The Economist: Iran is putting up with sanctions that damage its economy rather than accept a deal limiting its nuclear programme. It has developed the capacity to enrich far more uranium than it needs for generating nuclear power or for medical research. And its outgoing president has talked about wanting to wipe Israel off the map.
IRAN is putting up with sanctions that damage its economy rather than accept a deal limiting its nuclear programme. It has developed the capacity to enrich far more uranium than it needs for generating nuclear power or for medical research. And its outgoing president has talked about wanting to wipe Israel off the map. All of which suggests to outsiders that the country intends, at a time of its choosing, to get its hands on nuclear weapons. Iran, for its part, denies that it wants any such thing and points to a fatwa against both the possession and use of nuclear weapons. So how close is Iran to having a nuclear bomb?
To become a nuclear power, a country requires both the fissile material for a bomb and the means of delivering it reliably to its target (“weaponisation” in the jargon). Iran was thought to have suspended work on weaponisation in 2004, but now the International Atomic Energy Agency is not so sure. In order to create a nuclear weapon, Iran would need to convert highly enriched uranium into a metal sphere and make a detonator small enough to fit in the warhead of a ballistic missile. That is not beyond its technological capability.
But does Iran have enough uranium for a bomb? To make one it would need about 20 kilograms of highly enriched uranium. To get there it would need to begin with a larger amount of medium-enriched uranium—somewhere between 94 kilograms and 210 kilograms—and enrich it further. At present it is thought to have around 123 kilograms of medium-enriched uranium. And getting from 20%, the upper limit for medium enrichment, to 80% or 90% is not as hard as getting from 2% to 20%, which Iran has already done. The upshot is that although Iran may not have decided whether it wants a bomb, it already has most of what it needs to build one.
British and American intelligence sources think Iran is about a year away from having enough highly enriched uranium to make a bomb, and rather further from mastering the technologies to make a nuclear warhead small enough to fit into a missile. But David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector who is president of the Institute for Science and International Security, thinks that by mid-2014 Iran will have the capacity to produce enough fissile material for a single bomb in one or two weeks, should it choose to do so. It seems unlikely that Iran could be forced to change course on this matter by foreigners. The best that can be hoped for is that it decides that it does not want or need a nuclear weapon. The alternative is probably a nuclear-armed Middle East in which Iran and Israel—and eventually Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt—all have missiles pointed at each other.