United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Part II: What Would it Take to Build a Bomb?

Interview with Colin Kahl by Garrett Nada

What steps would be necessary for Iran to build a nuclear weapon?

            President Obama has estimated that it would take Iran “over a year or so” for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. But that device would likely be crude and too large to fit on a ballistic missile. Producing a nuclear weapon that could be launched at Israel, Europe, or the United States would take substantially longer. Iran would need to complete three key steps.
 
      Step 1: Produce Fissile Material
      Fissile material is the most important component of a nuclear weapon. There are two types of fissile material: weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. Tehran has worked primarily on uranium. There are three levels or enrichment to understand the controversy surrounding Iran’s program:
 
·90 percent enrichment: The most likely route for Iran to produce fissile material would be to enrich its growing stockpile of low-enriched uranium to 90 percent purity —or weapons-grade level. Western intelligence agencies suggest Iran has not decided to enrich uranium to 90 percent.
 
·3.5 percent enrichment: As of early 2013, Iran had approximately 18,000 pounds of “low-enriched uranium” enriched to the 3.5 percent level (the level used to fuel civilian nuclear power plants). This stockpile would be sufficient to produce around half-a-dozen nuclear bombs, but only if it were further enriched to weapons-grade level (above the 90 percent purity level). Experts estimate Iran would need at least four months to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one bomb using 3.5 percent enriched uranium as the starting point.
 
      ·20 percent enrichment: In early 2013, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the
       U.N. watchdog group that inspects Iranian nuclear facilities, said Iran also had a stockpile of
       375 pounds of 20 percent low-enriched uranium, ostensibly to provide fuel for a medical
       research reactor. This stockpile is about two-thirds of the 551 pounds needed to produce one
       bomb’s worth of weapons-grade material if further enriched. If Iran accumulated sufficient
       quantities of 20 percent low-enriched uranium, it might be able to enrich enough
       weapons-grade uranium for a single bomb in a month or two.
 
            The main issue is the status of the uranium enriched to 20 percent and the two production sites—at the Fordo plant outside the northern city of Qom and the Natanz facility in central Iran. U.N. inspectors visit these sites every week or two, however, so any move to produce weapons-grade uranium in an accelerated timeframe as short as a month would be detected. Knowing this, Iran is unlikely to act.
 
            The speed of enrichment also depends on the centrifuges used, both their number and their quality. For a long time, Iran had used thousands of fairly slow IR-1 centrifuges to spin and then separate uranium isotopes. But since January 2013, it has started to install IR-2M centrifuges, which spin three to five times faster. In early 2013, Tehran claimed to be using about 200 IR-2Ms at the Natanz site.
 
           Tehran might be able to enrich enough uranium for one bomb ― from 20 percent purity to 90 percent ― in as little as two weeks if it installs large numbers of advanced IR-2M centrifuges. Iran has announced its intention to eventually install as many as 3,000.
 
Step 2: Develop a Warhead
           Iran would next have to build a nuclear device. It would need to build a warhead based on an “implosion” design if Iran wanted to deliver a nuclear device on a missile. It would include a core composed of weapons-grade uranium (or plutonium) and a neutron initiator surrounded by conventional high explosives designed to compress the core and set off a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction.
 
           IAEA documents claim, “Iran has sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable implosion nuclear device based upon HEU [highly enriched uranium] as the fission fuel.” The IAEA has also expressed concerns that Iran may have conducted conventional high-explosive tests at its military facility at Parchin that could be used to develop a nuclear warhead.
 
           There is no evidence, however, that Iran is currently working to design or construct such a warhead. Even if Iran made the decision, production of a warhead small enough, light enough, and reliable enough to mount on a ballistic missile is complicated. Iran would probably need at least a few years to accomplish this technological achievement.
 
