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.

Update: Josh Marshall correlates “16 days” to the infamous “16 words” of Iraq fame (which were actually perfectly true, BTW).

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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Roundup: Iran with a nuke Stop The ACLU (also here and here), Riehl World View, Captain’s Quarters, Tim Blair,Outside The Beltway (also here), In the Bullpen (also here), Don Singleton, Argghhh!, MY Vast Right Wing Conspiracy and Hyscience. Also an absolutely hilarious post by a supporter of Iran about how Iran is the real good guy. I’m still trying to figure out if this is

  2. When will it be enough to take action? More @ Captain’s Quarters, Stop The ACLU, Austin Bay Blog, ShrinkWrapped, California Conservative, Let Freedom Ring, PoliBlog, The Counterterrorism Blog, Decision ’08, The Officers’ Club,Outside The Beltway, Talking Points Memo, A Blog For All, TigerHawk, The Strata-Sphere, and an injection of humor from ScrappleFace. Posted by Alexandra von Maltzan on Wednesday, April 12, 2006 at 12:07 PM in Current Affairs

  3. anjin-san says:

    I guess Bush asked himself “What would Jesus do?” And of course the answer was, “Nuke ’em!”

    Just like in Iraq when the answer was “Bomb the crap out of them!”

  4. legion says:

    Jeezus H… Yeah, if Iran’s 50,000 centrifuges all existed, and all worked perfectly, and all were used at the same time, and didn’t short out the national power grid, and if Iran had the uranium to put in them all, and if they had some way to store that much ‘hot’ material without showing up like a road flare on every surveillance satellite in space… yadda yadda yadda.

    And if everyone in China jumped at the same time, the earth would spin off its axis into the sun.

    Am I really the only one here who doesn’t feel disgusted and insulted by this transparently insipid scare tactic? Am I the only one who sees this as just another cynical ploy to distract the American public from Bush’s domestic disasters and foreign failures? Am I the only one who recognizes this script from the prequel?

  5. legion says:

    And another thing (yeah, slow day at work…) James has it right here:

    Iranâ??s nuclear ambitions and defiance of the West is almost certainly for domestic political consumption. The legality of Iranâ??s program is questioned by everyone but the mullahs and Coleâ??precisely the same people who claim that the program is about energy rather than weapons.

    As Tip O’Niell (I believe) said, “All politics is local”. While I’m sure the Mullahs would love to see Bush take one in the kisser, they’d much rather just stay in power. But this:

    Likewise, Bush is trying to shore up his base, which is desperately unhappy with the Iraq situation, by rattling sabres at Iran. Bushâ??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.

    I dunno about Merkel, but I’ll bet Chirac’s poll numbers are pretty near Bush’s right now, and Kofi would give his left nut for some credibility after all the corruption scandals he’s been tacked to…

  6. Am I really the only one here who doesnâ??t feel disgusted and insulted by this transparently insipid scare tactic? Am I the only one who sees this as just another cynical ploy to distract the American public from Bushâ??s domestic disasters and foreign failures? Am I the only one who recognizes this script from the prequel?

    It’s all about you, isn’t it. 😉

  7. cirby says:

    legion:

    So, a country with a bunch of spare cash from oil sales, with lots of time to build things (they’ve had uranium and plutonium enrichment going on for well over 20 years, according to the IAEA), and a bunch of technical information (from that Pakistan bastard and some former Soviet engineers) are too incompetent to build something that was done in about four years by a country which was in the middle of a total war 60 years ago?

    As a guideline, the entire Manhattan Project only cost about $25 billion in 2005 dollars, and that included a lot of expenditures for things the Iranians wouldn’t have to reinvent.

    Centrifugal enrichment is known to be much more efficient than any of the techniques used by the US during the 1940s.

  8. Am I the only the only one here who’s a bit dubious about all these hysterical pronouncments about how Iran is going to destroy the entire world any momment now?

    It seems like the Adminstration hasn’t learned anything from the lead-in to Iraq. And with that war already stretching our military rather thin, I’m very concerned by how quickly we seem to be moving toward invading Iran.

  9. my cat says:

    Even if for a moment one buys the (invalid) argument that we invaded on good faith but bad intel, I still don’t see how one could could conclude that the alternative ( not invading) would have been worse. If we hadn’t invaded Saddam would still be there, not connected to terrorism, not in possesion of WMD’s.
    So what is much, much worse about that, in comparison with the current situation?

    If we had not invaded we could have stayed committed to Afghanistan, avoided depleting our army, avoided besmirching our reputation with Abu Graib, etc., avoided revealing our weakness in dealing with insurgencies and civil wars, avoided creating a pro-Iranian conservative government in Iraq, avoided killing thousands of Iraqi civilians, avoided ruining our reputation with “Arab street”…….how is this much worse?

  10. James Joyner says:

    Cat: The alternative was being wrong in guessing Saddam had no WMD and/or could be deterred.

