Iran’s Nuclear Program "Quite Advanced"

September 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
David Albright joins Hari Sreenivasan from Boston to discuss how close Iran is to developing a nuclear weapon, as well as Iranian President Hasan Rouhani's op-ed in the Washington Post. Albright is the founder and President of the non-profit Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS).

HARI SREENIVASAN: World leaders will be arriving here in New York for the start of next week’s U.N. General Assembly meeting.

Speculation is already rampant that President Obama will meet with the new Iranian president in an effort to resolve the long stalemate over Iran’s nuclear program. Yesterday, a deputy national security adviser told reporters, “We do believe there is time and space for diplomacy,” something the Israeli government is much more skeptical about. How soon could Iran produce nuclear weapons? For more about this we’re joined now from Boston by David Albright, a physicist and founder and president of the non-profit Institute for Science and International Security, so David, my first question is, what is the state of Iran’s nuclear program today?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Iran’s program is quite advanced. I mean, if Iran decided today to make a nuclear weapon, it could probably do so. It would probably take many months and –and they’d probably run in to problems. Now that effort would be detected by the inspectors, because the first thing they’d have to do is make what we call weapon grade uranium, the key nuclear explosive material and it would take long enough that– that production would be detected long before it goes. And in fact, that’s really the key thing right now, is that we believe at ISIS that even though Iran could make a nuclear weapon if it wanted to, it’s deterred from doing that now because of its fear of military strikes by either Israel or the United States or both if Iran took steps to make the bomb.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So if they can make a bomb, can they deliver it?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well there it’s trickier. There isn’t a lot of information. The International Atomic Energy Agency- the inspectors that are regularly in Iran have published information suggesting that Iran knows how to make a crude nuclear explosive, but it may not have learned enough to make a weapon that can be delivered by missile and they need considerable amount of time, a year, two years more to be able to master that process. So if Iran did decide to make a bomb, then it could do so, or it could deliver that by truck, or plane. But unlikely to be deliverable by missile unless it takes that additional year or so to master the warhead technology.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In an op-ed the Iranian president wrote in the Washington Post, they said their pursuit of nuclear is for energy interests only, does the country have an infrastructure to take this in?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Certainly Iran has a legitimate reason to pursue nuclear power and they bought a nuclear power reactor from Russia in order to produce electricity for civilian use. The question is, why do they need all these other facilities that enrich uranium, a reactor that really looks more designed to make plutonium than to do anything else- and plutonium again is a nuclear explosive material that can be used to make the bomb. So there’s a lot of questions, there’s also a lot of evidence that Iran did seek nuclear weapons. The U.S. intelligence community, judged with high confidence that prior to 2004, Iran had a nuclear weapons program. That assessment is shared by our closest allies Britain, France and Germany and also Israel, the International Atomic Energy Agency has additional evidence suggesting that Iran’s work on nuclear weapons continued after 2003, so, there’s evidence that Iran has worked a great deal on nuclear weapons and that – when it says it never did, it’s simply not telling the truth. And so there is a lot of suspicion that they will try to do so again in the future.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So is there time for diplomacy here or is this the opportune window?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: I think there’s time for diplomacy, but, Iran has to stop increasing its capabilities, particularly the number of gas centrifuges that can enrich uranium, it’s installing them at a rapid rate and at some point next year, at ISIS we have assessed that by mid-2014, they would reach appear capability, if not stopped, that they could actually break out and make enough weapon-grade uranium for a bomb and it very likely would not be detected by the inspectors or western intelligence agencies.

HARI SREENIVASAN: David Albright thanks so much for your time.