IT WOULD be both impossible and foolish to predict what lies immediately ahead for Iran. Will the United States or Israel drop bombs on the country? Will there be more sanctions? Air strikes? Negotiations? Threat assessment and war planning are (or at least should be) all about best-guessing capabilities and intentions. We need to make sound judgments about what a state can actually achieve, the leadership's possible goals and the prospects for a bridgeable peace among the main actors in the crisis.
When it comes to Iran, these calculations are difficult to make. The country is a chimera. Tehran's statements and intentions are often contradictory; displays of military strength juxtapose the proclamation of civilian use of nuclear technology; its capabilities are shrouded in secrecy; and its negotiating partners are at times volatile. Even still, there are some things we can-and must-figure out.
FIRST, WE do a run-through of the capabilities. We know that Tehran has a nascent nuclear program. We also know what it would take to develop a fully functioning nuclear-weapons capability. When we line up what we know and what we can best-guess, it looks like Iran is 80 percent of the way to a functioning nuclear weapon.
Nuclear-weapons 101: every program needs the raw materials, a way to refine them and, in the final throes, the weaponization. Getting and enriching the materials is the hardest part. A state needs to turn its raw material-unprocessed uranium-into fissionable material-highly enriched uranium or plutonium. Without this, a nuclear reaction is impossible. The unprocessed uranium needs to be made reactor- or weapons-ready. In the case of fissionable-grade uranium, that just means using high-speed gas centrifuges, separating the isotope that can be used as a nuclear fuel (U-235) from the heavier nonfissionable one (U-238). If a state opts to use fissionable plutonium in reactions instead, this material isn't naturally occurring, but is manufactured by irradiating natural uranium in nuclear reactors and then separating out Pu-239, the plutonium isotope that is fissionable.
How does Iran's nuclear program measure up on this front? The situation is a bit murky, but here is what we know, thanks in large part to the work of IAEA inspectors and a growing body of UN Security Council sanctions against Iran. Tehran has admitted that, for a period of at least eighteen years, it concealed a large number of activities in violation of its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligation.
Basically, Tehran now has a handle on these two most difficult first steps: getting the uranium and turning it into fissionable material. Significant amounts of uranium hexafluoride (UF6, 1000 kg), uranium tetrafluoride (UF4, 400 kg) and uranium dioxide (UO2, 400 kg) were imported from China in 1991.
Iran has also attempted to produce weapons-grade material: Tehran subsequently used the materials obtained from China in their secret enrichment efforts, and have acquired designs, materials and samples of gas centrifuges for uranium enrichment from the A. Q. Khan network. They undertook plutonium-separation experiments between 1988 and 1993 that resulted in separated plutonium and irradiated wastes. Iran has also built and tested a uranium-conversion test facility that produced uranium metal, and they constructed the Kalaye Electric Company workshop, a pilot uranium-enrichment facility. In 1999, Tehran used unreported UF6 to begin centrifuge testing, and concealed the subsequent production of low-enriched uranium. Even more advanced, there has been substantial experimentation at two sites with laser enrichment-a much-more efficient process than centrifuge-based enrichment, which means it takes less effort to produce the highly enriched uranium-using Atomic Vapor Laser Isotope Separation, a technique even the most technologically advanced states have not perfected.
Paralleling the unmasking of the previously secret nuclear activities, Iran has continued to accelerate its (now acknowledged) uranium-centrifuge program, a vital step in creating the weapons-grade material-solidifying their technological gains. They have moved from a poor design in their first centrifuges to an advanced design that will be more reliable and more efficient. If these forthcoming six thousand new-design centrifuges were working for a year, they could produce about five weapons. My best guess is they are about two to four years away from accomplishing this.
