Undeterred Iran Nears Nuclear Weapons Capability

November 7, 2011
Bilateral meeting between Mr. Fereydoun Abbasi Davani, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, and IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano at the IAEA 55th General Conference, September 19, 2011. (IAEA)

Iran is rapidly approaching the acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability as U.S. and international efforts to prevent or deter it from crossing that threshold have failed. Sanctions imposed by the U.S., UN, European Union, and other Western allies in 2010 and 2011 have not had a significant impact on Iran’s ability to develop a weapons capability or on the regime’s nuclear policy. During this period Iran has overcome the most difficult technical obstacle to acquiring a nuclear weapons capability: the enrichment of uranium from 3.5% to 20%. Enrichment at 20% is near bomb-grade purity given the relative ease of enriching from 20% to weapons-grade levels (near 90%). There are increased indications that the regime has simultaneously worked on acquiring two other elements of a nuclear weapons capability—nuclear payload and delivery vehicle systems—that are far less technically challenging than the production of bomb fuel. The clock is fast ticking down to a nuclear Iran.

Since 2009, Iran has increased its stockpile of low enriched uranium hexafluoride from 1,010 kilograms to 4,543 kilograms.[1] This current stockpile, once enriched further to bomb-grade levels, would fuel roughly four nuclear weapons.[2] Perhaps most significantly, the expansion and increased enrichment levels of the stockpiles have dramatically reduced the time required to produce bomb-grade fuel.[3] Nuclear proliferation expert Gregory Jones assesses in a technical analysis using publicly available data that Iran could now produce enough fuel for a nuclear weapon using its current stockpiles of enriched uranium in roughly two months.[4] In 2008, it would have taken Iran 2-4 years to achieve the same result, according to Jones. An increase in production of uranium enriched to 20% will further reduce the time required for “break-out.”

Recent statements by Iranian officials indicate that the regime intends to transfer the advanced enrichment program to a more fortified facility, moreover. The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Fereidoun Abbasi Davani, who has previously been linked to the covert weaponization element of Iran’s nuclear program, has announced that enrichment up to 20% will be transferred from the Natanz facility to the Fordo facility near Qom.[5] The latter facility, given its smaller size and the initially covert nature of its construction, was likely built to produce nuclear weapons fuel clandestinely.[6] Fordo is built inside a mountain complex within an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps base. The likelihood of a successful targeted aerial strike against Iran’s enrichment program will decrease, possibly significantly, if the most advanced enrichment activities are transferred into this facility.

This week the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will publish a quarterly report that will further detail the agency’s growing body of evidence related to Iran’s weaponization activities that the IAEA has warned about over the last year.[7]  In its last report in September, the agency indicated that it is corroborating the information it has on Iran’s work in this area, initially published in February 2011, and that Iran has stymied inspectors’ efforts to investigate further:

    …the Agency is increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed nuclear activities involving military related organizations , including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile, about which the Agency continues to receive new information…The information available to the Agency in connection with these outstanding issues is extensive and comprehensive and has been acquired both from many Member States and through its own efforts. It is also broadly consistent and credible in terms of technical detail, the time frame in which the activities were conducted and the people and organizations involved.[8]

The agency’s release of additional details may also discuss Iran’s related work in the area of delivery vehicle development. A key concern noted in the May 2011 report was Iran’s “design work and modeling studies involving the removal of the conventional high explosive payload from the warhead of the Shahab-3 missile and replacing it with a spherical nuclear payload.”[9] The Shahab-3 is capable of delivering nuclear, as well as biological and chemical, warheads. Several recent military exercises publicized by the regime have showcased Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal. Iran has, in parallel, covertly developed and tested ballistic missiles, including the Shahab. British Foreign Secretary William Hague revealed in June 2011 that Iran has conducted covert ballistic missiles “capable of delivering a nuclear payload.”[10] A 2011 UN report confirmed that Iran carried out unannounced tests of the nuclear-capable Shahab-3 and Sejil-2 missiles in October 2010 and February 2011.[11] Both of these missiles have ranges exceeding 1,200 miles.[12] The latter is also Iran’s first medium-range ballistic missile using solid fuel propellant; solid-fuelled missiles can be launched more rapidly than liquid-fuelled missiles. That Iran has conducted such testing covertly suggests that any outside assessment of Iranian capabilities may be at risk of underestimating Iran’s progress in acquiring a nuclear delivery vehicle system.

The threat of a nuclear weapons-capable Iran is now a fast approaching prospect. An increasingly hostile Iranian regime that just attempted to launch an attack on American soil, and that is now poised to exploit the American withdrawal from Iraq, has not been deterred from pursuing its nuclear ambitions.



[1] The current figure is as of August 13, 2011. See the full report at http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Board/2011/gov2011-54.pdf.
[2] “Iran’s Nuclear Timetable,” Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, May 25, 2011, http://www.iranwatch.org/ourpubs/articles/iranucleartimetable.html.
[3] Gregory S. Jones, “An In-Depth Examination of Iran’s Centrifuge Enrichment Program and Its Efforts to Acquire Nuclear Weapons,” Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, August 9, 2011, http://npolicy.org/article.php?aid=1092&rid=4.
[4] Analysts at the Institute for Science and International Security have contended that it would take Iran six months to produce a bomb’s worth of weapon-grade uranium. See http://isis-online.org/isis-reports/detail/critique-of-gregory-joness-breakout-estimates-at-the-natanz-fuel-enrichment/
[5] Najmeh Bozorgmehr and James Blitz, “Iran to boost uranium enrichment,” Financial Times, June 8, 2011, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/b86411f4-91ff-11e0-b8c1-00144feab49a.html#axzz1cf5PMWm1. For a profile of Abbasi Davani and his role in Iran’s nuclear program, see David Albright, Paul Brannan, and Andrea Stricker, “Will Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani lead Iran to nuclear weapons?” Institute for Science and International Security, June 24, 2011, http://isis-online.org/isis-reports/detail/will-fereydoun-abbasi-davani-lead-iran-to-nuclear-weapons/.
[7] During the IAEA’s board meeting on September 12, IAEA director Yukiya Amano suggested, in a sign of increased frustration, that he would release this information in further detail to member states.
[10] Statement to the UK House of Commons, June 29, 2011, http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/news/latest-news/?view=PressS&id=623229182.
[11] The UN Panel of Experts report has been not been officially released by the UN because Russian diplomats have blocked its publication. “Envoys: Russia blocks UN report on Iran arms sales,” Reuters, May 12, 2011, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42995447/ns/world_news-mideast_n_africa/t/envoys-russia-blocks-un-report-iran-arms/. A copy of the report, however, is available at http://www.innercitypress.com/1929r051711.pdf.
[12] “Unclassified Report on Military Power of Iran,” Department of Defense, April 2010.