Yet another reminder: Iran still closing in on bomb

Faking injuries in a winning 4th quarter? Iran at the precipice.

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).

ISI graph of Iranian low-enriched uranium production, with author's timeline annotations
ISIS graph of Iranian low-enriched uranium production, with author’s timeline annotations

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.

ISIS graph of Iranian 19.75% uranium enrichment, with author's timeline annotations
ISIS graph of Iranian 19.75% uranium enrichment, with author’s timeline annotations

Overlaid on each graph are the measures taken during the timeframe reflected, to deter or thwart the Iranian nuclear program: UN sanctions, US and EU application of sanctions (i.e., periodic tightening of measures), and special programs like the introduction of the Stuxnet worm in Iran’s centrifuge-array controllers.

ISIS graph: Number of operational Iranian centrifuges at Natanz and Fordo, with author's timeline annotations
ISIS graph: Number of operational Iranian centrifuges at Natanz and Fordo, with author’s timeline annotations

It should be obvious that the net effect of these measures over time has been, to say the least, unimpressive.  In the larger context of all that has happened in the last decade, and what we have known throughout that period, the claim that they have had a meaningful effect on Iran’s nuclear program would be irresponsible.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has been lobbying Congress to hold off on another round of sanctions against Iran, eyeing the next round of talks between Iran and the “P5+1” group of UN Permanent Security Council members, plus Germany.  Those talks are to take place in November, and presumably will continue the pattern of Iranian stalling to buy time.

Reportedly, P5+1 diplomats who met with Iran’s foreign minister in Geneva in mid-October were sympathetic with the bout of back pain from which he was suffering.  Weirdly – or perhaps not – Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif traced his attack of back pain to the Iranian press “misquoting” him on the topics of the Obama-Rouhani phone call in September, and the length of his own meeting with U.S. counterpart John Kerry.  Reportedly, an Iranian media outlet “misquoted” Zarif to the effect that that meeting went too long.  Apparently, he’s subject to psychosomatic manifestations.

Or maybe Zarif is faking an injury at the end of an unsuccessful third down, when his team needs time in the fourth quarter and has no official time-outs left to call.  That (admittedly facetious) interpretation would be in character with the Iranians’ modus operandi in the talks.  But the truth is that if it’s the fourth quarter, it’s not Iran that’s on the short end of the score.  Iran is holding onto a narrow lead in this game, hoping to keep us out of the end zone and pull off one of the biggest upsets in history.  

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard online. She also writes for the new blog Liberty Unyielding.

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20 thoughts on “Yet another reminder: Iran still closing in on bomb”

    1. There are many people who are taking note of what will and also may happen when Iran gets the bomb. The Democrat establishment has its head firmly planted in denial ala Chamberlain. The Republican establishment are RINO’s who view their discomfort with Iran through the lens of political opportunism… thus, neither mentions much less is willing to confront the 800lb gorilla in the room.

      The link you provide discusses the views of Bernard Lewis and Norman Podhoretz on the situation between Israel and Iran once Iran gains nuclear weapons capability.

      My own assessment is that Iran is unlikely to launch a direct first strike against Israel. However, sooner or later they will attempt to attack Israel through terrorist proxies. Putting a nuke on board a pleasure craft and sailing it into a local Tel Aviv harbor has a high likelihood of success. If successful, the destruction of Tel Aviv, Israel’s cultural and economic center with 42% of Israel’s population living in the greater metropolitan area would be a mortal blow to Israel’s survival. The Iranians could even protect themselves from failure by planting additional conventional explosives aboard the pleasure craft, to be used if stopped by Israel’s security forces while approaching Tel Aviv’s harbor. It would then be viewed as merely another foiled terrorist suicide attack.

  1. As long and the Iranians don’t get greedy (or stupid), they”ll end up with a bonanza in economic terms and breakout capability to boot.

    It’s the fourth quarter alright with less than a minute to go, they got the ball. They’re in great position, the Iranians are on the ten yard line but its fourth down. I disagree that they’re in the lead, they’re down by three.

    The choice is do they go for the easy field goal for a tie? Or go for the touchdown on fourth and risk losing the game.

    Bear in mind, a tie score is enough to get both teams into post-season play….

    And that game, never ends

    1. How pray tell, is Iran “down by three”?

      What possibility is there that they might “risk losing the game”?

      Obama is not going to stop Iran, as he has neither the desire or will to do so. Nor is Israel going to do so either, as they lack the conventional resources to stop Iran and an Israeli nuclear first strike is a political non-starter.

      Another factor obviating any risk for Iran is that both Russia and China have publicly warned the US not to attack Iran. Both Russia and China have consistently protected Iran in the UN Security Council, no other explanation exists for that repeated behavior than that they welcome Iran’s emergence into the nuclear club and that, they correspondingly anticipate and welcome the spread of nuclear proliferation across the region. They do so because they know that nuclear armed fanatical jihadist States will focus upon “the little and great Satan’s” not Russia and China.

