This is the first in a six-part series explaining why the United States should continue to pursue an integrated strategy of diplomacy and tough economic sanctions to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. It builds on the recent Center for American Progress report, “Strengthening America’s Options on Iran.” Each piece in the series looks at reasons why diplomacy is an effective approach to achieving this end.
In the first piece we look at why Iran’s inability to produce a nuclear weapon within the next year allows more time for a carefully calibrated approach.
The P5+1, a group of negotiators from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany, will meet with Iranian negotiators this week in Baghdad in the hope of peacefully resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis. Though the first round of talks last month in Istanbul was generally viewed as a positive step toward a de-escalation of tensions, the Baghdad talks face significant pressure to continue a pragmatic shift away from unnecessary direct military conflict with Iran.
There is strong bipartisan consensus in the United States and within the international community that an Iranian nuclear weapon would destabilize one of the world’s most important oil-producing regions, harm Israel’s security, and severely undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
But even though halting Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions is an urgent priority, there is time for a disciplined approach and a serious and determined effort to resolve the situation diplomatically. That’s because most estimates place Iran a year away at minimum from producing a crude nuclear weapon. The key factor in these calculations is Iran’s capacity to produce the highly enriched uranium necessary for a bomb.
The most common estimates by U.S. and Israeli government officials, as well as outside groups such as the nonpartisan Institute for Science and International Security, are that Iran could develop a crude but workable nuclear explosive device within a year. Importantly, though, in recent congressional testimony Director of National Intelligence James Clapper indicated that this timeframe was “technically feasible but not likely” given the complexities involved in developing nuclear weapons.
Moreover, the Institute for Science and International Security notes Iran is having a hard time acquiring the materials to further advance its nuclear activities due to international sanctions, forcing the program to develop second-rate domestic substitutes that could slow the program even more.
In fact, Russian team members in a U.S.-Russian joint technical assessment team analyzing Iran suggest a timeframe of two years to three years to build a simple nuclear bomb. The U.S.-Russian team estimated it would take Iran another five years after testing a bomb to develop a deliverable nuclear weapon.
University of Southern California professor and nuclear proliferation expert Jacques Hymans concurs with the longer estimates of Iranian nuclear weapons capabilities given Iran’s poor technical infrastructure and managerial incompetence. He argues that that the most conservative estimates of just two to three years are unrealistic.
Iran would also need a warhead with a delivery system such as a missile, and it needs at least one to two years to develop a warhead and delivery system suitable for operational use, according to estimates from the U.S. intelligence community, Israeli military intelligence, and outside groups such as the Institute for Science and International Security. So even if Iran acquired a functioning nuclear weapon today, the soonest it could successfully deliver a weapon to a target is early 2014.
Iran’s missile capabilities generally lag behind its nuclear developments. Its most advanced missile—the solid-fuel Sejjil-2—is not yet operational and in any case is not believed to be a suitable nuclear delivery system unless used with a substantially smaller nuclear warhead than Iran is believed capable of producing. Experts from the U.S.-Russian joint technical assessment team and the International Institute for Strategic Studies believe an Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile is not likely to be produced before the 2020s.
In addition, these team members conclude that existing Iranian missiles are generally not suitable for the delivery of first-generation nuclear weapons and would prove unwieldy if developed further. Additional efforts to either develop a new, suitable missile or a small-enough warhead for existing Iranian missiles will be required before Iran can field a viable nuclear delivery capability.
Given these estimates, the United States and the international community have time to continue negotiations with Iran and let sanctions pressure the Tehran regime to come clean about its program. The international community does not have an infinite window to stop Iran from acquiring a deliverable nuclear weapon, but there is time to support a serious and determined effort by the P5+1 to resolve the situation diplomatically. More importantly, we still have time to think through our options on Iran and get our policy right.
Next week we look at how current sanctions are crippling Iran’s economy and hindering its ability to advance its nuclear program.