What's Missing From the Iran Debate

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, and other officials watch a military parade in Tehran last year.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, and other officials watch a military parade in Tehran last year. (Hasan Sarbakhshian -- Associated Press)
By David Kay
Monday, September 8, 2008

It would be impossible and foolish to predict what lies immediately ahead for Iran. Inflation runs rampant and domestic unrest is growing, but the leadership is banding together in support of the country's nuclear program. Threat assessment and war planning are (or should be) about best-guessing capabilities and intentions. When it comes to Iran, these calculations are difficult, but there are things we can -- and must -- figure out. Given what we know and what we can best-guess, it looks as if Iran is 80 percent of the way to a functioning nuclear weapon.

Every nuclear program needs raw materials, a way to refine them and, in the final stage, weaponization. Getting and enriching the materials is the hardest part; without this, a nuclear reaction is impossible. How does Iran's nuclear program measure up?

The situation is a bit murky, but we know, basically, that Tehran has a handle on the fissionable material. Iran imported significant amounts of raw uranium from China in 1991. It has also attempted to produce weapons-grade material, conducting secret enrichment efforts and acquiring designs, materials and samples of gas centrifuges for uranium enrichment from the A.Q. Khan network. Plus, over the past 18 years, the Iranians have developed and tested state-of-the-art centrifuges and enrichment techniques. If Iran's 6,000 forthcoming new-design centrifuges were working for a year, the program could produce about five weapons. My best guess is that they are about two to four years away from accomplishing this.

Next comes weaponization. The fissionable material must be converted into metal and packaged. Here again, Iran has made substantial progress. What remains is to produce these elements in adequate numbers and amounts; combine them in an engineering design that ensures that they work and that fits on a missile; and gain confidence that the resulting weapons will get the job done.

All of this is public knowledge, but the answers to most of the important questions relating to intent and progress on crucial elements of weaponization are unknown. It's the only partially understood and suspected activities of Iran that are most alarming. Signs of these activities include detection by International Atomic Energy Agency 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 are real, it would mean that Iran is moving faster and is closer to obtaining a nuclear-weapons capability than the hard facts suggest. Obtaining that last 20 percent of the elements needed to make a nuclear weapon would take perhaps one to two years, instead of the four to seven years needed if they were not.

While we know a lot more about Iran than we did about Iraq (before the Persian Gulf and Iraq wars), we still lack answers to the most important questions, including:

· If Iran has decided or decides to acquire nuclear weapons, how long will it take to do so and how many could it produce per year?

· How much foreign assistance has Iran received, and from whom did it it receive it?

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