The apparently contradictory statements from US Admiral Mike Mullen — who said Iran was not yet close to a nuclear bomb — and from US Defence Secretary Robert Gates — who seemed to imply quite the opposite — created both concern and confusion in the United States.
The Obama administration is fully aware that a nuclear-armed Iran is against its interests. However, although the statements appear inconsistent, upon closer inspection we can see that they are both accurate.
What Iran has in its possession is low enriched uranium (LEU). According to the latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has 1,010 kg of LEU. In theory, somewhere between 1,000 to 1,700 kg of LEU is needed for a bomb.
However, the mere possession of this amount of LEU is not enough to make a bomb, as there are several subsequent steps which have to be taken. These include converting the LEU (4-5 per cent) into high enriched uranium (HEU) containing 90 per cent of enriched uranium. This would require reconfiguring the existing centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment plant in central Iran, a process which would mean the major refitting of pipes in the ground.
Iran would not be able to do this without switching off the IAEA cameras installed at Natanz, an act which would alert the entire world to Iran’s intentions. Tehran would be reluctant to do this, as it would provide enough evidence to the West to justify an immediate attack, as well as even stronger sanctions.
Other necessary steps to make a weapon include the conversion of HEU into metal, which would then be compressed into a missile cone or a bomb. If all goes according to plan, Iran will still need at least another two to five years to accomplish such steps. Judging by the level of sanctions, as well as the difficulties in keeping such operations under wraps, Iran is likely to find that the road from LEU to bomb is going to be both rocky and lengthy.
The Israeli government should hope that Obama’s negotiations with Iran dissuade Tehran from continuing with its nuclear programme. In the absence of American support, Israel cannot launch a unilateral attack against Iran, as it could cause intolerable damage to US-Israel relations. What Israel can do for now is to cooperate with other intelligence agencies, and to try and increase the number of “work accidents” in Iran’s nuclear installations.