Tuesday, August 01, 2006

When Will Iran Get the Bomb?

This week, The New Yorker, is featuring a Q&A with reporter Steve Coll, who is publishing an article in the August 7, 2006 issue about the Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan and the international trade in nuclear-weapons technology and equipment. In the Q&A, Coll discusses Iran’s nuclear program.

BLAKE ESKIN: What did Pakistani scientists provide to Iran?

STEVE COLL: This is a question at the heart of continuing investigations by the International Atomic Energy Agency and by a lot of governments that are worried about Iran’s nuclear program. What’s known is mainly the product of I.A.E.A. interviews with Iranian officials who have given an account of the history of their contacts with Khan and Pakistan. I lay out that forensics because a fair amount of what we know about Iran’s history with Pakistan comes from Iran, and might be regarded with some skepticism.

What’s undisputed is that contacts had begun by 1987, with discussions about a sale of blueprints and other materials that would allow Iran to build a capacity for enriching uranium. Those discussions produced at least one document that appears to be a kind of shopping list from Pakistan to Iran. The discussions and transactions continued from 1987 until at least 2003, when Iran first acknowledged the existence of its secret enrichment program. The history of those contacts from the beginning to 2003 is a subject of this article. In that narrative lies a whole series of mysteries: How much progress has Iran made and how fast will it be able to finish a nuclear weapon?

The question of how fast can’t be answered definitively, but could you give us a sense of the estimates and how reliable you think they are?

John Negroponte, the director of National Intelligence, has said, in his most recent public assessment, that the American intelligence community believes that Iran may acquire a nuclear capacity some time in the next decade, meaning from 2010 or 2011 onward. From my reporting, I gather that in private briefings the Bush Administration’s intelligence analysts focus on a five-to-seven-year window, although they emphasize that there’s a fair amount of uncertainty about this estimate. I think the one assertion that the intelligence community seems comfortable with is that it’s not this year or next year and probably not the year after that. However, the more that is discovered about Iran’s research, the more some analysts wonder whether Iran might be able to move faster than the official forecast indicates.

And this basically depends on the Iranians’ use of centrifuges to enrich uranium?

As far as is known, yes. Of course, in assessing a country’s efforts to secretly acquire a nuclear weapon, you have to be conscious that there may be aspects of its endeavor that are unknown to anyone but itself. Enriching uranium or acquiring plutonium, the fissile materials that provide a bomb’s explosive force, is the hardest part of building a nuclear bomb. In this case, Iran has been attempting to master this centrifuge technology for years; from what is known, they have struggled. It’s a really complicated technology: it’s not only difficult to operate but to even set it up. The Iranians have just barely started to operate these machines. The question is: How much progress can they make in building a fully operating plant that would be required to make enough material for a bomb?

Once the centrifuges are working, how long will it take to make enough material for a bomb?

It depends on how many centrifuges you put into your plant. The math is fairly straightforward: a cascade of a hundred and sixty-four centrifuges can produce so many grams of highly enriched uranium in so much time if the centrifuges are operating around the clock. Iran has said that it intends to install three thousand of these centrifuges by the end of this year. That seems like an ambitious goal, but let’s assume the Iranians could achieve it. If they did, they could manufacture enough highly enriched uranium for a couple of bombs within a year if they operated those centrifuges around the clock. Most people don’t think they can pull that off, but that’s the scale of their operation at this point.

For more information on the timeline of Iran's nuclear program, see Iran Nuclear Timeline.

No comments: