Analysis: There is one positive

By Emanuele Ottolenghi, March 12, 2009

How close is Iran to developing nuclear weapons?

According to Amos Yadlin, Iran has crossed another threshold on the road to nuclear capability, after the recent International Atomic Energy Agency report that Iran has accumulated a much larger stockpile of low-enriched uranium than previously documented.

This means that although Iran is still some distance from building a nuclear weapon, it now has the tools to do it.

The bad news is thus that Iran could soon have a nuclear weapon — a transformational event that could dramatically change the region and precipitate a conflict.

The good news, however, is that there are still some obstacles that Iran needs to overcome. It is not enough to have enough fissile material — technologically, that is the most difficult aspect of the nuclear bomb production line. And it is not enough to reprocess it to weapons-grade enrichment levels — something Iran is not yet able to do but close to achieving.

Iran also needs to transform that material into metal, learn to shape the uranium metal into hemispheres, manage to fit the hemispheres into a working device that will trigger the nuclear chain reaction which is at the basis of a nuclear weapon, fit the device into a missile warhead, ensure the missile flies on target without exploding in mid-air, and perfect the most critical component of a long-range ballistic missile — the so-called re-entry vehicle, which needs to have a robust enough shield to withhold the heat when it re-enters the atmosphere.

Iran is conducting R&D on all these fronts and is known to have the designs for much of what is still missing from the nuclear puzzle.

But it has not succeeded yet. It is like having all the components for bread in the cupboard, but not having mastered the art of making the dough, let alone baking bread without burning it. Clearly, a nuclear weapon is a much more complex device than bread, but the point is that it is not enough to own the basic components — which, in the case of nuclear bombs, are much harder to come by than flour and water.

The processes of producing, assembling and testing these components puts Iran still some distance from becoming a nuclear weapons state. That is good news.

But the face of the region will change well before Iran actually proves to the world it has a bomb. And that is the bad news.

For all it takes for other regional powers to adjust to a new strategic environment is the knowledge that Iran can build one.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is executive director of the Transatlantic Institute and the author of ‘Under a Mushroom Cloud: Europe, Iran and the Bomb’, published by Profile, £9.99

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010