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Iran May Achieve Capability to Make A Nuclear Weapon in 2009

Interviewee: David Albright, President, Institute for Science and International Security
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
February 20, 2009

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David Albright, a long-time expert on Iran's nuclear program, says that Iran will probably accumulate enough low-enriched uranium this year to "reach the first level of breakout capability, namely enough low-enriched uranium to make one nuclear weapon." And in an ironic twist, he says even though Iran's stated goal is to have a nuclear program for domestic power, it appears to be running out of uranium for such a plan. "It's one of the unfortunate ironies of the situation that while they don't have enough uranium for a civil nuclear energy program, they have plenty for a weapons program," Albright says. "Even if Iran runs out of uranium, they have more than enough to eventually produce tens of nuclear weapons." He urges the United States to seek tougher sanctions, but also to open wide-ranging negotiations with Iran.

You've been following Iran's nuclear activities for years. Could you provide an update on its progress so far?

Iran continues to move forward on developing its nuclear capabilities, and it is close to having what we would call a 'nuclear breakout capability.'  That's a problem because once Iran reaches that state then it could make a decision to get nuclear weapons pretty rapidly. In as quickly as a few months, Iran would be able to have enough weapons-grade uranium for nuclear weapons. And if a breakout occurred, they would not likely do so at the well-known Natanz enrichment plant. Rather, the Iranians would most likely take low-enriched uranium that's produced at that plant and then divert it at a secret facility that we wouldn't know anything about. And at this secret facility, the Iranians would produce this weapons-grade uranium. And so if you were in the camp that said, 'Well, we'll have to strike militarily,' you won't actually know where to strike because you won't know where that secret facility is. Whatever camp you are in, the situation is bound to grow more tense. So for 2009, probably the big technical issue is when Iran establishes this breakout capability. It could be soon. They don't need that much more low-enriched uranium before they reach the first level of breakout capability, namely enough low-enriched uranium to make one nuclear weapon.

So you think it could happen even within the next year or so?

"Israel will see it as a major threat … For Israel, an Iranian nuclear breakout capability brings up existential questions."

Within this year, it could happen. Once Iran reaches that breakout capability, countries will have different responses. Some, like Russia, will probably say, 'So what? They're still not building nuclear weapons.' The United States will have to worry that they don't know Iran's intentions. The U.S. government has believed Iran would eventually seek nuclear weapons and it would have to face the prospect that it could happen with little notice, complicating any negotiation process. A country like Israel will see it as a major threat because they'll worry that if things do go bad and Iran decides to get nuclear weapons, they can do so quickly, and Israel wouldn't know what or where to strike. For Israel, an Iranian nuclear breakout capability brings up existential questions.

Your organization, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), recently published a report (PDF) saying essentially that Iran was running out of uranium oxide, so-called yellowcake. It had just enough to make some nuclear weapons, but it didn't have enough for electrical power, their ostensible purpose in enriching uranium. How should an American official interpret that report?

Iran has some domestic uranium resources, and it's constructed two uranium mines. But for some reason, it's way behind opening the larger one. But it is operating the smaller one. But even if you look at the total capacity of those mines, it's not large enough if you want to have a full-blown nuclear electricity program. And for that kind of program, with up to eight 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactors, you need a lot more uranium than what Iran can produce. Iran has never really had the uranium resources to support an indigenous nuclear electricity program. So they are dependent on importing the fuel. If you consider the Bushehr reactor, that's what they did. They bought the reactor from Russia, and they also bought the fuel for at least ten years. What they've been doing so far to operate the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility is depending on a stock of roughly six hundred tons of "yellowcake" that they imported from South Africa in the 1970s. They've been using it to make uranium hexafluoride at the Isfahan facility, and if they operate Isfahan anywhere near capacity, then they're going to run out pretty soon. They don't produce enough in their own mines for a civil electricity program. Their stock of imported yellowcake is running out and so, they're reaching a point where they're going to have to take some steps to improve their situation. They could try to smuggle in uranium, and that is something to watch for. From our point of view, the best thing they can do is work out a solution with the international community so they can proceed with the nuclear electricity program and import the low-enriched uranium fuel that they need for those reactors. Once they have a deal, and the West and Russia are fully prepared to guarantee the Iranians their supply of low-enriched uranium, then that will free them from this bind of too little uranium. Now, on the other hand, it's one of the unfortunate ironies of the situation that while they don't have enough uranium for a civil nuclear energy program, they have plenty for a weapons program. Even if Iran runs out of uranium, they have more than enough to eventually produce tens of nuclear weapons. It's a situation where you have to wonder whether Iran's intention all along was to have the infrastructure to have a bomb program and it was never intending to achieve an indigenous civil nuclear electricity program.

"It is essential that the United States talk to Iran directly. And talk to them on many fronts. The United States should allow diplomats to engage with Iranians around the world."

All right, now you're in the White House, and you're on the National Security Council staff, which is trying to come up with an Iran policy. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave a speech today where he says that we might be interested in talking to the United States, but don't ask us to stop our nuclear program because that's not negotiable. ISIS made some recommendations (PDF). What is your opinion?