Step 3: Marry the Warhead to an Effective Delivery System
           If Iran built a nuclear warhead, it would need a way to deliver it. Tehran’s medium-range Shahab-3 has a range of up to 1,200 miles, long enough to strike anywhere in the Middle East, including Israel, and possibly southeastern Europe. These missiles are highly inaccurate, but they are theoretically capable of carrying a nuclear warhead if Iran is able to design one.
 
           Iran’s Sajjil-2, another domestically produced medium-range ballistic missile, reportedly has a range of 1,375 miles when carrying a 1,650-pound warhead. Tehran is the only country to develop a missile with that range before a nuclear weapon. But the missile has only been tested once since 2009, which may mean it needs further fine-tuning before deployment. Iran also relies on foreign sources for a number of components for the Sajjil-2.
 
           Iran is probably years away from developing a missile that could hit the United States. A 2012 Department of Defense report said Iran “may be technically capable” of flight testing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) by 2015 if it receives foreign assistance. But in December 2012, a congressional report said Iran is unlikely to develop an ICBM in this timeframe, and many analysts estimate that Tehran would need until 2020.
 
Is the North Korean experience relevant?
           The Clinton administration confronted a similar dilemma in 1993 on North Korea’s nuclear program. The intelligence community assessed that Pyongyang had one or two bombs’ worth of weapons-grade plutonium. But the intelligence community could not tell the president with a high degree of certainty if North Korea had actually built operational nuclear weapons.
 
           The mere existence of a few bombs’ worth of weapons-grade plutonium seemed to have a powerful deterrent effect on the United States. Washington could not be sure where the material was stored, or if the North Koreans were close to producing a weapon.
 
           The same concerns could apply to Iran if it developed the capability to produce weapons-grade uranium so quickly that it avoids detection even at declared facilities― or if it was able to enrich bomb-grade material at a secret facility. Then Iran might be able to hide the fissile material, making it more difficult for a military strike to destroy. All the other parts of the program, such as weapons design, preparing the uranium core, and fabrication and assembly of other key weapon components, could potentially be done in places dispersed across the country that are easier to conceal and more difficult to target.
 
           Iran may be years away from being able to place a nuclear warhead on a reliable long-range missile. But many analysts are concerned that the game is up once Iran produces enough fissile material for a bomb.
 
Colin H. Kahl served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East from 2009 to 2011. He is currently an associate professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

 

Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org

 

Part I: Is Iran Slowing its Nuclear Program?

Interview with Colin Kahl by Garrett Nada
Colin H. Kahl served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East from 2009 to 2011. He is currently an associate professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Iran has reportedly slowed down work on its nuclear program. What is actually known?
            The good news is that Tehran has kept its stockpile of 20 percent low-enriched uranium below the amount needed for a bomb. It may have curtailed uranium enrichment in order not to cross Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s red line. He had predicted in September 2012 that Iran would accumulate enough 20 percent low-enriched uranium for one bomb’s worth of material by the spring or summer of 2013. Netanyahu had implied that Israel would consider military action if Iran approached this point.
 
      Experts estimate that Iran would need about 551 pounds of 20 percent low-enriched uranium to produce a bomb. It reportedly has accumulated about 375 pounds so far, or two-thirds of the quantity needed. Iran could have had more, but it has oxidized part of the stockpile to make fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor. (Once oxidized, the uranium is not easily enriched to weapons-grade levels. It is technically reversible but time-consuming.)
 
      The bad news is that Iran has been significantly upgrading its ability to enrich uranium. It has installed about 2,000 additional IR-1 centrifuges at its enrichment facility in Natanz, bringing the total number of machines there to around 12,000, according to the U.N. nuclear watchdog in February. The installation of 200 even more advanced IR-2M centrifuges―which would be three to five times more efficient than IR-1 centrifuges―is particularly worrisome. And Iran intends to install about 3,000 of the more advanced models, which could dramatically shorten Iran’s breakout timeline.
 
            The Iranians may have run into some technical issue with storage or something else that requires them to oxidize part of their uranium stockpile. Another possibility is that Iran’s leaders want to avoid a major international crisis before the June 2013 presidential election. Or they could be intentionally skirting Netanyahu’s red line on the uranium stockpile to ensure Israel does not strike.
 