  11. legion says:

    James,
    You assume it _was_ a guess. As more info trickles out, and more people start to speak their minds, it looks increasingly like ‘blind faith in opposition to all actual investigation and evidence’ might be a better term…

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    The significance of this is less in demonstrating present urgency than the implications of a full-scale nuclear weapons production system of the scale the Iranians themselves have suggested.

    Juan Cole’s ten years until an Iranian nuclear weapon is dated: that was the optimistic estimate before they announced either their intent to go forward with enrichment (a little over a month ago) or their announcement that they’re already enriching (yesterday). Can anyone find any serious nuclear weapons expert who’s saying that now? As best as I can tell the current best guesses are something like 3 years plus or minus 2.

  13. Richard Gardner says:

    Iranians are stupid. How is that for a headline? The incessant anti-Moslem bigotry I see regarding their intelligence and capabilities for physics, engineering, and manufacturing from the media and the left is amazing. When I went to college 20+ years ago, 25% of the graduate students at my top-rated engineering school were from Moslem nations. I posted a comment on this here several years ago and my points still stand. A year ago the standard talk was that Iran was at least TEN years from a nuclear bomb, and the Administration was foolish and aggressive against Iran to suggest less.

    However, the Americans in three years (1942-1945) with most of the physics not known, and before computers, were able to not only invent, but also build two bombs and use them. US Population in 1942 was 135 Million, with few college graduates. http://www.demographia.com/db-uspop1900.htm Of course America did have the advantage of the support of many European refugees such as Fermi.

    But today with most of the physics of the bomb a matter of open record, and modern computing, Iran, with a population of 68 Million http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/ir.html is so incredibly behind the times and ignorant that they can�t do it in 10 years, despite 60 years of knowledge and improvements in explosives and metallurgy? And even though Iranians could have assistance from Moslems from other nations like America had assistance from European refugees.

    So the thesis behind the statements that Iran is far from producing a nuclear bomb is that they are much less capable than Americans 60 years ago because they are inferior.

  14. RJN says:

    This is such a crock. Where is Iran going to get 50,000 centrifuges if it only has 180 now?

    This seems to be just another neo-con con. We have hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of illegals marchimg in our cities, controlled by unseen forces, and we worry about weepingly thin stories like this.

    Where is our beautiful country going?

  15. Rice on Iran: It’s time for action…

    Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice today said it is “time for action” on demands for Iran to stop e…

  16. LJD says:

    Please God save us from these morons who believe the only country in the world that has to follow international law- and doesn’t- is the U.S.

    Because the Iranians are just poor, innocent and peaceful creatures, trying to enjoy life. All of their saber rattling is only a timid defense response intended to deter an attack by the evil U.S. Empire, bent on world domination.

    Puh-lease!

  17. cian says:

    While developments in Iran are of real concern, America’s options are extremely limited due to the dishonesty and incompetence of the Bush Administration. The big stick, which was supposed to come after the soft talk, has been well and truely tried and has proved useless. In the ‘war on Terror’, under this admin, the enemy are winning on every front.

  18. Dan says:

    How – H O W – can you Lefties possibly watch a Bush press conference and think “Hitler for Christ!” and listen to Iranian leadership speak, particularly Ahmadinejad, and think “A victim speaks! We must hear him, O!” You think Bush would invade Iraq to enrich ten friends and avenege his daddy (in a war where we wiped the Earth with Saddam!?), but you actually believe Saddam would just give up his WMD and not tell anyone about it so he could continue getting French pay-offs of $10 billion over 12 years, instead of caving in and then enjoying $100 billion a year?

    What is wrong with you? What in the F*ck is wrong with you? BUSH is an ideologue!?

    This gives me great hope that following the nuclear disaster precipitated by Lefty solipsism and anachronism and ignorance we will return to a sane policy of making sure people actually have to earn their way into an education and this ridiculous baby-sitting experiment we call compulsory education will be abandoned. Exactly the same number of educated people, if not more, will IN ACTUALLY continue to be turned out, but you, who should be drones making things like your Uncle Marx instructed you, rather than fools who have no business involving yourselves in politics, war or international relations.

    Iran is going to have a bomb. Terrorism will increase, not decrease, because these people wil it as a normal will to power, not because of some sort of ludicrous equal-and-opposite reaction justified by prior history. Iran was never even colonized for god’s sake. Mossadeq was the scion of the Qajari family – the family that had ruled Iran for over 125 years prior to the new parliamentary experiment. The Qajari Army was trained and officer’d by Russia, just as Turkey’s had been by Germany. Look at Iraq: do you actually believe Mossadeq was a liberal democrat, or do you think perhaps he was in fact trying to re-establish his family’s reign?

    No! That kind of thing never happens in the Islamic world!

    And Iran’s not going for nukes. And Saddam has no WMD. And neither has anything to do with terrorism. And Russia is not an authoritarian country run by KGB agents. And France’s revolution didn’t destroy all the glory it so obviously loves more than anything else.

    Nah. Couldn’t be. Because Bush is Hitler!

    You are all morons. M O R O N S.