it this option in a relatively short time frame. Such an effort is not the same as a crash program designed to acquire a nuclear weapon as soon as possible, in which case Iran would eject inspectors and produce weapons-grade material at its existing facilities. Tehran appears to be taking a more deliberate approach, building up as much of its technological base as possible under the guise of a peaceful program, while putting off the need to make a political decision to build and deploy nuclear weapons…
Steps to Building Nuclear Weapons (Via the Uranium Route)
Mining or Importation of Uranium Ore
Iran is believed to have large reserves of uranium and two working mines.
Milling of Uranium
Concentrating uranium from ore, i.e., increasing uranium oxide content to 65-85 percent to produce “yellow cake.”
Processing (Conversion)
Converting yellow cake, a solid, into uranium hexafluoride, a gas, for subsequent enrichment.
Increasing the relative abundance of the uranium-235 isotope in the uranium hexafluoride
• to light-water power-reactor grade (3.5
• to research-reactor grade (20 percent)
• to weapons grade (90+ percent)
The IAEA estimates that 25 kg of weapons grade
uranium is sufficient to produce one nuclear
Converting weapons-grade uranium hexafluoride to uranium dioxide powder and into metallic forms for use in the fissile core of a nuclear device.
Weapons Design and Assembly
Designing and assembling the other non-nuclear components in and around the fissile material core to make a device capable of forming the “physics package” of a warhead, suitable for use as part of a combat-ready weapons system.
Nuclear Explosive Testing
Detonating the nuclear device as proof of concept. Typically, multiple nuclear test explosions are necessary to perfect warhead designs, particularly smaller, lighter, more efficient designs.
Weapons Integration With a Delivery System
Adapting the warhead for placement into a bomb or the nose cone of a delivery vehicle, in Iran’s case, either a Ghadr-1 or Sejjil-2 medium range ballistic missile.
Missile Testing With Inert Warhead
Performing flight tests with an inert warhead to confirm the performance of the non-nuclear functions of the warhead, such as safing, arming, and fusing, which are necessary in order to achieve higher levels of confidence and reliability...
            International sanctions have slowed Iran’s nuclear program and increased pressure on Tehran to respond more favorably to P5+1 overtures. Yet these sanctions, even if tightened further, cannot stop Iran’s nuclear pursuits.
            The use of military force against Iran’s extensive and highly dispersed nuclear infrastructure, short of a complete military occupation of the country, can only
temporarily set back Iran’s program and would likely prompt Iran to eject the IAEA inspectors and actively pursue nuclear weapons.
            Consequently, the military option would be counterproductive and costly, and would foreclose diplomatic options, erode international support for sanctions, lessen Iran’s isolation, and possibly trigger a regional war leading to enormous civilian casualties
and human suffering.
            President Obama and other leaders must redouble efforts to engage Iran in serious, sustained negotiations on arrangements that guard against a nuclear-armed Iran. Iran’s leaders must, of course, also be willing to engage in good faith in these efforts.
            To do so, it is essential that Iran agree to halt its accumulation of 20 percent enriched uranium and restrict its enrichment operations and stockpiles to normal power reactor-grade levels and other civilian, peaceful needs. To verify and monitor Iran’s commitments, the IAEA must be allowed to conduct more intrusive monitoring and it must be able to ascertain that any past weapons-related work by Iran has been discontinued. In exchange, there should be an appropriate and proportional paring back of international sanctions on Iran and P5+1 recognition that Iran has a legitimate claim to pursue the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
            A diplomacy-centered approach is the only option that can prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. Pursuing such a course is difficult, but it is the best option on the table.
Click here for the full report.


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