Joseph Cirincione -- Five Myths About Iran's Nuclear Program

By Joseph Cirincione
Sunday, October 18, 2009

Iran's expanding nuclear program poses one of the Obama administration's most vexing foreign policy challenges. Fortunately, the conditions for containing Tehran's efforts may be better today than they have been in years. The recent disclosure of a secret nuclear facility in Iran has led to an apparent agreement to allow in U.N. weapons inspectors and to ship some uranium out of the country, and the United States and Europe seem to be closing ranks on the need for sanctions and engagement.

Of course, the matter is far from resolved; Russia and China are sending mixed signals on their position, while even a weakened Iranian regime remains duplicitous. But the prospects for developing a strategy with a solid chance of success improve if we dispose of five persistent myths about Iran's nuclear program:

1. Iran is on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon.

For years we've heard conflicting accounts on this issue. There have been claims since the 1990s that Iran was a few years away from a bomb. Then, two years ago, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Iran had discontinued its dedicated nuclear weapon efforts in 2003. Today, the consensus among experts is that Iran has the technical ability to make a crude nuclear device within one to three years -- but there is no evidence that its leaders have decided to do so.

The regime's most likely path to the bomb begins in Natanz, in central Iran, the site of the nuclear facility where over the past three years about 1,500 kilograms of uranium gas has been enriched to low levels. Iran could kick out U.N. inspectors, abandon the Non-Proliferation Treaty and reprocess the gas into highly enriched uranium in about six months; it would take at least six more months to convert that uranium into the metal form required for one bomb. Technical problems with both processes could stretch this period to three years. Finally, Iran would need perhaps five additional years -- and several explosive tests -- to develop a Hiroshima-yield bomb that could be fitted onto a ballistic missile.

Of course, the United States and others would see Tehran moving in this direction, and exposure or inspection of suspected facilities would complicate Iranian objectives. We can further lengthen this timeline by ridding Iran of the essential ingredient for a bomb: low-enriched uranium. On Oct. 1, Iran agreed to ship most of this uranium to Russia for fabrication into reactor fuel; we will know in the next few weeks if it will keep that pledge. If it does, Iran's "break-out" capability -- the ability to produce a bomb quickly -- would be eliminated, at least for the two years it takes to enrich more uranium.

2. A military strike would knock out Iran's program.

Actually, a military attack would only increase the possibility of Iran developing a nuclear bomb.

"There is no military option that does anything more than buy time," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last month. "The estimates are one to three years or so." And that's if the United States struck hundreds of targets. A less powerful Israeli attack could only damage, not destroy, Iran's facilities.

Worse, after such a bombing, the Iranian population -- now skeptical of its leadership -- would probably rally around the regime, ending any internal debates on whether to build a bomb. Iran would put its nuclear program on fast-forward to create weapons to defend itself. It could also counterattack against Israel or other U.S. allies. This month, a top official of Iran's Revolutionary Guard threatened to "blow up the heart of Israel" if the United States or Israel attacks first.

On the merits of a U.S. strike, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said he worries about "the possible unintended consequences of a strike like that . . . having an impact throughout the region that would be difficult to predict."

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