- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
Debate is growing on curbing Iran’s nuclear development as the Israelis ratchet up pressure on the United States on a so-called "red line" on what would constitute the need for military action. Though Iran has made considerable progress on developing "a fairly robust nuclear weapons capability," David Albright, a leading expert on Iranian nuclear issues, says, "The key issue is that they haven’t made a decision to do that." Albright says that even though Israel has concerns about Iran’s uranium enrichment program, he believes an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment sites would not eliminate the Iranian ability, but would push them further toward nuclear weapons. "I think the Israelis, by attacking, could make the situation much worse, whereas if the United States makes it clear to Iran, ’don’t cross that line or else there will be horrendous consequences,’ that strategy may be able to keep Iran from building the bomb over the next year or two."
What is the latest on Iran’s nuclear program?
Iran has made considerable progress at developing a fairly robust nuclear weapons capability, so that if it decided today to enrich uranium up to weapons-grade for making nuclear weapons, it could do so. There’s nothing standing in their way, technically, anymore, and they could produce quite a bit of weapons-grade material. But the key issue is that they haven’t made a decision to do that.
And how would they do that, by upgrading this 20 percent enriched uranium?
They have large stocks of 3.5 percent, enough for several nuclear weapons. They also have a fairly large stock of 20 percent. They don’t have enough 20 percent if used alone to enrich to weapons-grade uranium, but if you use both the 3.5 percent and the stock of 20 percent, then in a facility like Natanz, where there’s 9,000 centrifuges operational, they could produce a significant quantity, which we define as 25 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium in two to four months. Once they get a sufficient stock of 20 percent enriched uranium--and that could be sometime next year--then if they wanted to break out of Natanz, they could do it in little more than a month.
Now they can run into problems, and they do. They always run into problems, and so these time frames could get longer, and probably would get longer. But if you look back a year or two, the time to breakout [when they would have all the components necessary to assemble a weapon] using the 3.5 percent enriched uranium with the number of centrifuges they had at the time was measured in a half a year, a year, and so as they’ve produced more enriched uranium, particularly 20 percent material, and gotten more centrifuges operational, the breakout times have come down fairly substantially, and will continue to come down as they produce more 20 percent enriched uranium.
Over the weekend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on U.S. television saying that Iran would have the capability to produce nuclear weapons in about six to seven months. So you’re not disagreeing with that?
No. But what I took from his comments is that there are some scenarios that Israel is worried about, and some that it’s not so worried about. I gave the example of breaking out at Natanz. Now, at ISIS, we don’t believe Iran is likely to do that, because the breakout involves kicking out the inspectors and taking the enriched uranium out of safeguards. All those things are very noticeable. Therefore, if Iran broke out of Natanz, it would be discovered, and there would probably be a pretty draconian response from the United States and Israel. We at ISIS think that Iran is deterred from breaking out at Natanz over the next year or so.
Now, the other site at Fordow, which is deeply buried, even with 20 percent enriched uranium in sufficient quantity that you can enrich for a bomb, we think is going to take them at least two months. If and when the Iranians have enough 20 percent enriched uranium, the United States will get plenty of warning time about that breakout and could respond in an incredibly aggressive manner toward Iran. So I think Iran would be deterred from trying over the next year to break out at Fordow.
But Israel is in a different situation. Israel has announced that it can’t destroy the centrifuges deeply buried in Fordow. It’s clear it can shut down Fordow for some number of months through just a bombing, because the site needs electricity, water, and there are tunnels that are operational where the centrigues are located. So Israel can shut it down, but it can’t destroy it. So if Israel attacks, and if whatever is down in the hole is protected and the plant becomes fully operational, which it very well could in six months, then Israel is faced with this real fundamental problem: It attacks Iran, and Iran’s plant at Fordow survives, and in about two months, the Iranians could have their first significant quantity of enriched uranium, which they could then try to, over successive months, turn into a nuclear weapon and keep enriching.
Could the United States take out Fordow?
I think so, because what the United States can do that Israel can’t do is it can do much more destruction at the site. Again, it may not be able to collapse the roof in the deeply buried cavern that holds the centrifuges, but it can certainly collapse the tunnels. The United States can also keep hitting the plant. We have the capability to launch multiple strikes over a long period of time, if necessary, to keep the plant shut down, and to raise the costs to Iran.