      Nuclear confrontation between Jihadist States and the US would greatly benefit Russia and China. Regardless of the degree of retaliatory response to attacking jihadist States, an America devastated by multiple nuclear terrorist attacks will develop a Fortress America mind-set and will be greatly diminished both militarily and economically. Russia and China would then emerge as the new superpowers on the world stage.

      1. Their economic situation is pretty bad GB. Bad enough that it’s conceivable it will produce internal instability in the mid term.

        The near term geopolitical situation, on both their eastern (our Afghanistan withdrawal) and western frontiers (Iraqi-Syrian instability), is of concern to them as well. They don’t have the resources to deal with both situations concurrently. And both fronts are against well GCC financed looney Sunni Jihadists that make the Revolutionary Guard look like Boy Scouts (I know that’s an overstatement) .

        If they don’t make a nuke deal now they’re screwed. They either (slowly but steadily) go down and take as many as they can with them, or accept Russia/China’s full protection and assistance, with all the obligations/restrictions that entails. Russia and China don’t want a nuclear Iran. They want an Iran that’s fully in either of their spheres of influence. Each nation prefers that it be ITS sphere of course. So, I call it Iranians down by three.

        The US/China/Russia triangle has other fish to fry as well, such as the dismal global financial/economic situation. So I don’t believe they are averse to finding a mutually beneficial solution to the Iranian problem.

        The prospects for a deal are good.

        1. Sure Iran’s economic situation is bad, its been bad for at least a decade and since it hasn’t compelled the mullahs to change, what realistic prospect is there that it will suddenly start working?

          The internal instability already happened jgets and Obama did nothing. He didn’t even offer verbal support. Other than wishful thinking, why would another round of internal instability have a different outcome?

          Being a Shia nation in a Sunni majority region will always create potential threats for Iran, though nukes will restrain any Sunni threat to Iran. The Taliban lack the resources to present a credible threat to Iran and are somewhat xenophobic, Afghanistan has never been an expansionist society, thus there’s little reason for inordinate concern for Afghanistan in Iran.

          As for its western frontier, Iraq is a Shia majority country and a Sunni dominant government is highly unlikely to emerge again. Assad’s Syria is a client state of Iran so assertions that Iran’s borders represent a viable concern for Iran are not supported by the facts.

          I suspect that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard have the requisite ruthlessness and resources to deal with Sunni Jihadists.

          I can’t agree that if Iran doesn’t make a nuke deal now they’re screwed, in fact I think they’re in the ‘catbird’s seat’.

          Iran already has enough of Russia/China’s protection and assistance to tell the world to go pound sand and the last decade proves that assertion.

          If Russia and China didn’t want a nuclear Iran they would not have provided critical material support, technological assistance and repeated and consistent support in the UN. Russia ahs been instrumental in Iran’s drive to attain nuclear weapons capability. It is the purest of denial to assert that it’s accidental or naivete that has led to Russia’s crucial assistance and support. Putin is many reprehensible things but he is neither stupid or gullible. His long-term assistance to Iran has to be intentional and carefully calculated.

          Russia and China would each love to have Iran within their spheres of influence but they know that’s not going to happen given Iran’s Islamic loyalties. Rather than wish for a change in reality, Russia and China are using Islamic terrorism in a carefully calculated proxy war of aggression, primarily against the US. The strategy’s goal is the retreat of America from global influence.

          “Rogue states never turn out to be quite the pariahs they are deemed. They are only able to cause, or at least threaten to cause, mayhem because they enjoy the covert support – usually by means of technology transfers – of one or more major powers within the charmed circle of global ‘good guys’.” Margaret Thatcher

          The dismal global financial/economic situation affects the US far more than China or Russia, neither of which gives a hoot about their people’s economic despair and both of which welcome America’s economic depression. The last thing either desires is a robust economic climate in America.

          Neither China leadership nor Putin’s primary motivation is economic both are ideologically driven with Russia’s political situation requiring more circumspection from Putin than he would otherwise display.

          China’s leadership is totalitarian communist, they’ve made the bet that they can use their controlled form of capitalism as leverage to attain military and economic parity with the US.

          Nixon made the bet that the communists could be seduced with material goods and an increased standard of living. He was greatly mistaken. Ideologues do not abandon their ideology, it is their substitute for religious belief and by dedicating their lives to something greater than themselves, their lives gain meaning.

          1. On paragraph 1
            Lifting of the sanctions and normal trade relations will lift the economy GB.

            On 2
            Because of continuing sanctions repression of subsequent outbreaks of discontent will become increasingly difficult.

            on 3
            Under the current circumstances they will never get to the point of deploying a nuclear arsenal. Especially now, that their leadership has come out very publicly and vocally against it. Only if our hardliners throw their hardliners a lifeline (or visa versa) by scuttling the current negotiations will that become an option in the immediate future. To be clear, regardless of what we wish, short of war, Iran will achieved nuclear weapons capability. That genie is out of the bottle. The task at hand is to provide the incentive to Iran so it is not in her interest to deploy nuclear weapons.

            on 4
            The breakdown in order on the Iranian frontiers is very much a concern for the Iranian regime. I should have been clearer, it’s not only Afghanistan with its mixed population of Sunni/Shiites and Persian/Turkic speakers, but instability in Baluchistan/Pakistan and the Kurdish issue along with Azeri issues that are troublesome.. Taken as a whole, Iran can be dragged into a myriad of regional cesspools. Ironically our presence in the region actually defended Iran, looked at from an unconventional point of view. of course.

            on 5
            Yes, but not for a long persistent dragged out insurgency that’s replenished at will from the outside, while not having the ability to strike the sources (GCC), without starting a war that might end up with the end of the Iranian regime.

