How Iran Can Build a Bomb

It's harder -- and more time-consuming -- than you'd think.

Today, U.S. President Barack Obama signs into law the next round of unilateral sanctions taking aim at Iran's energy sector. With this bill, Washington is seeking to stem what many view as Tehran's imminent nuclear future. But how imminent is that future, exactly?  

Some would say it is very imminent. On June 27, CIA Director Leon Panetta estimated that it would take Iran approximately two years to build a nuclear bomb if it made the decision to do so. The Wall Street Journal seized on his statement, warning hysterically on June 29 that "Iran stands barely two years from an atomic bomb that could target Israel, Europe and beyond."

Pundits, too, have consistently claimed that Iran is just around the corner from acquiring nukes. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, for example, urgently warned in July 2004, "Iran will go nuclear during the next presidential term." In January 2006, he claimed, "Iran is probably just months away." A few months later, in September, when no bomb appeared, he wrote, "The decision is no more than a year away." William Kristol, Niall Ferguson, and John Bolton, among others, have made similar claims -- and been similarly proved wrong by the passage of time.

In fact, it is much harder to build a deliverable weapon than most pundits assume. Panetta's estimate leans toward the worst-case scenario, in which the weapons-building process proceeds perfectly smoothly. But the best expert assessments indicate that it would actually take Iran about three to five years to develop a nuclear bomb. Here's how that process would probably unfold -- and the reasons why it's not likely to happen in the timeline the doomsayers would have you believe.

Step 1: The Decision

Iran is certainly moving to acquire the technology that would enable it to make a weapon. But, as a 2009 Joint Threat Assessment by the EastWest Institute concludes, "[I]t is not clear whether [Iran] has taken the decision to produce nuclear weapons. "The regime must weigh the political and security costs of developing nuclear weapons before moving ahead. And Iran might decide, like Japan, that its needs are best served by approaching the threshold of building a bomb (acquiring the technical capability and know-how) but not actually crossing the line and risking an arms race among its rivals or a pre-emptive attack from the United States or Israel.

"Nobody knows if Iran has taken this decision," Sharon Squassoni, director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Agence France-Press on June 28. "It's more in their interest to have this ambiguity."

Step Two: The Right Stuff

Should Iran decide to proceed, it must accumulate a sufficient quantity of the indispensable component for the core of the bomb -- highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium. Iran is pursuing production paths for both, though its uranium enrichment capabilities are years ahead of its plutonium reprocessing plans.

There are two ways for Iran to produce HEU, uranium that includes 90 percent of the isotope U-235. Using its centrifuges at the Natanz facility, it could take natural uranium, composed of 0.07 percent U-235, and steadily enrich it to weapons-grade material. This would be a flagrant violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). If Iran chose this route, it would have to withdraw from the treaty and kick out international inspectors. Running full tilt at Natanz, it then would take Iran about one year to enrich enough uranium for one bomb.

More likely, Iran could continue its current path of increasing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (3 percent U-235), which it claims is for peaceful purposes. At some point, Iran could then leave the NPT, kick out the inspectors, and pump the uranium back through the centrifuges to enrich it to higher levels. The Joint Threat Assessment estimates this path could produce one bomb's worth of HEU within three to six months. Panetta seemed to say that, using this method, Iran could have enough HEU to construct two bombs in one year.

Still, recent technological difficulties could prolong the process: In February, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security reported that the number of working Iranian centrifuges, the machines that enrich uranium, had decreased since mid-2009. Although Iran continues to install centrifuges, it operates nearly 1,000 fewer centrifuges than it did in May 2009.

Recently, Iran has enriched uranium to about 20 percent, purportedly as fuel for its research reactor. If Iran accumulated enough 20 percent-enriched uranium -- it had 11 kilograms at the end of May -- and used this as source material, it could produce weapon-quality HEU even more quickly.

In all cases, it would take Iran an additional six months to convert the HEU from its current gaseous form into metal for a bomb.

