In discussing what to do about Iran’s nuclear weapons programs, a disproportionate amount of attention is being focused on getting Tehran to comply with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and to permit the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to carry out more comprehensive inspections of its nuclear facilities. Late last month, the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Britain announced with great fanfare what they considered a hopeful sign: an Iranian promise to suspend uranium enrichment in exchange for the Europeans’ promise to help the regime obtain peaceful nuclear technology. But the reality is that even if Iran were to comply with the promises it made to the Europeans (a big if), it would have only a marginal impact in slowing Tehran’s progress toward developing nuclear weapons.
The problem lies in the fact that international community and the IAEA are too focused on Iran’s covert nuclear program, and are giving insufficient attention to its potentially much more dangerous overt nuclear program. In an analysis paper, entitled “Iran: Breaking Out Without Quite Breaking the Rules?”, the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC) reaches this chilling conclusion about the radical Islamic regime’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons: “Iran can come within weeks of acquiring a large arsenal of weapons without breaking the rules of the NPT or IAEA and perhaps do so even sooner than when it might get its first covert bomb.”
According to the NPEC (one of nation’s leading research organizations on nuclear proliferation issues), “if Iran’s overt program all stays on schedule, Tehran, in fact, could get a large arsenal of nuclear weapons — 50 to 75 bombs by 2006.” It could do this by operating its Russian-built light-water reactor (LWR) at Bushehr for 12-15 months. It could then chemically separate the plutonium from the spent fuel and convert it into metal. “Metal conversion and the chemical separation of the plutonium from the spent fuel might take an additional 12-16…weeks beyond the time Iran extracts the spent fuel from the LWR,” the NPEC analysis observes. “Under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, all of this is legal. It is also legal under the NPT for Iran to make as many implosion devices (sans fissile cores) as one might want and have them ready to receive metal plutonium cores. At this point, some time by or before 2006, Iran could break out of the NPT and have a large arsenal of weapons in a matter of weeks or days.”
By contrast, Tehran’s efforts to use centrifuges to enrich natural uranium to weapons grade (a major focus of the IAEA’s current inspections efforts) play a secondary role, functioning as a nuclear insurance policy: they could produce a much smaller number of atomic weapons for Iran— 2-6 a year by the end of 2006, the NPEC concludes. The bottom line is that we may be much closer to an Iranian A-bomb (which could pose a tremendous danger to international peace and stability) than policy-makers and the public realize.