The International Atomic Energy Agency’s recent report finding extensive evidence of Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear warhead raises new questions about Iran’s nuclear plans and what deterrent strategy the United States should pursue. David Albright, an expert on Iran’s nuclear program, says Iran has the ability to build a weapon in less than six months. Instead of negotiations, says Albright, the United States should "focus on a range of strategies that essentially have to do with increasing the pressures on Iran through sanctions, through bolstering missile defenses, through building alliances with Arab countries in the region, learning to provide security assurances, and at the same time try to create structures to reduce the risk that these nuclear weapons capabilities will spread in the Middle East."
Iran’s Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said last week that Iran has no intention of building nuclear weapons. Yet the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran’s nuclear program (PDF), as well as a publication by your group (PDF), have clearly contradicted that. What is Iran up to?
One thing many experts agree on is that Iran wants to have a nuclear weapons capability; it wants to be in a position that if it does decide to build nuclear weapons, it can do so relatively rapidly. The recent IAEA report for the first time has expressed the IAEA’s concern that Iran is indeed working on a nuclear weapon itself. In the past they’ve dodged the issue, and the intelligence communities in Europe and the United States have had quite a robust debate on whether Iran has restarted its work on nuclear weapons. The IAEA in this report is saying, "We’re worried that they indeed have." So you have Iran pushing forward on learning how to enrich uranium, sending signals that they can make weapons-grade uranium if they wanted to, and you have more of a consensus that they are working on a nuclear weapon itself. In a sense, the day of reckoning when Iran could make a decision to build nuclear weapons and carry out that decision relatively rapidly is fast approaching. I don’t think it’s 2010, but it could very well be 2011.
And these comments by Khamenei that they’re not interested in nuclear weapons? He can just change his mind?
That’s right. At ISIS we hear from intelligence agencies that there’s no evidence that there’s a decision- making structure around the supreme leader about whether to build nuclear weapons. It could be a situation where indeed Iran is developing the capability--both in terms of making nuclear explosive weapons-grade uranium and being able to build a deliverable, reliable warhead--but no decision has been made on whether to [actually] build those things. Unfortunately, a decision apparatus at the level of supreme leader could be constructed pretty rapidly, and then a decision could be reached pretty rapidly.
The ostensible purpose for this whole nuclear program is to build nuclear power plants. Is there any evidence they’re building these?
It’s very important that the administration make it clear that Iranian nuclear weapons are and will be unacceptable. Even if they get them, the United States must insist that they give them up. Those strategies have been pursued with other countries.
There is evidence that they want to build power plants. The Iranian nuclear program is to serve two purposes. One civil, and one nuclear weapons. The unfortunate reality of gas centrifuge programs is they can do both. One new development on the enrichment side is that the main enrichment site in Natanz has encountered problems and is not living up to the expectations that the Iranians tabled in 2006. It looks as if Iran mass produced centrifuges, installed them too rapidly, built up the numbers to nine thousand and just couldn’t manage to run that many centrifuges successfully.
That unfortunately doesn’t mean that they can’t make enough for a nuclear weapon, because you don’t need that many centrifuges to do that. But if you’re going to produce low-enriched uranium for a nuclear reactor, you need fifty thousand of those centrifuges working well, and I don’t see how Iran can get to that point anymore. Perhaps they’ll have a breakthrough with an advanced centrifuge, but I don’t think they can use these existing centrifuges to ever be able to produce enough low-enriched uranium for a nuclear power program.
Another development in Natanz that came out in this recent IAEA report is that they’re actually starting to disconnect centrifuges. And in at least one case, they’re removing centrifuge cascades. So you don’t have Iran plowing ahead with installing centrifuges at Natanz right now. That could reflect the problems they’re having, but it could also mean that Iran is not at the state where it’s really thinking about commercial production of low-enriched uranium.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the enrichment plant at Fordow, near Qom, that was hidden until it was discovered by the West and Iran confirmed it. Iran says it’s going to build two more such plants, also in mountainous areas. What are they up to?
The Fordow enrichment plant was probably not an enrichment plant Iran intended to reveal any time soon, so I think Iran was set back by its discovery, because it’s an ideal place for Iran to break out and build nuclear weapons. If it was not discovered, they could do it without risking the site being bombed as they break out. Because any breakout using the low-enriched uranium will be discovered by the international inspectors, and then the world will become very alarmed, and the chance of a military strike would increase.