NEXT COMES weaponization. The fissionable material must be converted into metal and packaged. That requires surrounding the fuel with very energetic high explosives that are specially shaped to focus the energy on the fissionable core. An additional source of neutrons, like polonium alloyed with beryllium, is needed to ensure the sustainable nuclear reaction occurs. All of these components must then be wrapped in a dense material capable of reflecting neutrons back into the explosive core for the brief nanosecond that it takes an explosive nuclear reaction to run its course. Once packaged, there must also be electronic triggering devices capable of setting the explosives off simultaneously, with no room for error-that is, if you want to have a nuclear explosion. And then, of course, all of this needs to be designed to fit into the warhead of its delivery vehicle, most likely a missile.
Here again, Iran has made substantial progress. They are making headway in this second half of the process-the weaponization. These additional nuclear-related activities, which have direct bearing on nuclear-weapons development, include testing of high-explosive lenses, beryllium-reflector-design polonium production to provide the reaction-sustaining neutrons and the machining of uranium metal.
What remains is to produce these elements in adequate numbers and amounts; combine them in an engineering design that will ensure they work and that fits on a missile; and gain confidence that the resulting weapons will get the job done. Of all these challenges, clearly the most demanding is to produce enough of their advanced centrifuges and get them working continuously to produce adequate amounts of highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
NOW, ALL this is public knowledge. Of course, even more is suspected; much is rumored by Iranian dissident groups but with no independent confirmation; and most of the important questions relating to plans, intent and progress on crucial elements of weaponization are simply unknown.
And it's the only partially understood and suspect activities that are most alarming. They include detection by IAEA inspectors of samples of highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium; more extensive plutonium separation than Iran has admitted; weapons-design work; construction of a heavy-water reactor and its associated heavy-water-production facility; design work on missile-reentry vehicles that seem to be for a nuclear weapon; and reports of yet-undiscovered programs and facilities. If all of these activities were reality, it would mean Iran is moving faster and is closer to obtaining nuclear-weapons capability than the hard facts imply. Obtaining that last 20 percent of elements needed to make a nuclear weapon would take perhaps only one to two years if these things were true, instead of the four to seven years needed if they were not.
On top of these suspicions, there are plenty of unanswered questions. We still do not know the answers to the most important ones, even though we do know more about Iran's nuclear program than we have known at a similar point about others-the USSR, China, Israel, South Africa, Brazil, North Korea. In fact, we know a lot more about Iran than we did about Iraq-both times. First time around, we thought Baghdad didn't have a nuclear-weapons program, only to discover an extensive one that placed the country within months of producing a crude nuclear weapon, and probably only twenty-four months away from having enough highly enriched uranium for a more advanced nuclear weapon. Iraq War redux, we thought they were well on their way to a resurgent nuclear program, and came to find they had virtually nothing. As is more often than not the case in the world of intelligence and weapons proliferation, the critical unknowns might be the most important, but they are also hard-to-impossible to resolve with any certainty. So, here is what we don't know:
- What are Iran's real intentions with regard to its nuclear activities? Does it really only seek to develop an indigenous peaceful nuclear-power program that covers the full fuel cycle? Is it after a virtual nuclear-weapons capability similar to Japan's where all the elements are present except the final weaponization, testing and assembly? Is it hell-bent, as many believe, on acquiring and deploying actual nuclear weapons? Has a decision even been made at the highest levels of the Iranian government as to what it wants to eventually do?
- If Iran has made or will make a decision to acquire nuclear weapons, how long will it take and how many can it produce per year?
- How much foreign assistance was there and from whom did Iran get help? Did this help include advance nuclear-weapons designs that would make it unnecessary for Iran to do its own design and testing?
- Are there unknown clandestine nuclear facilities and, if so, how many doing what?
- What are the real capabilities of Iran's various weapons-delivery options? Particularly its missiles?
- What are the command-and-control arrangements for Iran's nuclear program and any nuclear weapons that may result? Where is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in this mix? Are we any better off if he is not in control? If nuclear weapons are acquired by Iran, how will it control them (physical security), command them (determined by when and against whom they should be used) and communicate this to those in control of the weapons, and provide warning as to when Iran may be about to come under attack (use them or lose them)?