Olli Heinonen is alarmed that Iran has begun producing 20 percent enriched uranium at a new, deeply buried site, and calculates that Iranian scientists could further purify the material to the 90 percent enrichment needed for a bomb in about six months' time. This prediction, however, is based on unsubstantiated assumptions regarding Iranian intentions, and only serves to provide ammunition for hawks in Washington that would rush the United States into another destructive war in the Middle East.
If Tehran enriched uranium to 90 percent, it would be forced to break its four decade-long adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) -- a momentous step that would likely prompt swift military action from the United States or Israel. Furthermore, Heinonen fails to mention that, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, "All nuclear material in the facility remains under the Agency's containment and surveillance." The IAEA considers 20 percent enriched uranium to be low-enriched uranium and "a fully adequate isotopic barrier" to weaponization.
This isn't the first time that hawks have raised the alarm about Iran's nuclear program, claiming that the sky is falling. Breathless, hypothetical timelines to an Iranian bomb have continued almost unabated since the time of the shah. For instance, in 1992, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said that Iran would have nuclear warheads by 1999. By casting the worst-case scenario as a realistic possibility, such timelines invite overly tough policies that may, in turn, actually provoke a hard-line Iranian response -- creating a self-fulfilling cycle of escalation.
In reality, however, Iran is not doing anything that violates its legal right to develop nuclear technology. Under the NPT, it is not illegal for a member state to have a nuclear weapons capability -- or a "nuclear option." If a nation has a fully developed civilian nuclear sector -- which the NPT actually encourages -- it, by default, already has a fairly solid nuclear weapons capability. For example, like Iran, Argentina, Brazil, and Japan also maintain a "nuclear option" -- they, too, could break out of the NPT and make a nuclear device in a few months, if not less. And like Iran, Argentina and Brazil also do not permit full "Additional Protocol" IAEA inspections.
The real legal red line, specified in the IAEA's "Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements," is the diversion of nuclear materials to a weapons program. However, multiple experts and official reports have affirmed over the years that they have no evidence that any such program exists.
For example Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent more than a decade as the director of the IAEA, said that he had not "seen a shred of evidence" that Iran was pursuing the bomb. The latest IAEA report on Iran's nuclear program also backs up this assessment, stating that Iran's research program into nuclear weapons "was stopped rather abruptly pursuant to a ‘halt order' instruction issued in late 2003."
Even U.S. officials have conceded that they have no proof that Iran is actively pursuing a nuclear bomb. Following the release of the classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in 2011, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper confirmed in a Senate hearing that he has a "high level of confidence" that Iran "has not made a decision as of this point to restart its nuclear weapons program." And earlier this month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta weighed in: "Are they [Iranians] trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they're trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that's what concerns us."
There are many other explanations for Iran's uranium enrichment program other than that the country is embarking on a mad dash for nuclear weapons. The most objective reading of Iran's intention to stockpile more 20 percent enriched uranium than it needs for running its research reactor is that it may be preserving a "breakout" option to weaponize in the future, should it feel under threat. But the important point is that, under the NPT, there is nothing illegal about stockpiling low-enriched uranium. And whatever options and ambitions that Iranians leaders may hold in their heads, however worrying, cannot be illegal.