Has diplomacy with the international community played a role in Iran’s calculations?
            Tehran is likely to continue its dialogue with the world’s six major powers until its presidential election in June. But it is unlikely to make a major concession before the election for fear of signaling that the regime is weak.
 
            Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ultimately decides on all nuclear issues. So the winner of the presidential election is not all that important per se. Most Iran analysts expect the next president to be handpicked by the supreme leader from the group loyal to him.
 
            After the election, the question will be whether Iran is willing to slow down its production of 20 percent low-enriched uranium and shift some of its stockpile abroad in exchange for some sanctions relief. That kind of deal is unlikely to solve the nuclear standoff. But it would put some time back on the clock.
 
            The United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, the so-called P5+1, are scheduled to meet with Iran in Kazakhstan again on April 5. During these talks, Tehran may try to weaken consensus among the world’s six major powers, who do not agree on every element of negotiating strategy. But this element of Iran’s diplomatic strategy has only had moderate success so far.
 
At what point would the United States need to decide whether or not to use force to stop the nuclear program?
            The Obama administration has indicated that it does not share Netanyahu’s definition of the red line for using force. Washington does not appear to consider one bomb’s worth of 20 percent low-enriched uranium alone as casus belli for a military strike. Even aggressive estimates claim Iran would need at least a month to convert further enrich this material to weapons-grade level (uranium enriched above the 90 percent level of purity). Iran would also have to do the enrichment at either Natanz or its second enrichment facility at Fordo, both of which are inspected every week or two by the U.N. nuclear watchdog. Inspectors would almost certainly catch Tehran diverting or enriching the material. Iran knows it would get caught, so the supreme leader is not likely to make such a move even with a sufficient stockpile of 20 percent low-enriched uranium.
 
            But President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed in March that Iran would need at least one year to produce a nuclear device, which would begin with production of weapons-grade uranium. Tehran would then need several months to actually assemble a crude nuclear device. U.S. officials have suggested that Iran might need another two to four more years to build a nuclear device sophisticated enough to put on the tip of a ballistic missile.
 

            Obama administration officials, from the president on down, have consistently stated they will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. And the president has made clear that all options, including the use of force, remain on the table to ensure that Iran does not get the bomb. At the same time, Obama clearly prefers a diplomatic solution, believing there is still time to strike a deal. All eyes will be on Almaty to see if the Iranians feel the same way.

Photo Credit: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad via President.ir

Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org

 

Report: Nuke Program Expensive and Risky

            Iran’s nuclear program has cost more than $100 billion in lost foreign investment and oil revenue, according to a new report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Federation of American Scientists. It argues that the nuclear program may be too entangled with national pride and significant sunk costs for Iran to abandon it. For example, the Bushehr nuclear reactor alone took nearly four decades to build and cost $11 billion.

            Iran's nuclear power program is also inefficient and potentially unsafe, according to the report. The Bushehr reactor only supplies 2 percent of Iran’s electricity needs. Up to 15 percent of electricity is lost through “old and ill-maintained transmission lines.” The Bushehr plant may be vulnerable to earthquakes because it sits at the intersection of three tectonic plates.

            The report concludes with policy implications for the United States and its allies. It argues that a broader political settlement could assure that Iran’s nuclear program remains peaceful. The report suggests offering Iran alternative energy technologies, such as solar energy. It urges Washington to engage in public diplomacy and tell Iranians how they would benefit from a deal. The following are excerpts from the report, with a link to the full text at the end.
 
