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.

The Iranians are aware that, as the U.S. Director of National Intelligence noted in March 2013, they "could not divert safeguarded material and produce a weapon-worth of HEU before this activity is discovered." As long as this is the case, the risk of a sudden, undetected "break out" to the bomb is low.

4. How else might Iran get the bomb in 2013?

Knowing that that any attempt to "break out" to a bomb using its declared facilities would be discovered and interrupted decisively by the U.S. or Israel, Iran's leaders are certain to have considered alternatives. The next path they must have considered is to "sneak out" using secret, undeclared facilities.

We should remember that Iran's current declared enrichment facilities were previously secret -- until they were exposed by foreign intelligence services. Had they not been discovered, one or both of them could already have produced the HEU for Iran's first bomb. Many argue that Tehran must be wary of constructing further secret facilities, fearing that it could be caught by foreign intelligence services yet again. But it is certainly possible that they have done so and thus have an additional path to the bomb.

The defining differences between the "break out" scenario on which most observers focus, and the more likely "sneak out" option are two. First, in breaking out, Iran would take actions that "break the glass," sounding an alarm; in sneaking out, it would create a fog of confusion beneath which it would divert LEU or MEU to a secret site for further enrichment. It has been suggested, for example, that Iran could stage an explosion that releases radioactivity at Natanz, blame Israel for an attack, declare the area quarantined to inspectors and, under this cover, move LEU or MEU. Second, sneaking out requires a secret site to which the material would be moved and where centrifuges would produce HEU that would be shaped into uranium metal and used for a bomb.

Table 5 reminds us that in addition to building a bomb, overtly or covertly, there is a third possible path to a bomb.

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Iran could buy one. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates famously said, North Korea has demonstrated its readiness to "sell anything they have to anybody who has the cash to buy it." Unfortunately, North Korea has already established a precedent for such a deal. It sold Syria a plutonium-producing Yongbyon-style reactor that would by now have produced enough plutonium for Syria's first bomb -- if Israel had not bombed it in 2007. If the Iranian Supreme Leader concluded that nuclear weapons were the only way to guarantee the survival of his regime, buying a bomb for a billion dollars could be an attractive bargain.

Are such scenarios very likely in 2013? No. Are there technical reasons why either could not occur? No.

5. How has the U.S. attempted to prevent Iran's acquiring a nuclear bomb?

For the past decade, the principal strategy followed by the U.S. government under both Republican and Democratic administrations has been to declare demands: Iran must not do A; Iran will not be permitted to do B (after Iran has done A); Iran cannot do Z. Despite the limits of a "strategy" that consists essentially of repeating one's demands, this remains an American favorite.

In addition, the U.S. has led an effort to impose economic pain on Iran through sanctions. Initially, these were largely symbolic. In the past two years, however, the U.S. and key allies have begun taking actions that are actually biting (see Tables 6 and 7).

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Table 6

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Table 7

If one believes what one reads in the papers, the program of sanctions has been complemented by a series of covert actions including cyberwar or cyber-sabotage that included Stuxnet, Duqu, and Flame, assassinations of key scientists in the Iranian nuclear program, and unnatural explosions at key Iranian missile and steel plants.

6. Is a deal that stops Iran short of a bomb possible? Is it possible to identify the terms of a deal that would be better for both Iran and the United States than either attacking Iran or acquiescing in an Iranian bomb?

My answer is unambiguously yes. Having been engaged in sustained consultations with U.S. government policymakers on this issue for most of the past decade, I can identify at least two occasions on which, viewed simply from the perspective of the recognized national interests of both parties, there seems to me to have been a zone of agreement. In 2003-2004, after the U.S. had toppled Saddam in three weeks without breaking a sweat, Iran feared that it might be next and appeared eager to accept an arrangement in which its enrichment activity would be constrained to a single cascade and subject to full transparency. Since 2009, the U.S. and Iran have been circling around potential terms of an agreement that would cap all enrichment at 5 percent; stop expansion of facilities for enriching to 20 percent; swap current materials enriched to 20 percent for fuel assemblies for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR); provide maximum transparency; and include credible threats to impose catastrophic costs on Iran if the agreement were violated. Each time an agreement appeared within reach, however, one or the other inserts yet another demand or consideration that scuppers the deal.

