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Crib Sheet: Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions

The facts about today’s most (potentially) explosive issue.

This article is reprinted from Campus Progress.org, the youth-oriented magazine of the Center for American Progress.

Last week, Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boasted that Iran has “joined the nuclear countries of the world” by enriching a small amount of uranium using 164 centrifuges. The announcement was accompanied by a spate of reports that the U.S. is preparing war plans against Iran to take out its nuclear facilities. In one of the reports, Seymour Hersh—the New Yorker journalist who broke the Abu Ghraib scandal—quoted anonymous U.S. military planners that the United States was considering the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Iran.

There is no question that Iran poses a grave threat to U.S. national security. In order to properly assess the threat, however—and gauge both the likelihood, costs and benefits of military strikes against Iran – it is critical that Iran’s nuclear activities be put in proper perspective.

Here are the facts:

1. Iran is attempting to build a manufacturing infrastructure for producing enriched uranium.

Enriched uranium can be used to power nuclear energy reactors. The same facilities, however, can also be used to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU), which contains a greater percentage of U-235, the uranium isotope responsible for the nuclear chain reaction in nuclear reactors and bombs. Acquiring a sufficient quantity of HEU (or plutonium) is the biggest obstacle to attaining a nuclear weapon, so a country with the ability to produce enriched uranium for nuclear energy reactors also has the potential ability to produce HEU for a nuclear weapon. Iran claims that it is motivated solely by a desire to produce enriched uranium for civilian use in energy reactors.

2. There is little doubt that Iran wants the ability to manufacture nuclear weapons, but no “smoking gun.”

The circumstantial evidence is compelling. Iran hid these efforts from international inspectors for almost 20 years, in violation of its commitments under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to disclose them. There is no economic reason for Iran to have a domestic capability to produce enriched uranium because there is a global market for nuclear reactor fuel. Moreover, it is questionable whether Iran, which sits atop massive reserves of petroleum resources, really needs nuclear energy to meet its energy needs. Iran’s military is involved in the program, which further casts doubt on Iran’s claim that the program is civilian in nature.

It is also clear that Iran received nuclear assistance from A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Khan operated a nuclear black market for the purpose of helping countries advance their nuclear weapons programs until he was exposed in January 2004. Khan provided Iran with centrifuge technology and “instructions for shaping uranium metal into ‘hemispherical forms,’ a process that has no other known use except to shield the core of a nuclear bomb.” There is also evidence that Iran has studied how to build tunnels that “appear designed for an underground atomic test” and “drawings on modifying Iran’s ballistic missiles in ways that might accommodate a nuclear warhead.

The evidence is highly compelling—no Western government appears to believe Iran’s assertion that its intentions are fully benign. But there is no direct evidence. There are alternative, though unlikely, explanations for most of the evidence. For instance, Iran claims that it was not aware that Khan had included instructions on how to shape uranium metal in the materials he transferred to Iran. This is unlikely, but far from impossible: the instructions were found in the portfolio of materials that Iran had turned over to international inspectors. If Iran knew it had the instructions, it presumably would have hidden them from inspectors. This has complicated efforts to rally non-Western governments behind the effort to convince Iran to give up its efforts to enrich uranium.

While it is clear that Iran desires the capability to build a nuclear weapon, it is less clear whether Iran would use that capability to immediately produce a weapon. It is possible that Iran’s goal is to acquire a “turnkey” nuclear capability that would enable it to construct a warhead on short notice at some future time of its choosing.

3. An Iranian nuclear weapons capability would fundamentally threaten U.S. and allied interests in the Middle East and beyond.

Iran’s nuclear activities have already done considerable damage to international nonproliferation norms. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)—which Iran has signed as a “non-nuclear weapon States”—forbids Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. It also requires that it disclose sensitive nuclear activities to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and allow inspections. The NPT does not forbid Iran—or any country, for that matter—from enriching uranium, provided it is for peaceful purposes and the effort is disclosed to the IAEA. Iran’s pursuit of a weapons capability under the guise of a civilian program risks undermining global confidence in the NPT regime.

More broadly, Iranian success at enriching uranium on a large scale would fundamentally alter the balance of power in the Middle East. Iran would be in a position to assert itself more aggressively in the region. For instance, Iran would be the only country in OPEC—the cartel of major oil exporters that conspire to fix the supply and price of oil—with a nuclear capability. In addition, an Iranian nuclear deterrent could embolden Iran’s support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah because states could not threaten the Iranian regime without risking an Iranian nuclear strike. It could also spark a regional arms race, as Arab countries pursue a deterrent to Iran’s Persian nuclear capability because of the historic enmity between Arabs and Persians.

