Iran’s Nuclear Activity: Don’t Believe the Hype
New America Media, Commentary, Behrad Nakhai and William O. Beeman , Posted: Jul 16, 2008
Editor's Note: Rumors that Iran is less than a year away from making a nuclear bomb are false and misleading, argue the commentators, who say that there is little relationship between Iran’s current state of low enriched uranium and the production of a nuclear weapon.
Is Iran a year away from making a nuclear bomb?
This is what is being whispered in Washington as a “parade” of Israeli officials comes to Washington in the next two weeks to consult on Iran, and presumably to renew Israel’s request for the Bush administration’s blessing to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, according to Mother Jones magazine. Visitors will include Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israeli Defense Force Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi. Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton published an editorial in the Wall Street Journal with the thinly veiled purpose of convincing Bush officials to let Israel launch its attack. He wrote, “The crucial turning point is when Iran masters all the capabilities to weaponize without further external possibility of stopping it.”
Bolton would have the American public believe that this turning point is imminent, and he is buttressed by other neoconservative alarmists. Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research of the conservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy and senior editor of Middle East Quarterly, told Mother Jones on July 10, “It certainly appears from the last [International Atomic Energy Agency] report that Iran is on track to have enough kilos [of low enriched uranium that can be enriched to weapons grade] within a year…. What most people concentrate on is when Iran would have 600 to 700 kilos of its own low enriched uranium, which is enough to make enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb…. If everything works perfectly, [it would take] two months. If everything doesn't work perfectly, a bit longer. The answer would be the space of a few months."
This would be both ominous and convincing if it were true, but it is false and utterly misleading. Unfortunately Clawson, Bolton, and those who make similar predictions know nothing about nuclear engineering. The truth is that there is little relationship between Iran’s current state of low enriched uranium and the production of a nuclear weapon. There are many intervening steps that would take years to accomplish.
Getting from low enriched uranium (LEU) to high enriched uranium (HEU) not only requires enough quality LEU, but also perfectly tuned working machineries that Iran currently lacks. Contrary to Clawson’s assertions, Iran is far from being at that point. The quality of the LEU is also questionable. Moreover, from all indications, Iran's current setup is fragile and prone to breakage. By some reports the Iranian equipment is almost non-usable even for low enrichment purposes.
Iran is engaged in peaceful nuclear research and not nuclear weapons production — a fact re-affirmed by the National Intelligence Estimate of December 2007. However, the program falls short of even low-level enrichment capability. The nation must still pass through a number of technological stages to gain a useful sustained low-level enrichment capability.
Even if another nation were to provide good quality LEU to Iran, Iran does not currently have the required resources to enrich the LEU to HEU. And if another nation were to provide Iran with HEU, Iran does not have the capability to assemble a test bomb, let alone a threatening bomb.
Commentators like Clawson make it appear trivial to assemble a “bomb” once HEU is obtained. In practice, however, handling of such HEU and the ability to assemble a working bomb is not at all trivial. That is why the United States, Russia and other nuclear nations have atomic tests. Once testing begins, the bomb-making process could never proceed unnoticed — even if conducted underground. We should remember that North Korea’s nuclear bomb tests were unsuccessful. This may be one reason they were willing to relinquish their nuclear program.
Finally, even if Iran were to obtain a bomb, it is not clear how they could provide a delivery system for the bomb with their present level of military technology. Iran has been testing conventional missiles — and not very successfully, as was recently seen in their over-hyped “show of strength” on July 10, when missile launches failed, and had to be “Photoshopped” in to the publicity pictures.
A nuclear loaded missile is a vastly different technological accomplishment from a conventional missile. An airplane might be an alternative delivery mechanism, but Iran has no aircraft capable of delivering a sophisticated nuclear weapon.
Looking carefully at Iran’s nuclear program as it stands at present, it is only reasonable to conclude that Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts have so far been very elementary — effectively just practice runs for the very lowest levels of enrichment. In theory, LEU, with the proper technological equipment and skill, could be developed into a weapon. But this is a bit like saying that theoretically carbon could be made into dynamite. In both cases, it is a long way from the raw material to the finished product. Iran’s LEU is currently of no practical use except as a means to learning the enrichment process. And it is certainly no cause whatever for a military attack.
Dr. Behrad Nakhai is a nuclear scientist. He holds a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Tennessee. He is currently working as a nuclear engineer performing nuclear safety analysis. He was formerly a research nuclear scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and has also been a faculty member at the Center for Nuclear Studies in Memphis, TN, and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He has just returned from Iran.
William O. Beeman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN. He is President of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association, and former Director of Middle East Studies at Brown University. His most recent book is “The ‘Great Satan’ vs. the ‘Mad Mullahs’: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other”, University of Chicago Press.