Imagine that this issue today were given to Metternich and Talleyrand in 1815, or Kissinger and Zhou Enlai in 1972. They would find reaching agreement easier than the negotiations they concluded successfully.

7. Why then is it hard to reach an agreement?

Failure has been more a function of confusion and division within the parties than between them. In my course at Harvard, I try to help students understand that making one agreement in international relations requires three deals: first a deal within party A; then a deal within party B; and then sufficient overlap between each party's minimum requirements that diplomacy can reach agreement. When Iran was motivated to offer terms that the U.S. should have found acceptable in 2003-2004, the U.S. was unwilling to accept them. When the U.S. was prepared to make a deal in 2009, Iran was too divided to accept it.

The outcome of Iran's June election presents a new window of opportunity. Even in the constrained, semi-democratic Iranian political system, the population's decisive preference for a new approach was clear. President-elect Rouhani has stated clearly that, while "extremists on both sides are determined to maintain the state of hostility and hatred between the two states, logic says that there should be a change of direction in order to turn a new page in this unstable relationship and minimize the state of hostility and mistrust between the two countries." While the sharp partisan divide in Washington means that any compromise by the U.S. will be loudly opposed, President Obama, having won a second term, has considerable room to maneuver.

8. When will we come to the crossroad at which a president will be forced to choose between attacking and acquiescing?

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will continue to press for an early decision, arguing that sanctions are ineffective and only give Iran more time to expand its nuclear program. Expect President Obama, key members of the Israeli national security establishment, and others to continue arguing that sanctions and covert actions must be allowed more time to work, and that new sanctions and covert actions will be even more effective.

At the UN last September, Netanyahu drew a clear red line, near to but short of a nuclear bomb, and threatened that crossing it would trigger an attack on Iran. But his speech revealed his own frustration about the predicament in which he finds himself. He knows that Israel and the U.S. have been complicit in a drama in which they have repeatedly drawn red lines, asserted that Iran would never be allowed to cross them but, after watching Iran cross the line, retreated to the next operational obstacle on the path to a bomb, and declared it to be the real red line (see Table 8).

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Netanyahu himself was sounding the alarm as long ago as 1992, when he suggested Iran was "3 to 5 years" from a bomb; in 1996, he warned Congress that the "deadline for preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb is getting extremely close." Since then, Israeli politicians and officials have announced numerous "last chances" and "points of no return." In 2003, the head of Israeli military intelligence forecast that Iran would soon cross the "point of no return" at which "it would require no further outside aid to bring the program to fruition." A year later, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned that Iran would cross this point if it were allowed to develop a "technical capability" for operating an enrichment facility. As Iran approached that capability, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz described the tipping point not as the capability, but as the "enrichment of uranium" itself. Simultaneously, the head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, warned that Iran would reach this technological point of no return by the end of 2005. After Iran began enriching uranium, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert drew a new line in 2006 as enrichment "beyond a limited number of cascades."

As Iran has crossed successive red lines, Israel has retreated to the next and, in effect, hit the repeat button. From conversion of uranium; to production of LEU; to a stockpile of LEU sufficient (after further enrichment) to make one nuclear bomb; to a stockpile sufficient for a half dozen bombs; to enrichment beyond LEU to MEU; to the operation of centrifuges enriching MEU at the deep underground, formerly covert facility at Fordow, that created a "zone of immunity"; to achievement of an undefined "nuclear weapons capability," Israel's warnings have grown louder -- but no more effective. That these "points of no return" have been passed is a brute fact and hard to ignore.

This does not mean that these Israeli warnings were, or are, unfounded. The children's story about the boy who cried wolf is often cited to counsel against exaggeration of threat. We should remember how the story ends: The wolf actually arrives, and eats the boy.

Iran's long-delayed reactor at Arak may become operational in late 2014, providing Iran a plutonium path to a bomb. Once it is loaded with fuel, which on the announced schedule will be in early 2014, an attack on the reactor would spread radioactive materials. Iran's accumulated stockpile of MEU and deployment of advanced centrifuges will also continue shortening the timeline for a dash to a bomb. Nonetheless, neither is likely to have material consequences in 2013 for the calculus of risk described earlier.