Nuclear Power: Energy Security or Insecurity
            Successive Iranian governments present their quest for nuclear energy as indispensable
to the country’s preparations for life after oil. This aspiration, however, turned into the
nemesis of Iran’s energy sector when it invited draconian international sanctions. These
measures have left Iran’s oil and gas industry in shambles and Iran’s other natural energy
resources overlooked. It is evident that Tehran’s rationale for investing in nuclear
energy, especially in uranium enrichment, is consistent neither with the realities of its
resource endowments nor with the near-term needs of its energy sector…
 
A Comparative Disadvantage
            The Bushehr reactor—the first nuclear reactor of its kind in the Middle East—and Iran’s
extensive nuclear fuel-cycle infrastructure are often portrayed by the Iranian government
as symbols of the country’s scientific adroitness, especially in comparison with other
regional states. But Iran does not have that much of a technological edge. Neighboring
countries, in contrast to Iran, have unimpeded access to global markets and are likely to
bridge the technology gap rapidly. The same world powers that have imposed sanctions
on Iran are supporting these nuclear-hopefuls that have opted to make their programs
optimally transparent…

Unheeded Warnings
            ... Iran’s Bushehr plant is a hybrid German-Russian reactor that resembles a virtual petridish of amalgamated equipment and antiquated technology. The sui generis nature of the reactor means that Iran cannot benefit from other countries’ safety experiences. Problems rooted in this situation emerged even before the reactor became operational. During tests conducted in February 2011, all four of the reactor’s emergency cooling pumps were damaged, sending tiny metal shavings into the cooling water.171 These pumps were German and from the 1970s. Russian engineers pressured Iran to unload the 163 fuel assemblies of low-enriched uranium from the core of the reactor in order to prevent any damage to them and conduct a thorough cleaning, which further delayed the longoverdue launch. Again in October 2012, the reactor was shut down and fuel rods were unloaded after stray bolts were found beneath the fuel cells.
 
            More ominously, Bushehr is located at the intersection of three tectonic plates. According to the Russian builder of the reactor, the model that was used as basis for the Bushehr reactor is designed to endure an earthquake of intensity 7 on MSK-64 scale when it is in operation (corresponding to 6 on the Richter scale) and an earthquake of intensity 8 on MSK-64 scale under safe shutdown (corresponding to 6.7 on the Richter scale)…
 
The Road Ahead
            Iran’s nuclear program has deep roots. It cannot be “ended” or “bombed away.” It is entangled with too much pride—however misguided—and sunk costs. Given the country’s indigenous knowledge and expertise, the only long-term solution for assuring that Iran’s nuclear program remains purely peaceful is to find a mutually agreeable diplomatic solution.
 
            The contours of such a deal are becoming increasingly clear. Any agreement would have
to include commitments by Iran not to undertake specific experiments, imports, and
other activities that would be vital to making nuclear weapons and therefore illegitimate
for a peaceful nuclear program. The IAEA has already identified some of the benchmarks
of nuclear weaponization and others could be specified. Tehran will be asked to operationalize
its supreme leader’s repeated religious declarations that Iran would not seek
nuclear weapons.
 
            The establishment of detailed and mutually agreed boundaries between Iran’s nuclear
program and a nuclear weapons program could then give tolerable confidence that Iran
could continue to enrich uranium to power-reactor levels (below 5 percent). In addition
to saving face domestically, continued enrichment would give Iranian leaders leverage to
keep the United States from reneging on its commitments. Iran would have the option
of ratcheting up the level of enrichment in a tit-for-tat response to failures by the United
States or others to keep their side of any deal. Such a deal would also require the United
States and European Union to ease the most punishing sanctions, namely those against
Iran’s central bank and oil sales…
 
            Regardless of economic hardships, the Iranian people are unlikely to comprehend the
U.S. strategy unless Washington provides answers to key questions: What could Iranians
collectively gain by a nuclear compromise, other than a reduction of sanctions and
the threat of war? How could a more conciliatory Iranian approach improve the country’s
economy and advance its technological—including nuclear—prowess? U.S. public diplomacy efforts should make clear to Iranians that a prosperous, integrated Iran—as opposed to a weakened and isolated Iran—is in America’s interests…
 
Click here for the full text.
 

