How close is Iran to a nuclear weapon?

November 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
David Albright, a physicist and founder and president of the non-profit Institute for Science and International Security, gives a scientific and foreign policy perspective on the talks in Geneva.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Of course whenever there’s any discussion about Iran’s nuclear program the question arises of how close are the Iranians to developing a nuclear weapon. 

We are joined by David Albright, founder and president of the non-profit Institute for Science and International Security. He’s a leading expert on Iran’s nuclear program. 

I think in the background of all these talks, all these delegates and diplomats have be wondering how close is Iran and will these sanctions work?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Iran has been greatly Increasing its nuclear capability over the last two years. And you don’t think Iran has made a decision to build nuclear weapons, but if they did, and if they use their current stockpiles of low enriched uranium, and the number of centrifuges they have installed at their two enrichment sites, then they could break out in as little — break out and have enough weapon-grade uranium for a bomb in as little as  one and one and a half months. It could take them longer if things went wrong.

It would take them longer to build the bomb itself. Estimates vary. It’s a murky area to make assessments in. It can vary from a couple of months to a year. Do they want crude device they can test underground or just possess or do they want a warhead for a ballistic missile and the latter would take more than a year to accomplish.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Without getting into a physics lessons there’s different gradations of uranium and what happens to it and how it’s processed and whether it’s for nuclear power or nuclear weapon?

DAVID ALBRIGHT:  That’s right. But the problem is that the same 3.5% enriched uranium produced for a nuclear power reactor can be further enriched up to 90%, the enrichment level you use in a nuclear weapon. So it’s 3.5% in which enrichment is quite a ways, 70% of the way to 90%. This isn’t linear and a lot of work goes into that first 3.5%. It’s one of the dilemmas of this. There’s no clear benchmark or action one can take that would provide a guarantee that it wouldn’t later use the enriched uranium to further enrich it up to weapon-grade.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  What about the delivery capabilities? That’s primarily why the reason so many people in the neighborhood, so to speak, are concerned.

DAVID ALBRIGHT:   The likelihood if Iran  was going to break out, if it decided to do that it would be seeking , at least in my view, probably just a crude nuclear explosive. That’s what North Korea did. That’s what other countries did. South Africa. They just try to get one that isn’t that deliverable, Certainly not deliverable by missiles. And that they would be looking to just get across the threshold and establish that. It could be through leaking that it has nuclear weapons; it could be conducting a full scale underground test. That’ would be the priority. More than likely they wouldn’t need a full year to have a nuclear explosive device they could test underground or claim they have — that they are now a nuclear power.

HARI SREENIVASAN:    How much does that change their negotiating posture or the posture of the world negotiating with them?

DAVID ALBRIGHT:  If they move to get nuclear weapons, there’s a very good chance that there would be a war. President Obama has made it clear that he would prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, Israel’s threshold for attack is much lower than Iran moving to get a nuclear weapon.

So I think if Iran did that, it’s going to either have to do it in a way it was not detected before they succeed. And particularly to produce the weapon-grade uranium for a bomb. I mean that’s really their long pole the in the tent. Once they have that they can move it and it’s almost Impossible to find it and the options to stop Iran at that point will become much more complicated. 

Before they have the weapon-grade uranium for a bomb, sites can be enriched for a bomb. If you do it in time you can stop Iran from succeeding. Iran may be trying to develop the capability where it could break out and produce enough weapon-grade uranium for a bomb before they are detected and that’s one of the clocks ticking in this negotiation. Our assessment is they can reach that point as soon as mid-2014.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  David Albright for The Institute of Science and International Security.