Step 3: The Gadget

The technical path to a bomb does not end with HEU. To produce a crude nuclear device would take an additional year, assuming Iran has a workable design and the components to build it.  But the leap to a sophisticated nuclear warhead, one that could be used as a weapon, could take an additional two to five years. During this period, Iran would need to manufacture the nonnuclear components, test and refine them, and ultimately, conduct one or more nuclear explosive tests. Troubleshooting the nonnuclear components might go undetected, but global monitors would detect any nuclear test explosion, surely leading to increased pressure on Iran.

Vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Cartwright, confirmed this timeline before the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 14. He said a "deliverable weapon that is usable tactically" would take "another two to three, potentially out to five years."

Step 4: Honey, I Shrunk the Warhead

Iran could make a very heavy crude nuclear device, deliverable by truck, approximately one year after it produced the HEU. But this heavier device, though useful as a weapon, would be too large to deliver on Iran's planes or missiles, which can't carry a weapon that weighs over 1,000 kilograms. A smaller, more sophisticated weapon is needed if Iran is to develop a credible nuclear deterrent -- and shrinking a nuclear warhead doesn't happen overnight. Retired U.S. Gen. Eugene Habiger says that "the miniaturization of a nuclear warhead is probably the most significant challenge that any proliferant would have to face." Habiger noted:

The first U.S. ICBM's [intercontinental ballistic missiles], the warheads on those ICBM's, were in the 4,000-5,000 kg range. That's the best we could come up with when we first started ... Only after six to eight years, of very intensive engineering development and aggressive testing, did we get down to 1,000 kg.

Step 5: Deliverance

Iran would also have to develop a re-entry vehicle for its weapon. A ballistic missile follows a parabolic trajectory, shooting up through the atmosphere, traveling a short distance through outer space, and re-entering the atmosphere to strike its target. The warhead must be sturdy enough to survive the extreme conditions it encounters along this flight path, and developing this technology is no small task. It is one thing to test a nuclear weapon in carefully controlled conditions. It is another to build a weapon that can withstand the fierce vibrations, G-forces, and high temperatures of launch and re-entry into the atmosphere. Iran has not demonstrated the capability to build such a re-entry vehicle thus far.

Step 6: Range Matters

Today, Iran's ballistic missiles can reach targets no more than 1,600 kilometers from Iran's borders, carrying bombs that weigh no more than 750 kilograms. That's barely enough range to hit even Iran's closest neighbors.

A new report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies concludes that Iran won't be able to field long-range missiles capable of hitting Western Europe, approximately 3,700 kilometers away, before 2014 or 2015. The report also extends the timeline for an Iranian ICBM, suggesting that Tehran must first field an intermediate-range missile before embarking on a program that could develop a missile capable of striking the United States, which is 9,000 kilometers away. Thus, the report concludes that an Iranian ICBM "is more than a decade away from development."

Iran could accelerate this timeline if it received foreign assistance. An April report by the Pentagon on Iran's military potential estimated that with foreign assistance, Iran could develop an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015. However, continued efforts to isolate Iran and work with key states, including Russia and China, to restrict of the spread of nuclear and missile-related technologies help reduce the likelihood of this assistance.

* * *

With Iran's nuclear timeline so fluid, it's crucial not to react in a panicked way based on a false sense of urgency. A military response in particular could have grave consequences, while doing nothing to provide a long-term solution to the problem. "[T]here is no military option that does anything more than buy time," said Defense Secretary Robert Gates in September 2009. "The estimates are [that a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities delay it] one to three years or so."

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, also warned on June 28 that a military strike on Iran would be "incredibly destabilizing" to the region. It would likely increase support for the Iranian regime, Mullen noted earlier, even among Iran's Green Movement.

So the next time you hear a pundit claiming that Iran is on the verge of attaining nuclear weapons, don't panic. Like the boy who cried wolf, those pundits might eventually be right. For now, however, Iran has a ways to go -- and keeping that in mind is the best way to develop a measured response to the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions.

Shannon Stapleton-Pool/Getty Images


Le Scandal

The French soccer team's disaster in South Africa has exposed the superficiality of European racial integration -- and now only Germany can save France from tearing itself apart.

