Iranian Missile and Nuclear Threat Not Imminent, Experts Conclude During November 22 Discussion Sponsored by ACA

By Alfred Nurja

The Arms Control Association hosted a briefing on the Status of Iranian Nuclear and Missile Program yesterday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This was the first in a series of four briefings designed to analyze the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program and explore ways to deal with it. The highlights from the session that appear below are based on notes and are not direct quotations.

Stay tuned for the release of the full transcript.

Olli Heinonen, former IAEA Deputy Director General and head of the Safeguards Division, oversaw the Agency’s efforts to monitor Iran’s nuclear program. In one of his first on-the-record sessions since retiring from the IAEA, Heinonen offered a status report on Iran’s nuclear program:

  • Iranian P1 centrifuges are operating at only 60 per cent capacity and the number of those in operation since the beginning of the year has declined. That the Iranians have removed over 1000 P1 centrifuges from the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant suggests  that there is a problem in their operation, perhaps related  to the inherent deficiencies of the P1 centrifuge model.
  • Bushehr Reactor: All sensitive work on site including uploading of nuclear fuel is currently conducted by Russian specialists. Such arrangement will remain in place for at least two years.
  • Development of P2 centrifuges is not proceeding well. Iran first started testing the P2 centrifuges in 2006, and according to normal development cycle, it should have had about 2000 P2 centrifuges in operation by now, but it has only limited numbers at a pilot plant.
  • Developing P2 centrifuges indigenously through reverse engineering is a very complicated process. Difficulties in procuring the special materials required for the P2s, such as carbon fiber and high strength steel, may also be reason for delay.
  • There is no evidence that Iran has established plutonium reprocessing capabilities.

SPECIAL NOTE (updated Nov 24): The IAEA released a new report Nov. 23, the day after the ACA briefing.

Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in Washington was lead author of a comprehensive IISS assessment of on Iranian missile capabilities. Elleman’s summary of that assessment included the following highlights:

  • The intelligence community’s worst case scenarios for Iran have not come to pass.
  • While Iran’s liquid fueled missile development remains dependant on imports, Iran has made substantial progress in developing an indigenous solid fuel missile capability.
  • Iran has adopted a robust and disciplined engineering approach to the development of solid fueled missiles.
  • Iranian ballistic missile capability to hit fixed targets is functionally nonexistent and such capability will not be forthcoming anytime soon. This greatly limits the military utility  of these missiles. Lack of targeting capability does not diminish ability to use missile as terror weapons, a lesson drawn by Iran during the Iraqi Scud missile attacks against Teheran in the 80s.
  • Iran has shown no intention to develop missile capabilities against Europe. Adding an extra stage to the two-stage Sajjil missile currently under development by Iran could have the range to hit most of Europe but is some years away.
  • Development of an Intercontinental-range Ballistic Missile capability is many years away.
  • Iran’s current capability to target Israel remains limited.
  • Iran has conducted no ballistic missile test in 2010.

Paul Pillar, former National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia spoke of the process used by the intelligence community for assessing Iranian capabilities and addressed questions related to the regional consequences of Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. According to Pillar:

  • Iran is not appearing to foment revolutions. This was characteristic of the Iranian regime in the immediate aftermath of the Islamic revolution when the regime demonstrated “Trotskian tendencies” to export Iran’s revolution to other Arab countries. Iranian current strategy in Iraq demonstrates no such designs.
  • Gulf countries are concerned about a nuclear Iran, but at the same time they do not advocate a military attack or war against Iran.
  • The intelligence community’s capability to detect weaponization based on physical monitoring evidence remains limited. We are talking about Iranian decisions that have yet to be made.
  • Even in the event Iran developed nuclear weapons, a nuclear arms race in the region was not likely. “Fears about such a development are overblown.”
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