Khamenei Comments II: Islam’s Rules on Sports

            Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told athletes that they play a valuable role in promoting Iran’s values abroad and raising “national self-confidence” at home. Athletes act as ambassadors at international competitions, presenting Iran as a “determined, religious, talented and noble nation, which is committed to Sharia (Islamic law),” Khamenei said at a March 11 meeting with veteran athletes and participants from the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. The supreme leader argued that Iranian women who wear hijab while competing promote piety and modesty abroad. Refusal to compete with Israeli athletes is a “truly crucial and important diplomatic effort to confront the Zionist regime,” he said. The following are excerpted remarks from Khamenei’s speech.

Women in Sports
 
      “An athlete promotes the values of a nation with good sportsmanship and piety. The fact that our woman athletes enter sports arenas with hijab (head covering) is very important…”
 
      “In a certain European country, some people dare to kill a woman because she is wearing hijab. And they do it in a court of law and in front of the judge. This is the case. They are not ashamed of it. Under a certain illegitimate law, they harass women who wear hijab in universities, stadiums, parks and on the streets. In such conditions, a woman who wears hijab stands on the medal platform in such countries and makes everyone respect her. Is this a minor achievement? This is a very great achievement. Everybody should appreciate from the bottom of their heart the value of woman athletes who participate in international arenas with hijab and modesty….”
 
Faith and Athletics
 
            “When our athletes achieve a victory in such arenas and when they are ranked first, they chant the slogan of "Ya Hossein", prostrate themselves and hold up their hands and thank God. Do you know how excited the Islamic Ummah and Muslim nations become when you do this? In sports arenas, our outstanding youth - not ordinary youth - give such prominence to spirituality in a world in which there is an effort to make young individuals decadent and turn their backs on spirituality…”
 
U.S.-Iran Rivalry
 
            “Imagine that in an international sports competition - such as the recent one - you participate with 54 athletes and you win 12 medals. Imagine that America participates with 530 athletes and it wins 110 medals. If America wants to win as many medals as you do, it should win 120 medals. It participates with 10 times more athletes than you do. Therefore, it should win 10 times more medals than you do. It should win 120 medals. But it has not won 120 medals…”
 
Sports Solve Social Problems
           
            “If people turn to sports activities, many social and behavioral problems - such as addiction, family rows, financial and psychological problems and other such problems - will be solved. Many of our problems will be solved if sports activities become truly common among all the people in our country… That is to say, you can strengthen morality and promote Iranian traditions….”
 
Refusal to Compete with “Zionists”
 
            “The fact that our youth refused to compete with Zionist athletes in sports arenas is very valuable. That is why arrogant powers became so angry. They reacted strongly when this happened several times. This move, which was made by our youth, is very important. It is truly a crucial and important diplomatic effort to confront the Zionist regime...”
 
Athletes as Role Models
 
            “[W]hen we look at a champion, we find him to be a manifestation of intelligence, firm determination, physical capabilities and many other qualities. Naturally, a champion has great self-confidence. He does not need to do things that weak people do. He does not need to flatter, lie and cheat. He does not need to be hypocritical…”
 
            “On a social level, a champion raises national self-confidence because he is the manifestation of the capabilities of a nation in a certain arena. That is to say, he raises the self-confidence of all people in a country… Professional sports are the engine for regular exercise. With professional sports, we can do something to make regular exercise common. Regular exercise is one of the necessities of life. It is like eating and breathing. We should pay attention to it. This is another role of sports on a social level…”
 
            “Fortunately, our athletes are morally healthy. But we should strongly stress this issue. There are certain dangers. When there is a lot of media attention on an international level, a young athlete may be in serious danger of becoming immoral. We should hold this danger at bay… Being humble, being loyal and sympathetic to the people and exercising good sportsmanship are very important qualities. It is one thing to achieve these qualities, it is quite another to preserve these qualities...”
 