In August 1936, shortly after African-American track star Jesse Owens won a sensational four gold medals at the Berlin Olympic Games, the editor of France's leading sports magazine L'Auto called upon French colonial authorities to find and recruit athletically talented black Africans who would be able to "represent the French race in a dignified manner" at international competitions. French runners and throwers had cut a poor figure in Berlin, and their failures before the eyes of the world were regarded as a national humiliation for France.

Accordingly, on Dec. 3, 1937, a search party sponsored by the magazine sailed from Bordeaux on a mission to study the athletic potential of the inhabitants of French West Africa. These sports missionaries eventually arrived in Senegal and were received by the highest colonial officials.

The result of this talent search was the sobering discovery that the explorers had completely misunderstood the relationship between sport and their colonial subjects. The Africans, unlike their African-American counterparts, showed little aptitude for sport. On the contrary, these impoverished and undernourished people needed sport as a therapy to restore their health. The search for children who might be future athletes was abandoned.

Half a century later, racial sensibilities have evolved, but European agents and coaches are still on the lookout for black talent to make them rich. And as the majority-African roster that France fielded at this year's World Cup attests, many have succeeded. But after a lackluster performance that saw the French squad sent home after the first round amid a swirl of scandals and accusations, the complicated relationship between race and sports has re-emerged in the public discourse in a very ugly way.

The recent uproar began after the entire French team refused to attend a training session following the expulsion of a teammate. The player in question, Nicolas Anelka, had shouted obscenities at the coach, Raymond Domenech, during the halftime of France's 0-2 pasting by Mexico on June 17. When the French media began calling this action a "strike" and a "mutiny," the escalation of the incident into a crisis took on a political dimension that is best explained as post-colonial drama, as indispensable black talent confronted the white authority figure whose job it was to keep them under control.

The denigration of France's North and sub-Saharan African athletes has been a favorite theme of the French extreme right for years. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic founder of the racist Front National, declared in 1996 that the French national soccer team was unacceptable on patriotic grounds because of the number of "foreigners" -- i.e., nonwhite citizens -- who had been selected to represent France. Some players' refusal to sing the national anthem became a sore point that persists to this day.

But after the mostly black French soccer team's defiance of its white leaders in South Africa, Le Pen's racist critique of multiracial sport has entered the French political mainstream with a vengeance. It was the French minister of health and sports, Roselyne Bachelot -- hardly a fringe figure -- who recently called the older players "gang leaders" who were tyrannizing "frightened boys" on the national squad. During the 1990s, it was only the French extreme right that ridiculed the idea that multiracial sport could facilitate racial integration in France. Now the derision directed against the indiscipline of a "black" team and the implicit failure of sport's integrative role in French society rains down from across the political spectrum.

Never mind that Domenech is universally thought of as an incompetent clown. The scandal's psychopolitical shock produced an extraordinary and almost unanimous chorus of criticism and abuse from the entire French political class. "Is this going to tarnish the image of France?" asked Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. "How are young people going to respect their professors when they see Anelka insulting his trainer?" asked Minister for Higher Education Valérie Pécresse.

The reactions in the French media have been even worse, combining colonial paternalism and angry condemnation. The players have been vilified as "gangsters," "scum," "hooligans," and "little shitheads from the projects." President Nicolas Sarkozy has framed the breakdown of team discipline as a national crisis and called for a board of inquiry. When star player Thierry Henry returned to France following the team's meltdown in South Africa, Sarkozy postponed a preparatory meeting for the G-20 summit in Toronto to grant Henry an hour of his time at the Élysée.

Sarkozy's opponents have turned the scandal back on him, blaming the team's performance on his alleged Americanization of French society. "The French team," left-wing National Assembly Minister Jérôme Cahuzac, declared, "has been taken over by an ethos Sarkozy has promoted: individualism, egotism, everyone for himself, and the only way to measure people's success is the check that comes at the end of the month." It was a short step from capitalist egocentricity to the vulgar "bling-bling" of the immigrant ghettos that had now contaminated the French national team. Former prime minister and Sarkozy rival Dominique de Villepin put it most clearly, saying: "I do not want France to resemble our football team."

