Netanyahu’s Iran Nuclear Timeline: Off Point and Off Base

By Daryl Kimball, Greg Thielmann, and Kelsey Davenport

Prime Minister Netanyahu Speaking at the UN General Assembly Sept. 27, 2012
Photo Credit: Reuters

In his September 27 speech to the UN General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew an explicit “red line” for Iran’s nuclear program, both figuratively and literally.  However, his meaning was not immediately clear and his reasoning was off base.

Netanyahu contended that the time to launch a preventive attack is when Iran has sufficient 20 percent enriched uranium to permit further enrichment to one bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium. He calculated that this point would be reached no later than next summer.

His 20 percent stockpile calculation is consistent with a straight-line assumption about Iran’s future production using the International Atomic Energy Agency’s August starting point of 91.4 kg. That is, based on Iran’s recent monthly 20 percent uranium production rate of 14.8 kg, Iran would have a sufficient stockpile in May 2013 to enrich enough weapons grade uranium to provide the fissile material needed for one bomb.

Netanyahu said that the final enrichment from 20 percent to weapons-grade could be done in months or weeks.  He was not explicit about how much additional time would be needed to manufacture a warhead or test the design, or to ready a delivery vehicle.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s proposed “redline” for military action against Iran is overly alarmist. It makes a number of worst-case assumptions, ignores other relevant considerations, and would serve as a tripwire for a war that would likely prompt Iran to openly pursue the bomb.

  • It assumes no further conversion of 20 percent enriched uranium into metallic fuel plates, something which has already reduced a significant share of the stockpile to date that could be easily enriched further to weapons grade.
  • Netanyahu’s timeline would require Iran to expel inspectors well before it could convert the material to weapons grade and field a useable nuclear weapon.
  • It assumes Iran would take this provocative action at the point when it could provide only enough nuclear material for one bomb. Yet one weapon does not constitute an effective and deliverable nuclear arsenal.
  • Iran would need more time, to amass the material for several bombs, weaponize it, and probably test the design– a process that would take years, not months.
  • Netanyahu’s approach is out of step with the United States and the other five powers negotiating with Iran who agree that Iran has not made a strategic decision to build nuclear weapons, does not yet have the necessary ingredients for an effective nuclear arsenal, and who believe correctly that there is time to use diplomacy to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
  • Resort to a preventive military attack would, as the new Iran Project Report of 33 former senior national security officials and diplomats assessed, only temporarily set back Iran’s nuclear program and prompt Tehran to openly pursue the bomb.

There is time for diplomacy, but the time available  must not be wasted.

The goal for U.S. negotiators must be to restrict Iran’s enrichment to normal reactor-grade levels and limit its stockpiles to actual nuclear power needs, while allowing more intrusive IAEA inspections to ensure that Iran has halted all weapons-related work.

A revised proposal calling for a halt to Iran’s accumulation of 20 percent-enriched uranium, which is closer to weapons grade, in exchange for relaxing some of the international oil and financial sanctions imposed on Iran, could buy time and build momentum.

With more creative, U.S.-led diplomacy, and co-operation from Tehran, a deal that guards against a nuclear-armed Iran is still within reach.

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12 Responses to Netanyahu’s Iran Nuclear Timeline: Off Point and Off Base

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  3. hassan says:

    Regarding the “goal of the US” as portrayed by this article: Iran already only enriches uranium to what is only required for powering reactors. Even the 20% enriched uranium is still “low-enriched uranium” and can’t be used for bombs — and Iran was forced to enrich to that level in the first place because the US prevented Iran from simply buying the fuel necessary to power its medical reactor. And indeed Iran has further offered to cease enriching to 20% if it is just permitted to once again buy the necessary fuel — but the US refuses. (In short the US is demanding that Iran not buy the fuel, and not make it itself either, and those 800,000 cancer patients that rely on the isotopes created by this reactor can just go die.) Iran has repeatedly made other concession offers that the US simply ignored too, and instead the US just moved goalposts and increased its untenable demands on Iran.
    So really, the “goal” of the US is something else entirely. The “nuclear threat” issue is just a pretext for a policy of imposing regime change, just as “WMDs in Iraq” was just a pretext. So no amount of Iranian concessions or even IAEA inspections will ever suffice. The last thing in the world that the US wants is to resolve this nuclear standoff peacefully, whilst leaving the regime in power.

  4. ejs33 says:

    looks like you missed the point Netanyahu used to frame his discussion. He said that the critical point was not when Iran could, or would, deliver a bomb, but the point at which a bomb could no longer be prevented. At that point, Iran could progress to multiple bombs at its leisure. Whether this is accurate or not I do not know, but I think it is right to properly characterize the argument.

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