This fall, if and when negotiations fail to produce a breakthrough, expect Netanyahu to reject the Obama administration's (and much of his own security establishment's) arguments and press vigorously for a U.S. attack, threatening to act unilaterally otherwise. At that point, unless a major diplomatic initiative shows promise, I predict that there will be a more intense exploration of options short of attack for slowing or stopping Iran's nuclear progress. I have identified at least three such options, and there are no doubt others. Watch this space.

9. What will trigger an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities? What will be the key drivers?

Most analysts' answers to this question focus on external factors, particularly Iranian actions that increase the threat. The most recent retired red line was former Israeli Defense Minister Barak's "zone of immunity." In last fall's famous UN speech, Netanyahu drew onto a cartoon bomb what he said was a new, clear red line: one bombs-worth of MEU. (Israeli officials later clarified that this amount was equivalent to 250 kg of MEU in hexafluoride form.) In the months since then, Iran has made the strategic decision to avoid breaching this line, at least for the time being, by converting most of its new MEU hexafluoride into oxide fuel for the TRR.

Nonetheless, in placing bets about Israeli action, or inaction, internal factors will be as important as external factors. The blunt truth is that there will be little material change in the risks Israel faces from Iran in the near term if Iran continues its current, careful, cautious, deliberate but steady advance toward the nuclear goal line. Nor will there be significant material change in the impact Israeli airstrikes can have on Iran's nuclear facilities in the months between today and December 31, 2013.

For perspective, recall Prime Minister Menachem Begin's decision to attack Iraq's nuclear facility at Osirak in 1981. In that case, the principal trigger was not a change in the facts on the ground in Iraq, but Begin's fear that he would no longer be Prime Minister. He believed that he would be succeeded by Shimon Peres, and that Peres would not have what it took to do what was required, when it was necessary. The runner-up in the last Israeli election, Yair Lapid, has already declared that he will be the next Prime Minister. In assessing prospects of an Israeli attack, power shifts in Netanyahu's cabinet will be more important than the latest IAEA report.

10. What would trigger a U.S. attack on Iran's nuclear facilities?

Were the U.S. to discover unambiguous evidence that Iran had begun breaking out on a timetable that could be stopped by an American attack, an attack would be likely. Aware of this threat, Iran is highly unlikely to take such an action.

A more likely trigger of U.S. military action against Iran would be an Israeli airstrike prompting an Iranian response that threatened U.S. interests, including the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz or Saudi Arabia itself. The U.S. has made clear to the Supreme Leader that any attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz would cross a "red line" and invite an American military response.

11. What is the most likely future for 2013: a bomb or be bombed?

My best bet is that Iran will proceed cautiously, carefully, and steadily. Indeed, I agree with Israeli Chief of Staff Benny Gantz's assessment that Iran is "going step by step to the place where it will be able to decide whether to manufacture a nuclear bomb. It hasn't yet decided whether to go the extra mile." In my view, the Obama Administration will pursue every alternative to attack, recognizing the costs and risks.

A bomb or be bombed? Both are real possibilities; either could occur without violating any laws of science and engineering or observed political behavior. But my best judgment is that neither is likely in 2013. If required to answer yes or no: no bomb; no attack.

12. Why could I be wrong?

After having heard (or made) a convincing argument for a controversial conclusion, America's greatest Secretary of State, George Marshall, would frequently ask: "Just one more question: Why could I be wrong?"

While the future is strictly unknown, some futures are more easily predictable than others. Bets about whether Israel will attack Iran before the end of this year hinge on choices made by one individual or by a small group. Regardless of the strong opposition from his military and security establishment, and his own president, and the fact that 80 percent of Israelis oppose a unilateral attack without U.S. support, if Prime Minister Netanyahu ultimately decides to attack Iran, then he is likely to be able to do so. This would depend on Netanyahu's ability to convince his new "security cabinet," made up of eight ministers, on the merits of an attack. So far, it is unclear how new members such as Yair Lapid or Tzipi Livni would cast their votes.

Betting about outcomes based on one person's calculations of an uncertain future is inherently vulnerable to error. Nonetheless, I have registered my bet.


This article develops arguments initially presented at the Aspen Strategy Group.

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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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