Jeffrey LewisIran Nuclear Abilities Limited

Writing in Arms Control Today, Paul fills in the backstory about the recent NIE suggesting Iran is many years away from a nuclear weapon.

Skepticism about Iran’s nuclear capabilities dates at least to an early 2004 briefing for Congressional staffers that cited technical problems with Iran’s Uranium Conversion Facility and pilot centrifuge plant:

For example, in an Aug. 23 interview with Arms Control Today, a Department of State official confirmed that a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) predicts that Iran will not be able to acquire fissile material for a weapon before “early to mid-next decade.” The NIE, which represents the consensus view of the intelligence community, was first reported Aug. 2 in The Washington Post. The official agreed that this figure was, in practical terms, the same as a February Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) estimate that “ Tehran probably will have the ability to produce nuclear weapons early in the next decade,” unless constrained by a nuclear nonproliferation agreement.

These estimates also jibed with an early 2004 intelligence briefing given to congressional staff members, which indicated that Iran would not be able to produce a nuclear weapon until after 2010 because Iran’s program was beset by technical delays and shortfalls.


Iran appears to face difficulties in operating both its uranium-conversion and centrifuge facilities. Uranium-conversion facilities convert lightly processed uranium ore into several compounds, including uranium hexafluoride. Gas centrifuges enrich uranium hexafluoride gas by spinning it at very high speeds. Low-enriched uranium is used to fuel power reactors; HEU can be used to make nuclear weapons. Iran currently has a pilot centrifuge facility and has said it plans to build a much larger commercial facility.

According to the State Department official, Iran had “major problems” with the conversion facility in 2004 when it produced uranium hexafluoride that was unsuitable for enrichment. Tehran also may be having trouble obtaining the proper materials to handle and properly store uranium hexafluoride and other uranium compounds, the official added.

The same State Department official said, however, that Iran may now have overcome at least some of its technical problems. Additionally, a Western diplomat told Arms Control Today Aug. 26 that the facility’s problems could well be overcome in the short term, and pointing out that other countries may be willing to provide Iran with relevant assistance.

Iran also is having trouble with its pilot centrifuge facility, the State Department official said, because it is unable to keep the machines running for a sufficient length of time at the required speeds.

I haven’t gotten a copy of the new IISS dossier on Iran, but the statement by IISS Director John Chipman describes many of the same problems. Still, Chipman concludes “if Iran threw caution to the wind … it might be able to produce enough HEU for a single nuclear weapon by the end of this decade.”


  1. Muskrat (History)

    “if Iran threw caution to the wind … it might be able to produce enough HEU for a single nuclear weapon by the end of this decade.”

    And if I “threw caution to the wind,” by hitting on every good-looking woman I saw, I might get a date with a supermodel in the next five years. Or I might get slapped silly and have the snot beaten out of me by jealous boyfriends, husbands, and the IAEA.

    Besides, I hear the spooks are developing a sniffer than can detect 1 PPB of windorne caution….