Don't accommodate Iran with short-term solutions. Iran is determined to move forward right now. Compromises that the United States may offer, such as settling for merely slowing down the enrichment program, are guaranteed not to work. The important thing is to maintain the U.S. goal of an Iranian suspension of uranium enrichment. It is also important to increase the sanctions on Iran in order to try to get Iran to rethink its calculation on whether an enrichment program is in their interest. It's critical to also negotiate directly with Iran, so Iran understands what the United States wants, and the United States understands what Iran wants. And then it's important to broaden this issue to the entire Middle East. It's very important right now to start talking about a Middle East free of enrichment plants and reprocessing plants [that can separate plutonium], which could be used in nuclear weapons. And so, you want to achieve a region that doesn't have nuclear weapons capabilities. Then inevitably, bring in other players, some very much of concern to Iran. Israel would be number one, but also Egypt and Turkey-they're not going to respond favorably as Iran develops nuclear weapons. You need to bring in more players striving for a goal of a Middle East free of nuclear weapons capabilities.

Do you think it's at all possible that Israel would agree to be involved in such a thing?

They have in the past. In the 1990s, they were willing to consider achieving a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, if the conditions were right. In the 1990s, the key issues revolved around Iraq and Iran and the security threats they posed. And so, the threat of Iran remains for Israel, but Israel doesn't see many military options out there. It could be open to this idea. It's also not asking Israel to give up its nuclear weapons. It's asking Israel to give up production of plutonium and any highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. They've already got plenty of nuclear explosive material.

How do you get Iran to agree to a freeze if Iran keeps saying it won't do it?

You have to change the conditions, and you also have to accept that achieving this goal is going to take a long time. It is useful to think of the examples of Pakistan and South Africa. In the case of Pakistan, in the 1970s when Pakistan was working all-out on an enrichment program, the U.S. position was initially, 'No, we can't tolerate that.' And then it started to accommodate itself to Pakistan's enrichment program because of other priorities; first, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. We eventually got Pakistan to cap its enrichment output at 5 percent or so. And that didn't hold once Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in 1998.

But in the South Africa case, the vision held. The goal was a South Africa without nuclear weapons, and sanctions were put on South Africa. South Africa, under tremendous pressure, because of its isolation internationally, decided that it had to do two things. One of which was to give up apartheid and the other [was] to give up nuclear weapons. The key factor was that the United States and the others didn't falter on pressing South Africa. What do we have in Pakistan? The opposite. Now we have to fear Pakistan for many reasons. One of which would be a nuclear war with India, and the other, it could be the place where the wherewithal to build nuclear weapons is acquired by terrorists which use these weapons against us. So the accommodation approach, unfortunately, is by no means guaranteed to be successful, and it's better to focus on what we really want and work on that. But it's a long-term issue. You have to maintain your resolve, and tensions are going to increase like they did in southern Africa.

You're saying it would be helpful to talk to Iran, but you have to put the nuclear freeze up front?

I would. It is essential that the United States talk to Iran directly. And talk to them on many fronts. The United States should allow diplomats to engage with Iranians around the world.

There's still discussion about whether there should be an interests section in Tehran [a U.S. office that would fall short of diplomatic recognition]. I guess that's all going to come out of this policy review.

The interests section is a step forward, but there's a more fundamental decision that's needed. Is the United States going to allow negotiations with Iran? That's the more fundamental issue, and also, it allows more freedom in making the next decision. How do you actually have negotiations with Iran? Many would probably argue that we secretly start mid-level negotiations rather than having some top-level envoy approach Iran in a visible way. It's just harder to negotiate when everyone is watching you, but you can't do either unless you permit these discussions to take place-government to government-and create the mechanisms for that to happen.

It's also important in this to remember that you want to avoid setting up this situation with Iran where you are forced to two choices, namely capitulation or military strikes. Military strikes are very unlikely to be effective unless you're willing to launch massive campaigns against the country and that means going to war against Iran. I don't think anyone wants to do that. And I'll also say, even in that case, you might not stop Iran from building nuclear weapons because in the end, the places that they would need to make nuclear weapons are not that large. And after being attacked, they would likely launch a Manhattan-style program [the code name for the U.S. secret program during World War II to produce the atomic bomb]. So I would still say that military options are just not feasible. That doesn't mean you can't apply pressure on Iran, and I would argue that if you're not going to favor military strikes, then you need to focus more on sanctions to get Iran to rethink its priorities on enrichment.

How do you get the Russians to be be more cooperative on this?

One way is what [Vice President Joe] Biden said, "push the reset button" on relations with Russia. The Obama administration should look again on all the issues involved with missile defense and arms control, in particular the START treaty. The United States can engage with Russia in a less confrontational mode and see if in the process, Russia will be more helpful in Iran. It may not, but the approach taken by the Bush administration clearly didn't work, because if you increase the tension with Russia, particularly on nuclear issues, they're less likely to help you on Iran. So it's worth trying. Now, it's not necessary to get Russia, although it would be very helpful to get Russia to put a bit more pressure on Iran. You at least don't want to create situations where Russia has more incentive to work against U.S. interests on Iran. More productive engagement on nuclear arms-control issues can go a long way in stopping that.

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