In fact, what this argues for is that perhaps Israel shouldn’t attack, because it’s quickly reaching a point where an Israeli attack could be counterproductive. What it means is that if Israel can’t destroy Fordow, then it’s going to motivate Iran to go for the bomb, and certainly before that to kick out the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, and withdraw Iran from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. So I think the Israelis, by attacking, could make the situation much worse, whereas if the United States makes it clear to Iran: don’t cross that line or else there will be horrendous consequences, that strategy may be able to keep Iran from building the bomb over the next year or two.
Talk about all this from Iran’s point of view. What is it that Iran seems to be doing? Its public posture is it’s developing enriched uranium for power plants. Is that a feasible project for them?
They have an ambition of being able to produce enough enriched uranium for a commercial nuclear power program. That’s a dream. The Iranians are far from being able to realize that dream. And they’ve kind of gotten sidetracked into saying: "Okay, now we’ll make fuel for a tiny little research reactor," and they’ve made plenty for that reactor already and don’t even need to make any more. And so the civilian side doesn’t really need an enrichment program, and they could stop their enrichment program today, and their nuclear power program wouldn’t suffer at all. But since the 1980s, we’ve seen evidence that they have been developing a nuclear weapons program, and my view is that they would’ve had nuclear weapons by now if the world hadn’t intervened at several points and stopped them from crossing that line.
The big outside intervention was in 2003?
The intervention in 2003, after the invasion of Iraq and the discovery of all these secret centrifuge sites, laser enrichment sites, and even military nuclear sites, so unnerved the Iranians that they decided the best thing was to shut down the nuclear weaponization program, or at least reduce it greatly in size, and to suspend their uranium enrichment program and try to outlast the pressure, which was immense in 2003 and 2004. Since then, most of their effort has gone into getting their centrifuge program working, because in the end, that’s the long pole in the tent. The IAEA evidence says by the end of 2003, they knew how to build a crude nuclear explosive device, and they were working on a deliverable nuclear warhead. They weren’t finished when this abrupt shutdown supposedly happened, but they had gotten fairly far, and the IAEA assessed, in internal documents, that if they spent time on this, they would succeed in building deliverable warheads for a missile.
Iran currently is focused on making weapons-grade uranium. And therefore, it’s not so critical that it works on the nuclear weaponization side, but the IAEA has gathered evidence that some part of that weaponisation work has continued. The U.S. national intelligence estimate, from what we understand, felt the structured program was not restarted, and certainly everybody we talked to agrees that Iran hasn’t made a decision to actually build nuclear weapons in the sense of making weapon-grade uranium, making bomb components.
But from a technical point of view, they’re not at the point where they can do that safely, because they’re going to be detected, and they have to worry about us striking militarily and probably putting together an international coalition that would support the United States in what it’s doing. I think Iran’s probably working on some aspects of nuclear weapons, but principally is trying to develop a much greater centrifuge capability so that it could find a way to make nuclear weapons and get away with it without having their country devastated.
There have been negotiations on and off now for several years between the Security Council permanent five and Germany and the Iranians. Are these talks just a total bust or have they accomplished something?
I think they’ve demonstrated that Iran is not really that serious as a regime about making significant concessions. They’ve been handed all kinds of ways to make this problem go away and for them to get all kinds of sanctions lifted, and they have chosen not to do it, and we don’t know why.
I don’t think it’s necessarily because they want a nuclear weapon. I see them as ambivalent. If they could, they would build a weapon, but they understand there’s tremendous forces arrayed against them, that if they build that weapon, their regime may end before they get the weapon. The reasons are not always, "We want a weapon, and therefore negotiations are just a tool for us to buy time." I think they also have internal problems in their regime where they can’t seem to agree on what to do in the negotiations. There are some concessions Iran could make, they can’t seem to agree. And we went through this for a couple years where Iran would send out its enriched uranium and get research reactor fuel in return, and they agreed to a deal and then they said no, and then they wanted to do it again. Then the Iranians agreed to a deal with Brazil and Turkey but it was a very bad deal, and it had aspects Iran would’ve known the West could never accept.