BigMo’s Blog

Politics and Economics in Israel

Cordesman on Iran

What is missing from the current rhetoric on Iran’s nuclear development program – at least what is missing from the American media – is a sober analysis of the facts on the ground. Anthony H. Cordesman is one of America’s foremost experts on strategy and international affairs. He holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at CSIS and also acts as a national security analyst for ABC News. He is a recipient of the US Department of Defense Distinguished Service Medal. He has completed a wide variety of studies on U.S. strategy and defense plans, NATO modernization, the lessons of modern warfare, nuclear proliferation, counterterrorism, and the Afghan and Iraq conflicts. In other words, when it comes to international security issues, he is no slouch.

The Israeli timeframe as to when Iran will have a Nuclear Weapon is between 2009 and 2012, whereas the U.S. time frame is after 2013. Israel states that Iran should not be allowed to obtain any nuclear capabilities that could eventually allow it to produce nuclear weapons. Israel views Iran as an Existential Threat and must be dealt with in the immediate future and its leaders have been repeating this for the last two years.

In 2005 Iranian officials told officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of A.Q. Khan’s 1987 offer of centrifuge enrichment technology. If Iran received the same nuclear weapon design that A.Q. Khan gave Libya then we are looking at the P1 and P2 centrifuges. The P1 centrifuges are based on the original 1970‘s URENCO design in the Netherlands that Khan acquired knowledge of while employed at the plant. Pakistan started with this technology to produce Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons. In 2004, Iranian officials admitted that Iran also possessed more advanced P2 centrifuges. Such advanced designs could double Iran‘s enrichment capabilities, shortening the time taken for the production of HEU for a nuclear weapon.

IISS in September 2005 determined that the earliest Iran could produce sufficient HEU is by 2010 (i.e., this year). Assembling the necessary 3000 centrifuges was completed in late 2006. With 3000 centrifuges, it would take 9 months at the earliest for Iran to produce 25 kg HEU deemed necessary for a simple implosion Device. (See Mark Fitzpatrick, Survival Vol 48 no.3 Autumn 2006. “Assessing Iran’s Nuclear program.”)

Iran “hasn’t really” added any further centrifuges to refine enriched uranium, which is required for use in nuclear reactors or weapons, IAEA chief Mohamed El-Baradei said in February 2007. El-Baradei said he thought the reason for this was political. The IAEA said in its latest report in November 2006 that Iran had not boosted the number of centrifuges regularly refining uranium since reaching a level of 3,800 in September. “They haven’t really been adding centrifuges, which is a good thing,” E-lBaradei told reporters. “Our assessment is that it’s a political decision.” (See Reuters, Tuesday, February 17, 2009.)

The problem with the rosy scenario El-Baradei paints of “only 3800 centrifuges” is that it could produce enough HEU for a minimum of one implosion weapon each year. Therefore, Iran has already produced enough enriched uranium to construct one nuclear weapon. That’s with the P1 type centrifuges. If the Iranians are using the P2 type centrifuges, then they have produced enough enriched uranium to construct 2 – 4 nuclear weapons. And they are steadily improving their missile technology to deliver these weapons.

The US NIE stated in 2007 “We assess centrifuge enrichment is how Iran probably could first produce enough fissile material for a weapon, if it decides to do so. Iran resumed its declared centrifuge enrichment activities in January 2006, despite the continued halt in the nuclear weapons program. Iran made significant progress in 2007 installing centrifuges at Natanz, but we judge with moderate confidence it still faces significant technical problems operating them. We judge with moderate confidence that the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon is late 2009, but that this is very unlikely. We judge with moderate confidence Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame.” (See the US National Intelligence Estimate, “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities” November 2007.)

There are multiple problems with the NIE’s report. First, it is based primarily on engineering analysis and only afterwards on the limited hard intelligence it can gather within Iran. Second, Western intelligence agencies often doubt the ability of “developing nations” to master the intricacies and difficulties of modern science and engineering. This is a cultural blindfold that the US has slipped on many times, to its own detriment. Third, the timelines it presents do not take into consideration concomitant development of Iran’s ballistic missile program or its conventional efforts to conceal, disguise and defend it nuclear program. Fourth, issued in the waning years of the Bush administration, political influence on the NIE’s report cannot be dismissed.

To-date, the US and its European allies have failed to bring Iran to the negotiating table, and have failed to bring Russia and China on-board for a fourth round of economic sanctions. Cordesman implies that linking Israeli nuclear and ballistic missile programs with those of Iran might be enough to engage the Iranian leadership. The US State Department dropped hints of this almost a year ago. President Obama might offer up Israel’s nuclear development program as a last ditch negotiating tactic. However, by the time that offer is made, Israeli Jericho III missiles and squadrons for F15s & F16s will be bringing their payloads to bear on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

With a bit of foresight, Israeli leaders might send a few missiles to target Iran’s key oil facilities, further reducing the country’s ability to re-build the facilities that Israel will have destroyed.

January 31, 2010 Posted by | Middle East | | 1 Comment