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January 21, 2017 / 23 Tevet, 5777
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Yet Another Reminder: Iran Still Closing in on Bomb

Iran could produce enough high-enriched uranium (HEU) for a first nuclear warhead in as little as two weeks.

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So, who’s up for another round of graphs showing that Western diplomacy, sanctions, and technology have yet to out-maneuver Iran in the mullahs’ push for a bomb?

A long-time IAEA expert, Olli Heinonen, predicted this past week that, using her newer, advanced centrifuges, Iran could produce enough high-enriched uranium (HEU) for a first nuclear warhead in as little as two weeks from making the decision to go for the “breakout.”  (See here also.)

For clarity, this does not mean Iran is “two weeks from a bomb.”  It means that once Iran decides to take the final enrichment step, it could take as little as two weeks to bring enough of her current stock of 19.75-percent-enriched uranium to HEU purity, or above 90 percent.  That estimate shortens the already brief month or so projected by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), one of the chief think tanks tracking Iran’s nuclear progress.  (The longer projection assumes Iran would use the older centrifuges that form the backbone of her current mass-scale enrichment effort.)

When might Iran make the “breakout” decision?  We don’t know.  We do know that the three graphs below, which bring us up to date on Iran’s enrichment activities, are bracketed by intelligence on Iran’s nuclear-weapons and missile programs.  Let’s review it briefly.

As early as 2004, the U.S. had intelligence indicating Iran had worked with designs for an implosion-type nuclear warhead, and had probably done high-explosive testing for a detonation device at Parchin, southeast of Tehran, in the early 2000s.  Additional intelligence at the time indicated design studies for fitting a nuclear warhead on a Shahab-III type medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM).

As early as 2006, Western analysts identified an underground missile-silo complex being constructed at Tabriz.  Construction began at least as early as 2003, but may have started even earlier, in the 1990s.  (See pp. 28-30 of this Congressional Research Service report from 2012.)

Recent campaign statements by new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003-2005, indicate that Iran’s installation and use of centrifuges for uranium enrichment were much more extensive and advanced during that period than the UN’s IAEA monitoring agency knew.  In fact, IAEA’s knowledge appears to have been at least two years behind the timeline laid out by Rouhani.  This should give us pause in viewing all subsequent assessments, including the ones reflected in the graphs below, which derive their information from IAEA inspections.

Rouhani has made a point of boasting that slow-rolling the West in nuclear negotiations was the key to buying time for Iran to violate UN sanctions and deceive the UN.  (See the interview summarized here for another take by Rouhani on the same theme.)

During the period reflected in the graphs below, Iran has advanced her satellite program, including a first space launch in 2009, with potential rocketry applications for achieving an ICBM capability.  Also in 2009, Iran conducted her first launch of a solid-fuel MRBM, an advance that allows her to keep such missiles – which can range Europe and Central Asia as well as the entire Middle East – in a constantly ready status.  (Liquid-fuel missiles have to be fueled just before launch, adding to their response time.)

In May 2011, British intelligence reported that Iran had conducted three secret tests of nuclear-capable MRBMs in 2010 and 2011 (see pp. 32-33 of the CRS report linked above).  The implication is that these attempts tested the missiles in question with a payload like a nuclear warhead – that being the purpose, as opposed to testing for range with these launches.  Assuming the UK intelligence is valid, these launches would mark the first known live testing of Iranian MRBMs with simulated nuclear-warhead payloads.

In August 2013, Western analysts reported identifying a probable new ICBM test site at Shahrud in northeastern Iran (see here as well).


We now turn to the graphs, which show Iran’s progress with enriching uranium since 2007.  The original graphs were produced by ISIS in its continuing series of analyses performed on the IAEA’s inspection and monitoring reports.  The most recent IAEA report was published on 28 August 2013.  The ISIS analysis is here.

J. E. Dyer

About the Author: J.E. Dyer is a retired US Naval intelligence officer who served around the world, afloat and ashore, from 1983 to 2004.

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  1. Daniel Cozza says:

    Just horse for him.

  2. Arty Cohn says:

    All of these graphs and conclusions are speculative. They are based on the assumption, that until now and in the immediate future, all of Iran's centrifuges will be used to concentrate U235 to only the 19.75% level. And only when they have a large enough trove of 19.75% U235, will they then use the centrifuges to concentrate the U235 to the 90+% level need for an N-bomb. I don't think that the Iranians are foolish and incompetent. It seems more likely to me that the Iranians would already have taken some of their 19.75% U235 and concentrated it further to the 90+% for a few N-bombs, or missile warheads. Having these bombs and/or warheads will greatly deter any country from attacking Iran.

  3. J.e. Dyer says:

    Actually, Arty Cohn, the graphs are the precise opposite of speculative. They are based on what the IAEA knows: no more and no less. But I think I take your point about what the graphs DON'T show, which is that Iran could have enriched uranium to HEU purity already, without our having knowledge of it. Iran could have more enriched uranium than these graphs indicate. Both of those propositions are valid. I've written on that topic before. Considering that IAEA's knowledge of Iran's centrifuge operations was more than 2 years out of date in the 2005-7 timeframe, we should not assume that what's in the graphs reflects reality. It reflects only the reality we're aware of; the reality we're not aware of could be much worse.

  4. Gary Cordie says:

    Maybe they will drop it on mecca

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