Iran's Nuclear Clock Is Not Slowing

By Gary Milhollin
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This post is part of our forum on Jeffrey Goldberg's September cover story detailing the prospects and implications of an Israeli strike against Iran. Follow the debate here.

Patrick Clawson makes a number of interesting points about the way America and Israel view Iran's nuclear effort. But most of these points proceed from a single assumption -- that Iran's "nuclear clock has slowed." That phrase is now one of the Obama administration's favorites when arguing that Iran's progress toward nuclear-weapon capability has diminished, and that more time is available to convince Iran to change its ways.

Sad to say, the assumption is false. The clock is still ticking, vigorously. By the beginning of this year, Iran had produced enough low-enriched uranium to fuel two nuclear weapons if the uranium were further enriched to weapon-grade. By now, Iran has added almost enough of this low-enriched uranium to fuel a third weapon, and by the middle of next year (at the current production rate), it will probably produce enough to fuel a fourth. To make matters worse, in February, the Iran started to further enrich this uranium to a higher level, a level at which the Islamic Republic will have accomplished 90 percent of the work needed to raise its enrichment to weapon-grade. All this is happening at a time when Iran is successfully fielding ballistic missiles that can carry a nuclear payload far enough to reach Israel.

To allay fears about Iran's progress, the administration is claiming that it could take Tehran as much as a year to raise its low-enriched uranium to weapon-grade. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), while acknowledging that it could, indeed, take this long, says also that it could take as little as three months. Theoretical calculations based on Iran's known capacity support the IAEA's lower figure. There is also the risk that Iran has one or more secret centrifuge sites (it was caught building one recently). If even one such site exists, the administration's estimate -- based on the sites that we know exist -- becomes meaningless.

But why quibble about how long the final phase of bomb making might take? Instead, we should keep our eyes on the big fact here, which is that Iran is fast approaching the status of a "virtual" nuclear weapon state -- one with the ability to kick out UN inspectors and build a handful of nuclear warheads. This is not an argument for bombing Iran, by Israel or anyone else. But it is a warning -- a warning that we must confront the growth of Iran's nuclear capability, and not be lulled into imagining that it's not real.

The debate continues here.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/08/irans-nuclear-clock-is-not-slowing/61838/