Will Iran Get a Bomb—or Be Bombed Itself—This Year?

Placing a bet on today's biggest foreign policy issue.
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Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points to a red line he has drawn on the graphic of a bomb at the 67th United Nations General Assembly. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

That Iran's nuclear challenge poses the most urgent threat to peace and security today is widely agreed across the national security community, and many argue that 2013 will be the decisive year for this issue. As former Mossad head Ephraim Halevy notes, Israel "has long believed that mid-2013 would be an hour of decision in its dealings with Iran." Henry Kissinger has recently warned that "we are in the last year where you can say a negotiation can conceivably succeed.... If nothing happens, the president will have to make some really tough decisions."

There can be no question whatsoever that in 2013 Iran could get a bomb; there is also no question that Iran could be bombed. But my best judgement is that in 2013 Iran will not get a bomb, and Iran will not be bombed. To be precise, I am prepared to bet $51 of my money against $49 of those who want to bet that by December 31, 2013, Iran will either have a nuclear weapon or have been the target of a major bombing attack.

My conclusion is not meant as a counsel of complacency. Anyone who believes that there is a 20 percent chance that Iran could either get a bomb or be bombed within the next year should recognize that the consequences of either outcome drive this issue to the top of the foreign policy agenda, not only for Israel but for the United States.

Assessing Iran's nuclear challenge requires confronting an array of complex technical issues. Advocates who find these details too demanding elevate their arguments to higher level abstractions. On the other hand, too many specialists take a deep dive into the technicalities in a way that produces fog, only to emerge in the end with recommendations that they claim follow from unfathomable analysis. This essay seeks to walk a fine line between technical realities, on the one hand, and policy debate, on the other. What follows are the answers to 12 key questions about Iran's nuclear challenge:

1. When will Iran get a nuclear weapon?

My unambiguous answer is: it depends. Specifically, it depends on 1) Iran's decision to do so; 2) the path Iran chooses to a bomb; 3) the obstacles Iran faces along each path to a bomb; and 4) the costs and benefits to Iran of acquiring a bomb versus stopping at a base camp on the path to a bomb.

On the first point, I agree with the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community, as stated by Director of National Intelligence Clapper in March 2013: "We assess Iran is developing nuclear capabilities to enhance its security, prestige, and regional influence and give it the ability to develop nuclear weapons, should a decision be made to do so. We do not know if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons."

When will Iran get a nuclear bomb? My personal best bet is: not in 2013.

2. Where does Iran stand on the road to a nuclear bomb?

Tables 1 and 2 present graphically a "staircase" to making a bomb and note the steps Iran has already climbed.

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Table 1

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Table 2

This reminds us starkly that Iran has overcome the most significant obstacle to making a bomb: it has mastered the technologies to enrich uranium indigenously. It has operated production lines to produce a stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU) that, after further enrichment, would provide the cores for more than six nuclear bombs. Since 2010 it has been enriching uranium to a level of 20 percent (medium enriched uranium or MEU). As a technical fact, that means it has done 90 percent of the work required to produce the highly enriched uranium (HEU) needed for an explodable nuclear bomb.

In a football metaphor, Iran has marched down the field into our red zone and now stands just 10 yards away from our goal line (Table 3).

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As the graph of Iran's accumulation of enriched uranium demonstrates, despite newspaper headlines about a series of hostile attacks and sanctions, the trend line has progressed, uninterrupted (Table 4).

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Today, Iran has accumulated seven bombs' worth of low- and medium-enriched uranium. Today, Iran is operating more than 10,000 centrifuges, producing an additional 230 kilograms of LEU and 15 kilograms of MEU monthly. When it brings all of its installed centrifuges into operation, it will triple its MEU production rate. It has also announced the installation of several thousand more advanced centrifuges, at least three times more efficient than the current generation.

3. On the current path, using the known facilities, when is the earliest that Iran could get a nuclear bomb?

From where it stands today, using known LEU or MEU at known facilities, Iran would require several months to build a bomb. Estimates for how long Iran would take to produce HEU and manufacture a bomb, sometimes down to the exact day, are announced by pundits with a deceptive confidence. Roughly speaking, however, from today my best judgment is that it would take Iran at least one to two months to produce the material for its first bomb, using its declared facilities, and at least another month to fabricate this material into a weapon.

The more important related question is: could Iran produce enough HEU for its first bomb using its known facilities before the U.S. discovered it? U.S. intelligence believes that the answer is clearly no. IAEA inspectors visit these facilities every week or two. Moreover, from press reports, it is evident that they are not governments' only source of information about Iran's program. The U.S. would know about diversion of material or operation of facilities to produce HEU well before that effort was completed.

Presented by

Graham Allison is the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.

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