March 21, 2009 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Middle East

Iran Now on the Brink of Making the Bomb

On March 1, 2009, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, said Iran has stockpiled enough fissile material to build a nuclear bomb. This is the first such definitive commentary from a senor Pentagon official.

A week later, Israel's military intelligence chief, Major Gen. Amos Yadlin, told the Israeli Cabinet that Iran had crossed the technological threshold to producing a nuclear weapon.

It may not be long, it seems, until Iran has the bomb.

According to Yadlin, Iran has accumulated hundreds of kilograms of low-enriched uranium and hopes to extend its long-running, ever-dithering dialogue with the West to gain time to create a nuclear bomb.

The Israeli military intelligence chief believes "the Middle East is viewing the plan for Iran's nuclearization and the dialogue with the new administration in Washington cautiously. The moderate (Arab states) fear that this approach will be at their expense and will be used by the radical axis while continuing the acts of terror."

The International Atomic Energy Agency reports that Tehran has accumulated 1,010 kilograms (2,222 pounds) of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride from its Natanz plant. That is enough to give Iran "breakout capability," i.e., to turn the nuclear fuel grade LEU into highly enriched uranium (HEU) suitable for nuclear weapons, possibly in a matter of months. Iran's existing LEU stockpile could be enriched into more than 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of weapon-suitable fissile material.

At present, Iran possesses an infrastructure for uranium enrichment that could be reconfigured to weaponization activities. But it would be a highly visible step that might take months to accomplish and that would hardly go unnoticed, according to IAEA experts. Alternatively, Iran could shift its enriched uranium stockpile to a clandestine site for further weaponization; however, no such facilities have been discovered so far.

The light-water reactor and Bushehr nuclear power plant built by Russia are an essential part of Iran's nuclear infrastructure. Completed on Feb. 25, 2009, the Bushehr plant's reactor has been tested successfully byRussia and Iran, using dummy fuel rods.

According to CNN, the heads of the Russian and Iranian nuclear agencies, Sergei Kiriyenko and Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, respectively, observed the test. On the site, the two sides went into talks about long-term nuclear fuel deliveries for the first Iranian power plant.Russia will commit to a 10-year contract supplying nuclear fuel to Bushehr. The actual launch of the Bushehr reactor will likely take place in August or September 2009.

The question then becomes this: If the Russian supply is reliable, why would Iran commit itself to building and operating its own, hugely expensive domestic enrichment program? The answer is staring everyone in the face: The enrichment is for purposes other than peaceful power generation.

A nuclear Iran would have dire geopolitical consequences for the region. And while an Israeli and U.S. nuclear deterrent could discourage Iran from becoming "a suicide-bomber state," many in Israel and the Arab world worry about a resurgent Persian Empire keen on dominating the region. (See Gideon Rachman's article in the Financial Times, published Feb. 23, 2009, "Nuclear Iran? Decision time is here" -- www.ft.com/cms/s/0/4afb85d6-01e0-11de-8199-000077b07658.html.)

A nuclear Iran would destabilize the Middle East by providing stronger support to the radicals of the Hezbollah and Hamas and triggering a nuclear arms race among Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey to counter the Iranian threat.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security at the Allison Center of the Katherine and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First  appeared in UPI