What to Think About Iran's Nuclear Program Right Now

The announcement by the now-former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, that sanctions and subterfuge (including and especially the Stuxnet worm) have delayed Iran's nuclear program  has caused many people, yours truly included, to breathe a little bit easier about this crisis (though Dagan, apparently under pressure, partially retracted his sunny intelligence estimate). Iran's intentions and ambitions haven't changed, of course -- this is a crucial point --  but any delay is a good thing. Last June, when I wrote an article about Israel and Iran, I placed the chances of an Israeli strike on Iran this year (2011) at greater 50 percent, if sanctions and so-called foiling operations -- sabotage, assassination, and the like -- didn't work. So far, though, the sanctions regime put in place by President Obama has so far worked better than a lot of people thought they would (me included) and Stuxnet has crippled twenty percent of Iran's centrifuges.

So I was surprised to read the following observation in an Aluf Benn piece in Ha'aretz, in which he makes reference to Dagan's retirement, and the retirement of the Israeli army's chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, as well. Both men are thought to be opposed to a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran. Benn wrote, "(T)he opponents of an attack on Iran are retiring one by one, broadening the premier's freedom of action."

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Which raises the question, the premier's freedom of action for what? If Iran is really three or four years away from crossing the nuclear threshold, why would there even be a thought of an attack in the coming period of time? I called a high-level Israeli source, one of the sources for my article last year, and asked him what this could mean. "Don't forget that the people who will make the decision are Bibi and (Ehud) Barak," the defense minister, he said. "Not Dagan, not Gabi, not anyone else. Iran is set back for the moment. It's a very significant problem that Iran has. But this situation can change quickly and Bibi knows this."

For now, I am fairly confident that Iran's technical problems will continue, and it has become harder and harder for Iran to get the parts and raw materials for the next-generation centrifuges that it seeks. The Obama Administration is worried that Dagan's comments will cause other nations to relax their stance on Iran (Dagan's words may have had a Heisenbergian effect; the act of observing Iran's problems, especially those due to sanctions, may cause the sanctions to weaken over time). Bibi, from what I understand, is worried about sanctions, and also worried that Iran's difficulties are temporary.

For an in-depth discussion of the Iran program's technical issues, see the new article by David Albright, the former U.N. weapons inspector, and Andrea Stricker. It's all interesting; here's one important observation:

With so many problems in the first generation of centrifuges, Iran has said its future depends on the advanced centrifuges now under development at Natanz and elsewhere. But their large-scale use may be delayed.  The United States estimates that Iran again faces raw material shortages, specifically of high-quality carbon fiber. Iran may have enough components to build about 1,000 advanced centrifuges. Some of these centrifuges are five times more powerful than the IR-1 centrifuge, so 1,000 advanced centrifuges would have the same output as 5,000 IR-1s -and be far easier to hide in a secret site.
Iran announced plans to build 10 new enrichment plants shortly after revelations about the secret Fordow enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom in 2009. Construction of the first plant is scheduled for March 2011; it could be ready for centrifuges next year.
Though they detail Iran's various setbacks, Albright and Stricker suggest scenarios in which Iran could build a bomb by next year. It's not particularly comforting reading.
Technically, Iran could decide to build a nuclear weapon now using the Natanz enrichment plant. The United States has estimated that Iran could produce enough weapon-grade uranium for a bomb in about one year.  ISIS estimates Iran could halve that time to six months with advance preparation, and with somewhat better operation of the IR-1 centrifuges. U.N. experts say Iran knows enough now to build a crude weapon but faces problems in missile delivery. 
At the same time, there is wide international consensus behind the U.S. estimate that Iran is unlikely to use the Natanz plant to dash to weapons in 2011 or 2012.  It would have to divert a stock of low-enriched uranium under safeguards.  Iran could try to delay inspectors' access to the enrichment plant, but the inspectors are highly likely to detect this diversion within two months, long before Iran could produce enough weapon-grade uranium for a bomb.  The resulting international condemnation, and possible military strikes, would likely deter Iran from even trying to use Natanz.
In the longer term, thwarting Iran's growing options to develop a nuclear weapon remains a major challenge. If Iran built a secret site using more advanced centrifuges, it could be ready to build a bomb as soon as 2012 or 2013.