That the French national team has become a symbol of society's divisions is particularly unfortunate, given that in 1998, France's World Cup winning side was eulogized as the fulfillment of the official French policy of racial and ethnic integration. Zinedine Zidane, its outstanding player and the son of Algerian parents, played star roles both as an athlete and as a model citizen who seemed to incarnate the success of the French model of ethnic integration. This doctrine discourages multiculturalism in favor of the doctrine that skin color and ethnicity have nothing to do with being a French citizen. Paradoxical as it may seem, the triumph of these "black-blanc-beur" -- black, white, and North African athletes -- was hailed as a sign that French society was immune to multicultural divisions. The resulting national euphoria was embraced as a welcome respite from the country's persisting anxieties about the social and cultural consequences of large-scale immigration and the spread of Muslim populations throughout Western Europe.

The current World Cup debacle has undone the utopian fantasies of 1998 in a spectacular fashion. For Sarkozy, the unseemly behavior of these racially marginal Frenchmen must have brought back traumatic memories of the tremendously destructive and protracted rioting by North African immigrant youths in the desolate housing projects north of Paris in the fall of 2005. As interior minister at that time, Sarkozy attempted to enforce a zero-tolerance policy against the bands of adolescent vandals he famously denounced as "scum." But law and order was not the only casualty of this ethnic violence. Along with the thousands of cars that were put to the torch, the image of France itself was under assault. "The republican integration model, on which France has for decades based its self-perception, is in flames," the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung declared at the time.


France's current soccer scandal has also prompted demoralizing comparisons to other institutional failures that one professor, François Galichet, has described as forms of "social illiteracy." Any administrative shabbiness that reeked of flagrant oversights -- the Sarkozy government's lax attitude toward conflicts of interest, the Société Générale banking scandal, and the railroading of a controversial pensions policy -- has be equated with the accumulated failures that ended in disgrace at the World Cup. Not surprisingly, retrospective analyses of the World Cup preparations found egregious oversights and shortcuts to complain about. Many citizens were ambivalent about the team being in the World Cup at all because everyone knew it had advanced to South Africa on a clear violation of the rules -- a last-gasp handball by Henry that led to the winning goal in a qualifying game against Ireland. That the guardians of French soccer allowed this unfair advantage to advance their cause reminded some French of what Galichet called "the extraordinary and abysmal failure of the French elites to administer any sort of collective enterprise." Consequently, the failure of France's "black" team has made the success of multiracial integration seem superficial.

The huge media resonance of this French scandal also points to its symbolic significance for Western Europe as a whole. Indeed, the ubiquity and severity of ethnic and religious tensions in the European Union's prosperous welfare states have become an integral part of the European condition. Ironically, while it was the performance of an African-American sprinter at 1936's Nazi games that inspired France's first push for athletic multiculturalism, the country that best exemplifies it today may that year's Olympic host: Germany. Never before have so many members of the German national soccer team been of foreign derivation -- from immigrant families, from families with one German parent, or sons of once-exiled Germans from Eastern Europe. Like its European neighbors, Germany is under intense pressure to integrate its immigrants, and its Turkish and Muslim immigrants in particular, into the social fabric. Although the skinhead killings of dark-skinned foreigners are now past, controversies over unemployment, multilingual schools, the construction of mosques, and low social mobility still simmer.

Germans have shown a lot of public interest in the ethnicity of their World Cup representatives, but this curiosity is still under control. Germany's postwar inhibitions about racial chauvinism rule out official abuse, à la française. But the head of the German soccer federation has pleaded with German politicians to somehow transform the multiethnic harmony of the German national team into the social peace Germany needs as much as the rest of Europe does.

Of course, one reason why Germany's team seems to be taking the edge off xenophobia while France's squad is reinforcing it is that the Germans are winning. But as France has learned over the last decade, the national euphoria of a World Cup victory is only short-term relief. Bringing home the golden trophy is hardly easy, but compared with reconciling Europe's racial tensions, it's child's play.