Iran Could Have Nuke in 16 Days
While most experts have said it would be months, if not years, before Iran could build a nuclear weapon, the State Department thinks it could be 16 days away:
Stephen Rademaker, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, told reporters today in Moscow. “Using those 50,000 centrifuges they could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in 16 days.”
Presumably, that estimate is on the low end of the range and it would take some time to weaponize the material. Still, this certainly ratchets up the pressure and the timeline in crafting a suitable response.
Now, I’m pretty new to this issue. But even I can spot that Stephen Rademaker works for Robert Joseph. And that’s the same Bob Joseph who was charged with muscling the CIA into letting President Bush use the Niger bamboozle in the 2003 State of the Union address.
Juan Cole offers this:
The ability to slightly enrich uranium is not the same as the ability to build a bomb. For the latter, you need at least 80% enrichment, which in turn would require about 16,000 small centrifuges hooked up to cascade. Iran does not have 16,000 centrifuges. It seems to have 180. Iran is a good ten years away from having a bomb, and since its leaders, including Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei, say they do not want an atomic bomb because it is Islamically immoral, you have to wonder if they will ever have a bomb.
The source of the 50,000 centrifuge figure is Iran, not the US. They are likely exaggerating, perhaps by a lot. I would prefer to err on the side of believing people who tell me they are reaching the nuclear threshold, however, especially when they are are sworn enemies. The ten year figure is even less plausible than the sixteen days announcement; it’s much higher than most estimates I have seen. And Cole’s trust in the mullahs’ pronouncements of their fidelity to Allah’s teachings exceeds mine rather substantially.
What is really going on here is a ratcheting war of rhetoric. The Iranian hard liners are down to a popularity rating in Iran of about 15%. They are using their challenge to the Bush administration over their perfectly legal civilian nuclear energy research program as a way of enhancing their nationalist credentials in Iran.
The first part of this, at least, is probably right. Iran’s nuclear ambitions and defiance of the West is almost certainly for domestic political consumption. The legality of Iran’s program is questioned by everyone but the mullahs and Cole–precisely the same people who claim that the program is about energy rather than weapons.
Likewise, Bush is trying to shore up his base, which is desperately unhappy with the Iraq situation, by rattling sabres at Iran. Bush’s poll numbers are so low, often in the mid-30s, that he must have lost part of his base to produce this result. Iran is a great deus ex machina for Bush. Rally around the flag yet again.
That probably explains why Kofi Annan, Jacques Chirac, and Angela Merkel are saying much the same thing.
TigerHawk has a post that predates Rademaker’s pronouncement but references Princeton Professor Frank von Hippe on the multiplier effects of centrifuges. Doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations, “3,000 centrifuges running in parallel could enrich enough uranium for one bomb in four months, or three bombs in a year. If Iran can get 3,000 centrifuges on line by the end of 2006 and is otherwise ready to build its first bomb, it could have a nuclear weapon by this time next year.”
Steven Taylor is almost certainly right when he notes, “I have been struck with the fact that it is clear that the Iranian regime is suffering from a significant inferiority complex. Like the little dog that barks more than the big dog, there is a clear need for the Iranians to be heard.” They are almost surely yapping loudly out of fear rather than strength. Still, one hates to be wrong when predicting that those who say they are trying to wipe you off the map are bluffing.
The old Type I vs. Type II error problem remains with us. In the case of Iraq’s WMD, we apparently got it wrong, with substantial consequence. Still, getting it wrong in the other direction would have been much, much worse. And, in the Iranian case, we’re talking about nuclear weapons.