            We will have to respectfully agree to disagree, as always,. on what the ultimate intentions of Russia are GB. Suffice to say that Russia will opportunistically do what she can to further and defend her interest. One hint. If she fails in the South, she’ll make it a point to succeed in the West or the East, or both.

            One point on China. If the global economy really tanks, she gets stuck with a whole lot of worthless paper and a whole lot of idle capacity. And there is very little she’ll be able to do about it. But that a another really, really, big can of worms that’ll take many posts to sort out. I’m sure Optcon will do us the favor of writing up a post to get us started one of these days 🙂

  2. “It should be obvious that the net effect of these measures over time has been, to say the least, unimpressive.”

    Since the entire purpose of these measures has been to ‘persuade’ Iran to negotiate sincerely and abandon any plans to achieve nuclear weapons capability…and that these measures have demonstrably and categorically failed to accomplish that goal, the ‘net effect’ is not merely unimpressive but an abject failure.

    It strains credulity far past tenability to imagine that Obama is not aware of the futility of these measures. They continue because they provide Obama with political cover and plausible deniability with the uninformed.

    Obama needs the uninformed, low-info voter to remain loyal to democrats for the 2014 House elections. With a new democrat majority in Congress, Obama dreams of further completing his ‘fundamental transformation” of America.

    SecDef Hagel in his Senate confirmation hearings inadvertently let slip that Obama does not intend to stop the Iranians and has instead decided to adopt a ‘containment’ strategy after Iran gains nuclear capability.

    Such a containment strategy will not address the nuclear proliferation through the region that will consequentially result from Iran getting its hands on nukes. Nor will it prevent Iran from adopting much more aggressive terrorist tactics, relying upon its nuclear umbrella to eliminate military retaliation as an option.

    Obama relying upon containment and deterrence when confronted by a fanatical, nuclear armed Jihadist state is not mere incompetence, it is in the clearest of terms, dereliction of duty. It is literally inviting disaster to happen.

    1. The 22nd amendment would have to be repealed, which I believe requires 66% Congressional approval and 3/4 State legislature approval.

      No, he needs an existential crisis to justify declaration of martial law. Then Obama, citing prior precedent, could suspend key provisions of the Constitution. Suspension of Habeas Corpus (the right to be charged and brought before a court), the suspension of the 2nd amendment’s right to bear arms and the 22nd amendment’s Presidential term limit would be obvious targets for any leftist President’s ‘revision’…

          1. We all know what has to “technically” happen for a sitting President to obtain a third term. I just wondered if you could actually put that completely past Obama, because you made it sound like it wasn’t possible for him to even contemplate a third term. Perhaps I misread you, I’m sorry if I did…I’m operating on minimal sleep today! I just think it all sets the stage: A potentially nuclear conflict with Iran on a global scale and Obama is “needed” in an “interim” position only, upon request from the UN…etc.etc. We know how this song and dance goes. We also know that from day one, before it even commenced, this administration has been particularly underhanded in obtaining votes and thereby obtaining power. Why should we all be so sure he will suddenly just stop?

            1. Obama does not have the political support needed to get both 66% of Congress and the 3/4 of the State legislatures to rescind the 22nd amendment and without that, he cannot legally avoid his two term limitation. It’s simply not possible. Any crisis short of the very survival of the nation would be insufficient.

              That is why a crisis that represents a mortal, existential threat to America is needed, one that demands martial law without limitation. A declaration of nationwide martial law that will last for “the duration of the emergency” and one in which the length of the emergency is impossible to predict.

              Both sovereign bankruptcy and nuclear terrorist attacks upon US cities do qualify. Everything Obama has done and is doing increases the chances that one or both of those crisis will occur. It cannot be accidental. Incompetence by definition is not sufficiently consistent to attain such coherent actions.

              The only other crisis scenario that would also qualify is invasion but there is no force in the world currently capable of militarily invading America. Just the logistical supply lines and the industrial capacity needed, obviate the possibility.

            2. Addendum; I don’t put it past him at all but as he pursues his ideological agenda, he has shown himself to be ruthlessly pragmatic. He knows it’s not possible, absent a national security crisis of the greatest magnitude. Only literally a mortal threat to the survival of the country would be sufficient and that would demand martial law. Martial law, for the left is a game changer, then the skies literally the limit for fundamentally transforming America into AmeriKa.

  3. When Obama sat on his hands a few years ago when Iranians were willing to die in the streets and he did nothing to help them, then I knew whose side he was on and what the future held. Terrible forces at play

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