Disabled Athletes
 
            “[W]e should appreciate the value of disabled athletes. What they do is really astonishing. When people look at these athletes, they see that not only does their disability not prevent them from living in a normal way, but they are also so determined that they become athletes and stand on the medal platform…”
 
Polo’s Iranian Roots
 
            “Well, in such and such sports, we do not at all rank high in the world and we have no chance to do so. We are unlikely to rank high in such sports. Of course, there are certain reasons for this. But in certain sports, we are ranked high in the world. Today, you stand on the medal platform in a number of sports such as wrestling, weightlifting or other sports. This is very important. A few years ago - I do not remember which year it was - I had a meeting with my athlete friends. I referred to chowgan [polo] as one of these sports in that meeting. Well, chowgan is a sport which belongs to the people of Iran…You should pay attention to sports which have deep historical roots [in Iran] and in which we are talented, particularly sports for which we have native coaches.”
 
Need for Foreign Coaches
 

            “One of the brothers in this meeting said that we should benefit from foreign coaches. I have no objections in this regard. You should not think that I am opposed to hiring a good and competent foreign coach. But when you benefit from a native coach for soccer, basketball, volleyball, wrestling or any other sports, I become happy and I feel a sense of pride. It is very good that the coach of our athletes and our youth is one of us and is nurtured here. Of course, some foreign coaches are good and some others are not good and they take a lot of money, they have high expectations and sometimes they do not carry out their duties. There are such coaches. Therefore, this is what I mean when I sometimes speak about foreign coaches…”

Click here for the full text of the speech.

Photo credit: Khamenei.ir via Facebook

 

Khamenei Comments I: Nuke Research as Model for Sports

            In a little noticed speech, Iran’s supreme leader urged athletes to emulate the determination of the country’s nuclear scientists. The West thought that “we would not be able to produce fuel plates and fuel rods. But our youth built them,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Olympic and Paralympic medalists on March 11. “We have managed to do things which the enemy could not even imagine… you can do this too [in sports].” The following are excerpted remarks from his speech that also covered morality in sports, female athletes, foreign coaches and competitions with Israelis.

      “…You should adopt a scientific approach towards sports - the ones which have research-based guidelines. You should improve research. As other scientific research, the research that is carried out in the world on a specific sport is not the last word. It is possible to carry out research on the basis of such research or add new things to it in order to improve or even reject it. Well, you should do such things in Iran. We have managed to make so much progress in complex scientific areas with the help of our youth. We have managed to do things which the enemy could not even imagine. It could not imagine that an Iranian individual can do such things. Therefore, you can do this too.
 
            The Tehran research reactor was running out of fuel. They said to us that we should give our 3.5-percent uranium to such and such a country so that it turns it into 20-percent uranium. Then this country would give it to such and such a country to turn it into fuel. Then they said that with the permission of the masters of the world, this fuel can come to our country. That is to say, it would have to go through several mazes. And it would not reach any results. If we had decided to buy nuclear fuel for the research reactors that we have, they would not have given a bit of it to us without making the Iranian nation completely humiliated. Once I said that if the oil that we have, belonged to the Europeans and if we wanted to buy oil or petroleum from them, they would sell each barrel of it to us at an exorbitant price. They are such people. They thought that we would have to buy the 20-percent fuel from them and we would give in to their demands. That is why they created such obstacles. But our youth carried out research on it and they themselves produced the 20-percent fuel. Then they thought that we would not be able to produce fuel plates and fuel rods. But our youth built them and they installed them. Now, they are faced with a fait accompli that the Iranian nation presented them with.
 
            Such complex and great work is being carried out. Why do not we carry out great work in sports? The rules and practices that exist in sports - whether individual sports such as wrestling and weightlifting or team sports - should be researched. You should add new ideas to such research and you should improve parts of it.
 
            You should improve sports in terms of scientific approach. This improvement is related to sports which have research-based guidelines in the world. A number of our sports do not have research-based guidelines…”
 
Click here for the full text of the speech.
 

Photo credit: Khamenei.ir via Facebook

 

 

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