Assessing the Iranian Nuke Threat

David Albright, a physicist and former United Nations nuclear inspector, is one of the world's most respected experts on rogue nuclear programs. The president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a Washington-based nongovernmental organization, Albright is especially noted for his close tracking of Iran's program. On Monday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Tehran, in defiance of the United Nations, was now capable of producing "industrial-scale" enrichment of uranium. "With great honor, I declare that as of today our dear country has joined the nuclear club of nations," Ahmadinejad said. While Iranian officials continue to deny that they are pursuing enrichment to make nuclear weapons, U.S. and European governments believe that is clearly Tehran's intention. NEWSWEEK's Michael Hirsh asked Albright about Ahmadinejad's announcement and his assessment of Iran's nuclear program. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Tell us what this announcement means.
David Albright:
Iran has installed about a thousand centrifuges underground, distributed in six or seven "cascades," and Ahmadinejad is declaring today that this is "industrial-scale" enrichment. A year ago, they were saying the goal was 3,000 centrifuges, so he has changed the benchmark somewhat. But I would be surprised if they started enrichment today. They have led governments in the European Union and the IAEA [the International Atomic Energy Agency] to believe that they would not.

How long have the Iranians been working up to this moment? And what does this say about how close Iran is to a nuclear weapon?
They're still a couple of years away, in a worst-case scenario, from being able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. Ahmadinejad's announcement today is an attempt to "put facts on the ground" [to make it more difficult for the world to challenge Iran's right to its nuclear program, and to raise the stakes for any future negotiation].

This began when the Iranians broke the suspension early last year [In January 2006, Iran removed the IAEA's seals on 52 centrifuges at its pilot plant, and a month later Iran began to enrich at a small number of centrifuges at its underground Natanz facility. That brought to a halt the self-imposed suspension that had been in place since October 2003]. So Iran has moved forward in an aggressive way, and the pace has been faster than expected. Certainly Iran still needs to demonstrate that it can enrich uranium in these thousand centrifuges, but this has exceeded the expectations put forward in the [U.S.] National Intelligence Estimate that Iran couldn't have a nuclear weapon until 2010 to 2015.

How closely can we track where Iran is? Recently the deputy director general of the IAEA wrote a letter to Tehran asking the Iranians to agree to the installation of remote cameras at Natanz. Any response?
Not yet. The IAEA is the best source of intelligence on Iran's nuclear program. But Iran has weakened the inspections it can do [under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to which Iran is still a signatory], and it has been Iran's pattern to resist those inspections, and increasingly to withdraw from voluntary obligations. For example, Iran promised the IAEA it would notify the inspectors if it started construction of a new nuclear facility, but a couple of weeks later Iran took that back. Iran went back to the old condition of inspections, which is that, "Six months before the nuclear material is introduced we'll tell you."

So is Iran moving toward being able to build a weapon without us knowing about it?
It depends. They're probably going to need to install 3,000 centrifuges to have the capability to produce nuclear weapons.… They'll probably need another year to do that. That will be enough to make enough highly enriched uranium to make one bomb, or perhaps two bombs, a year.

What can be done about it now?
If Iran does not start enriching, then negotiations are still possible. If it does start enriching underground, then negotiations are much less likely. The only thing that can stop Iran is Iran itself. There's no way to stop them short of bombing the facility, which is highly unlikely and certainly not desirable. Iran's centrifuge facilities are too dispersed. And we don't know where they keep their new centrifuges or have new facilities under construction.

So what should the solution be?
Probably the solution is to find a way to finesse this condition [put forward by European negotiators] of suspension, so talks can start. [Iran would agree to re-suspend its program in return for U.S. and European agreement to suspend the sanctions process.] If this isn't negotiated soon, then the start-up of enrichment could happen any day, and after that negotiations become much more difficult.