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How Close is Iran to Having Nuclear Weapons?

Don't Panic: Your War Questions Answered



According to Seymour Hersh's "The Iran Plans," from the April 17 issue of the New Yorker, Iran is very close to acquiring nuclear weapons from the US -- that is, it's close to being on the receiving end of weapons the US is targeting at Iranian nuclear and military facilities.

But how close is Iran to acquiring nuclear weapons of its own?

That's the gazillion-dollar foreign policy question these days. To find out the answer, I consulted as many expert sources as I could.

First, I e-mailed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran at to ask him. If anyone's gonna know, it would be Ahmadinejad, right? He didn't respond to my inquiry, though.

Next, I telephoned Iran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The conversation went like this:

(Ringing phone)

Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Baleh? (That's Persian for 'yes.')

Me: So, when are you all gonna have nuclear weapons?

(Awkward silence, then click)

I wonder if they have caller ID.

After those two failed attempts, I decided I'd telephone the one expert Iranian commentator who always takes my calls.

"Dad, when do you think Iran's gonna have nuclear weapons?" I asked.

"I have a feeling they're not close at all. Another 10 years," he said. "I believe that they're exaggerating their accomplishments so far. Typical Iranians."

My dad's not really an expert on Iran. He just happens to have been born and raised there. Nevertheless, his belief that Iran isn't really the imminent threat that people are making it out to be is shared by many who make their living monitoring nuclear proliferation.

David Kay, the former U.N. weapons inspector whom President Bush sent to Iraq in 2003 to find WMD that weren't there, recently had this to say to the BBC about Iran:

"People don't note that the Iranians have taken longer and achieved less than any other country that attempted clandestinely to produce nuclear weapons. So I think it's wrong to paint the situation in Iran as 'Iran's on the brink of becoming a nuclear power.' Iran is on the brink of learning a lot of important lessons about nuclear weapons, but their program has not moved ahead with the determination and speed that should give a state of panic right now."

Mr. Kay is being polite. In their Center for Strategic & International Studies report titled "Iranian Nuclear Weapons? The Uncertain Nature of Iran's Nuclear Programs," Anthony H. Cordesman and Khalid R. Al-Rodhan point out that a monkey with a Magic 8-Ball would have done a better job predicting Iran's nuclear progress than most of the so-called experts have thus far.

They didn't actually use the phrase "monkey with a Magic 8-Ball." Their exact words were, "[T]he majority of estimates during the 1990s predicted that Iran would acquire nuclear weapons by 2000." Same thing though, right?

Cordesman and Al-Rodhan go on to note that "most experts" believe that Iran already has everything it needs for a nuke except fissile material, the bomb's explosive bit. Estimates of when Iran will have a working nuke vary according to how soon the estimator thinks Iran will have enough fissile material.

The US estimates that Iran could be a nuclear power in five to 10 years. International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Mohammed ElBaradei thinks it could be sooner. In January 2005, he estimated that Iran is only one or two years from weapon-hood.

David Albright and Corey Hinderstein of the Institute For Science and Security estimate that Iran's enrichment program is working at a pace that will give the country a working nuke by 2009. Their timetable doesn't take screw-ups and glitches into account, though. And Iran's nuclear program is perpetually glitchy.

Professional estimators were thrown a curve ball last month when President Ahmadinejad announced that Iran had resumed use of the so-called P-2 centrifuge to enrich uranium. The P-2 is difficult to operate, but its potential weapons-grade uranium output is much higher than the P-1 centrifuges Iran has relied on thus far. Higher output means they get a nuke sooner.

Incidentally, both the P-1 and P-2 came from the nuclear mail-order catalog operated by A.Q. Khan in Pakistan. Pakistan is our ally, you know.

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