Iran's Nuclear Abilities Limited

Article excerpt

Tehran's Aug. 1 announcement of its decision to restart its uraniumconversion facility near Isfahan has raised concerns that Tehran intends to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons. But three recent U.S. intelligence assessments suggest that Iran's limited technical capabilities mean that it would take Tehran between six and 10 years to be able to produce nuclear weapons even if it committed to that course and it were allowed to operate its nuclear facilities freely.

For example, in an Aug. 23 interview with Arms Control Today, a Department of State official confirmed that a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) predicts that Iran will not be able to acquire fissile material for a weapon before "early to mid-next decade." The NIE, which represents the consensus view of the intelligence community, was first reported Aug. 2 in The Washington Post. The official agreed that this figure was, in practical terms, the same as a February Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) estimate that "Tehran probably will have the ability to produce nuclear weapons early in the next decade," unless constrained by a nuclear nonproliferation agreement.

These estimates also jibed with an early 2004 intelligence briefing given to congressional staff members, which indicated that Iran would not be able to produce a nuclear weapon until after 2010 because Iran's program was beset by technical delays and shortfalls.

Intelligence officials caution, however, that there is a great deal of uncertainty in estimating how long it might take any particular country to acquire nuclear weapons.

Iran's Problems

Iran appears to face difficulties in operating both its uranium-conversion and centrifuge facilities. Uranium-conversion facilities convert lightly processed uranium ore into several compounds, including uranium hexafluoride. Gas centrifuges enrich uranium hexafluoride gas by spinning it at very high speeds. Low-enriched uranium is used to fuel power reactors; HEU can be used to make nuclear weapons. Iran currently has a pilot centrifuge facility and has said it plans to build a much larger commercial facility.

According to the State Department official, Iran had "major problems" with the conversion facility in 2004 when it produced uranium hexafluoride that was unsuitable for enrichment. Tehran also may be having trouble obtaining the proper materials to handle and properly store uranium hexafluoride and other uranium compounds, the official added.

The same State Department official said, however, that Iran may now have overcome at least some of its technical problems. Additionally, a Western diplomat told Arms Control Today Aug. 26 that the facility's problems could well be overcome in the short term, and pointing out that other countries may be willing to provide Iran with relevant assistance.

Iran also is having trouble with its pilot centrifuge facility, the State Department official said, because it is unable to keep the machines running for a sufficient length of time at the required speeds.

The U.S. Evidence

The same official described Washington's case for an ongoing Iranian nuclear weapons program as built on a "body of convincing but circumstantial evidence."

Bush administration officials argue that several factors support the U.S. case. These include Tehran's past efforts to conceal its nuclear activities, unresolved questions with regard to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation of Iran's nuclear program, and Iran's large fossil fuel supplies, which render unnecessary its nuclear power program.

The State Department official also confirmed a July 27 Wall Street Journal article that reported that the United States has what it believes to be documentary evidence suggesting that Iran is attempting to develop a nuclear-weapon payload for its medium-range Shahab-3 ballistic missile. …