4. Iran’s recent announcement that it enriched uranium “had less to do with an engineering feat than with carefully timed political theater.”

Iran enriched the uranium using a cascade of 164 centrifuges that spin uranium hexafluoride gas at supersonic speed. This process extracts U-235—usable in power reactors and nuclear weapons—from the gas. The enriched uranium that Iran produced cannot be used in a nuclear weapon because it purportedly contains just 3.5% U-235. A nuclear weapon typically requires highly-enriched uranium (HEU) that contains more than 90% U-235. Assuming Iran has perfect luck with the centrifuge, it would need to operate a cascade of this size continually for many years to produce enough HEU (15-20 kg, roughly the size of a basketball) for a crude nuclear bomb.

5. Iran is at least three years from having the fissile materials needed for a crude nuclear bomb.

To acquire a credible nuclear weapons capability, Iran’s next step is to use this successful experiment as the basis for building a 3,000 centrifuge cascade at Natanz, as Iran has frequently claimed it would do. In theory, such a facility would be capable of producing enough HEU for 2-3 bombs a year. Building such a facility, however, is far more difficult and demanding than operating the 164 centrifuge cascade. Even if everything goes right, such a facility would not be fully operational until 2009 at the earliest. U.S. intelligence, for its part, estimates that Iran is 5-10 years from an actual bomb. These estimates are both too soon for comfort, but they also show that there is still time for tough diplomacy.

6. Don’t believe the hype: military strikes—especially nuclear strikes—against Iran are extremely unlikely any time soon.

Seymour Hersh, a reporter for The New Yorker magazine, recently wrote that the United States was considering military strikes against Iran that included the use of nuclear weapons. He joins a chorus of reports indicating that the U.S. is updating war plans against Iran. His disclosure that the U.S. was considering nuclear strikes, however, is novel.

There is no question that there are some parallels between the rhetoric used by senior administration officials against Iran today and against Iraq in the months preceding that conflict. But it is critical to recognize that planning for a war is not the same as launching a war. It would be reckless for the Pentagon not to update contingency plans because the future is unpredictable and it is better to plan for the worst (and hope for the best) than not planning at all.

It is also critical to recognize that Iran in 2006 is not Iraq in 2003. In 2003, the American people were united behind the president, confident in his ability to protect them after the Sept. 11 attacks and the swift U.S. victory in Afghanistan. Today, with American troops bogged down in Iraq, the American people have little confidence in the president or appetite for further military adventures.

At the same time, military options against Iran range from bad to worse—and there is little question that President Bush’s military commanders have informed him of that. A massive ground assault is out of the question – the United States simply lacks the ground forces to do it. A limited assault against key Iranian nuclear facilities involving air strikes and Special Forces troops on the ground is possible, but the benefits are minimal. A strike against key facilities would only set the program back a few years, at best, because Iran would retain its nuclear expertise and experience. It could and would rebuild.

This would come at enormous cost to the United States and to the Iranian people. The strikes would kill an estimated 10,000 Iranians, permanently alienating the Iranian people from the United States and causing Iranians to rally around the flag. Iran would likely seek revenge for the strikes, and could do so by fomenting strife in Iraq—where it has considerable influence with the Shi’ite majority—or by supporting terrorist attacks against Israel, Americans living overseas, or the United States itself. The world would cry foul at U.S. aggression, and the United States would be unable to muster global support for additional efforts to slow Iranian nuclear efforts. The extra few years of delay wouldn’t be worth the cost. Last but not least, military strikes could devastate global oil markets, pushing the price of oil to $100 a barrel (and the price of gasoline to more than $4/ gallon) and plunge the United States and the rest of the world into recession.

An “October Surprise” where President Bush orders strikes in the run-up to the fall 2006 midterm Congressional elections to try and boost a weak Republican ticket is also unlikely. People are wise to this tactic, and it would be transparent to all.

Anything is of course possible, but in the realm of the likely, a military strike against Iran is not in the cards—at least for now. A nuclear strike is even less likely because nuclear weapons are not needed to destroy key Iranian facilities. The Pentagon is a very large place – it is the country’s single largest employer. Someone, somewhere in the bureaucracy probably prepared a report on the issue, which somehow made its way into Hersh’s hands.

It would be unwise for any administration to take the military option off the table as long as Iran remains a grave threat. It is quite another thing, however, to openly threaten Iran with military force. This is unwise, because it is more likely to harden Iran’s nuclear ambitions than soften them—after all, a nuclear weapon is the ultimate deterrent. Instead, the United States needs to exhaust the diplomatic route while there is still time.

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