Fordow is big enough to serve military purposes either using low-enriched uranium in a breakout or even natural uranium. Now that it was discovered it’s much less usable. It can’t be destroyed by bombing, because it’s deeply buried under a mountain, but it’s certainly vulnerable to commando strikes. So in essence, if it wants this nuclear weapons capability, it’s going to have to create another secret site. At ISIS, we don’t think they have one now that’s operational. Our indication from looking at the available information is that they probably couldn’t have built two Fordows at the same time. So we think they now need to create another secret site and go to extraordinary lengths to keep it secret.
Last October, Iran supposedly struck a deal with the West that it would transfer its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France and in return get back these isotopes for Tehran’s research facility. This was approved by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and then it got rejected at home. Was Ahmadinejad forced to renege on the deal?
A concern we had over a year ago was that Iran would use the excuse of enrichment for civil purposes of up to 20 percent to go up the next rung in the ladder toward 90 percent weapons-usable enriched uranium. I’m not sure they knew themselves what they wanted. They do need this 19.75 percent enriched uranium fuel for their research reactor, but they also want nuclear weapons capability. The way they would do it--and this again derives from the kind of information that they obtained from the Pakistani A.Q. Kahn--is that you enrich in stages. You start with natural; you go to 3.5 percent enriched. You take the 3.5 percent enriched, and in different centrifuge cascades you make the 20 percent enriched material. Then you take the 20 percent, and you make the 60 percent. You take the 60 and you make the 90. Iran probably wanted to be able to make the 20 percent, and the civil purpose is a nice cover. It’s hard for Israel to bomb that site right now if Iran is just saying, "Look, we’re just making 20 percent enriched uranium for a research reactor to make medical isotopes."
But they’ve moved a lot more of the low-enriched uranium to Natanz than you need for the isotopes right?
You hope that military options are not exercised, because in the end the war may not solve the problem; it may aggravate it.
Certainly. They moved two tons of this 3.5 percent enriched uranium and are now feeding that material in slowly into one cascade at the pilot plant in Natanz. Iran is very hard to read. It never explains itself in any kind of compelling or credible manner, so you have to interpret that they want to send out contradictory messages that people will read in a sense, from their own point of view.
If you’re in the White House, how do you deal with this?
The first thing you have to accept is that negotiations, while worth pursuing, are not going to go anywhere in the near term. Iran is on a steady march. It has a lot of momentum built up as its capabilities improve for making nuclear weapons. The administration has to focus on a range of strategies that essentially have to do with increasing the pressures on Iran through sanctions, through bolstering missile defenses, through building alliances with Arab countries in the region, learning to provide security assurances, and at the same time try to create structures to reduce the risk that these nuclear weapons capabilities will spread in the Middle East.
There’s nothing inevitable that Saudi Arabia will seek nuclear weapons if Iran does, or that Egypt will do that. Those countries can be dissuaded from doing that, but the United States has to start building the security structures and other mechanisms to reduce the chance that those countries will go nuclear. You want to limit Iran’s growing nuclear weapons capability and possibly even its obtaining nuclear weapons.
The other thing is, never give up. You don’t accept Iranian nuclear weapons. It’s very important that the administration make it clear that Iranian nuclear weapons are and will be unacceptable. Even if they get them, the United States must insist that they give them up. Those strategies have been pursued with other countries. It was pursued with South Africa. You don’t always win, and it can take a long time, but the point is you don’t accept Iran’s enrichment program. This is going to be a long-term struggle. You hope that military options are not exercised, because in the end the war may not solve the problem; it may aggravate it. So you want to make sure you can try to do this through containment, through deterrence, through robust alliances, and basically try to contain and deter and weaken Iran at the same time.
Do you think the problem with the Chinese and the Russians can be overcome?
The Russians have made it pretty clear recently they’re not happy with what’s going on in Iran. They’re growing more alarmed at what Iran is doing. The Chinese are going to have to make a decision that they want to be isolated, and certainly they may decide to do that, but there are ways to weaken the linkage between Iran and China that could hurt Iran and so some of those things need to be brought into play. One of which is that some Arab countries that are rich in oil should start to step up their provision of oil to China to weaken China’s dependency, or perceived dependency, on Iranian oil. China is starting to understand, although it’s not nearly enough of an understanding, that the risk of potential disruptions in oil supplies is not in China’s interest. China needs to understand better that growing instability in the Middle East having a big impact on oil supply is going to hurt China’s interest.