Another Look at Iran’s Nuclear Capability Timelines

Cover of INCBC Report by the International Institute of Strategic Studies

By Alfred Nurja

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) released this month a substantial analysis of Iran’s nuclear, chemical and biological capabilities. The report’s detailed break-out scenarios allow readers to finally make some sense of the various and conflicting timelines that have circulated in recent years about when and how Iran could produce a nuclear bomb if that is what it chose to pursue.

More importantly, the nuclear section of the IISS publication also makes a number of observations that are worth highlighting and looking at more closely because of the policy implications that they have:

  • The report has been widely quoted for its assessment that Iran’s declared nuclear enrichment infrastructure (provided it operates like a Swiss army watch) could produce one nuclear bomb in a little over two years from now.   However, just as important, the report notes that pursing one single bomb makes little sense from a deterrence point of view and Iran is still two to three years away from deploying the Sajiil-2 solid-fueled missile, its most likely means of delivery. “Assembling an arsenal [that can be judged necessary for a credible nuclear deterrent] would multiply both the amount of weapons grade uranium that would be needed and the amount of time it would take Iran to reach the threshold capability,” the report says.
  • The IISS authors warn that in the event of an Iranian decision to manufacture nuclear weapons, “the most likely route would be through clandestine production of highly enriched uranium” rather than it’s declared enrichment facilities that are subject to IAEA safeguards. This route, however as the report notes, is fraught with a number of challenges including the tough job of keeping “both the enrichment plant and associated feed-material production lines secret.” Additionally, as noted by both the report and an ACA’s recent panel, “Iran’s ability to outfit additional enrichment plants…is likely to be limited by access to the raw materials necessary for centrifuge construction.”
  • Iran’s dependence on imported materials is also likely to hamper its progress in developing more advanced enrichment centrifuges. As the report affirms, Iran’s nuclear program today is largely reliant on outdated and inefficient P-1 model centrifuges developed originally by Pakistan, which operate at no more than 60 per cent of their design capacity. According to Olli Heinonen, the IAEA’s former Deputy Director for Safeguards, “with this defective equipment, they will have a hard time enriching the material to a level high enough to enable the production of nuclear weapons.”
  • After observing the characteristics of the Iranian nuclear program in the last 25 years, the report concludes that Iran is not pursuing a crash-course path to producing nuclear weapons but that is rather intent on keeping its weapons intentions ambiguous. While Iranian claims that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful are at odds with its record of non-cooperation with the IAEA, its behavior to date “does not signal a commitment to build [nuclear weapons].”

These observations point to at least two useful deductions.

First, the element of time. The report articulates clearly that when it comes to dealing with the Iranian nuclear program there is still time for seeking a negotiated solution. As the background of the measured Iranian engagement with the international community in the last two decades shows, Iran, unlike North Korea, shuns international isolation. Persisting in the path of engagement while carefully preserving the unity of the P5+1 members still holds the best promise for reaching a negotiated solution. P5+1 unity is also essential for ensuring the effectiveness of the sanctions regime.

Second, as the report’s findings substantiate and as the former CIA’s Middle East Intelligence Officer, Paul Pillar stressed at a recent ACA briefing, “… we’re talking about Iranian decisions that have yet to be made…. And in this case, the decisions, whether to proceed to a weapons capability or how close to come to it, will depend in large part, among other things, on what the United States does vis-à-vis Iran.” An Iranian nuclear weapon is therefore not inevitable. There is indeed time for pursuing a negotiated solution with Iran provided we maximize the impact of U.S., and P5+1 policies on their decision making process.


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