When will Iran have its Bomb?

Watch out for the Big Bad Row

The IAEA submitted its latest report on Iran’s nuclear programme to its board of governors on 26th May. (via V Anantha Nageswaran). The report points out that Iran has been operating its assembly of 3000 IR-1 centrifuges at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant with greater efficiency and is in the process of adding another similar assembly. It is experimenting with advanced centrifuge designs (modified Pakistani P2 designs, replacing maraging steel rotors with carbon fibre composite ones), although these remain employed in the pilot stage.

The IAEA report finds Iran guilty of both procedural violations (reporting installations post facto, rather than in advance) as well as for not providing satisfactory accounts of alleged weapons development activities (preparing an underground shafts for testing, testing detonators and warhead designs, and modifying the Shahab-3 ballistic missile to carry a nuclear warhead). [See Arms Control Wonk‘s post]

So what does this tell us about the all important question: when will Iran have a bomb ready?

Assuming that Iran does not have other secret nuclear plants well hidden from the public eye, the reasonable assumption is that Iran will use the Natanz facilities to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) that will go into its bomb. According to Jeffrey Lewis’ handy calculator, Iran will need between 156 to 293 days to produce enough HEU for a bomb. If it gets the second assembly of 3000 centrifuges operating, that period will be halved, to about 78-147 days. As Dr Lewis’s calculations show, the time to produce sufficient HEU gets shorter if more centrifuges become operational, or their efficiency improves.

In addition to having sufficient quantities of HEU, Iran must also have a functioning weapons design—again thanks to Pakistan and A Q Khan, that should not be too difficult.

But Iran’s centrifuges are not yet producing HEU. The IAEA is keeping watch over the nuclear material and the centrifuge cascades in the Natanz facility. It is likely to know if and when the Iranian authorities decide to go into the bomb mode. A possible indicator of this happening is when Iran and the IAEA have the Big Bad Row. Depending on how many centrifuges Iran has working then, we can estimate the time it will take to produce and assemble a bomb. That could be anywhere between 78 days (if the second assembly is operational) to 293 days (if only the existing one is operational). If you are looking for a ready reckoner: you can assume that Iran has the bomb three months from the Big Bad Row.

(Some Europeans are going to look silly when that happens. So will the some Americans. But other events—both ugly ones and not-at-all-ugly ones—might well spare them from the embarrassment. )

15 thoughts on “When will Iran have its Bomb?”

  1. The problem I dont understand clearly is why Iran cant have a nuclear bomb. Is it because “they are ruled by a bunch of fanatics who want to destroy one country in particular” or because nuclear NPT treaty will be formally dead if Iran explodes a nuke or because of regional instability with other nations (Saudi, Jordan etc) racing to produce a bomb or is it because of the way they gained access to nuclear know-how which is through non-proliferation?

    Clearly, replace Iran by Pakistan and whatever I have mentioned in my previous para is perfectly valid. Are Indian lives cheap that the world tolerates a fanatical country but a “certain other lives” are too costly and hence nukes for Iran must be stopped “at all costs”.

    I mean why cant we let Iran have a bomb? I think Iran should go ahead and test a nuke so that some ugly questions will come out in the open.

  2. @SumneNeeve:

    Despite any claim to the contrary, the reality of the geopolitical game is that nation states act in their self-interest and that of their trusted allies, and not to uphold some ethereal moral standard. It’d be immature of India not to join forces with those opposed to a nuclear-armed Iran – another not so friendly neighbor, as history has shown repeatedly – just to spite them for having allowed Pakistan to go nuclear. Mark these words: a nuclear Iran will be a far more serious threat to India than Pakistan will ever be. It’s in the self-interest of India to nip this in the bud.

  3. I agree with TRF. Iranian bomb is a threat to Indian interests. It is not just because of the current regime’s fanaticism but also Iran’s traditional ambitions. It aspires to be a regional hegemon, influences Shia Muslims(of which we’ve many, as seen during Bush visit protests), and will end up proliferating to other lesser countries opening up a whole Pandora’s box. Besides Iranian actions can lead to Saudi/Sunni desperation letting the nuclear chain loose in a dangerous neighborhood. If we get in an energy agreements with them the cost of their insanity grows manifolds for us.

  4. Well…when Iran does have a bomb, that will be a bad day for non Islamic countries. It only takes a nut case mullah to launch an attack on the dal al harbs!

  5. I am not worried. When Barack Christo Obama wins, he will talk the Persians out of building the bomb. And then he will proceed to part the red sea.

  6. TRF, in his answer, has no substance in his answer, only rhetoric. The same rhetoric that conservative-nationalistic America and the conservative-nationalistic west spouts.

    socal brings up the following points.
    1. regional hegemon: the US is a global hegemon. it is hypocritical to “join forces” with someone who already is a global hegemon.
    2. influences Shia Muslims. and this is relevant how? considering that they pretty much have all the world’s Shias.
    3. proliferation. are we saying that conventional weapons are not being proliferated by the west?

    stop sucking up to the west, and mention reasons which singles out Iran as the sole culprit if you can.

  7. Is it about Iranian nuclear fuel cycle? No.

    Israel advocates that Iran would be dangerous learning about nuclear technology; what if they use this knowledge sometimes in the future and make nuclear bombs. Israel, whose nuclear arsenals and airplane to deliverer the devices were subsidized mostly by USA, has been assure by both Republican and Democratic candidates that if Iranians would ever develop any nuclear bomb and if she would use the bomb on Israel, we will obliterate Iran to dust. All is fair. But, Iranians are not that stupid to risk their existence to a trigger happy Israel.

    They have said multiple times they are not developing nuclear bomb. They even have asked us to join them in an international consortium in their nuclear fuel cycle. They want to generate electricity. Israel and USA are insisting that unless Iran stops their nuclear fuel cycle, jointly they will destroy their country.

    But we have another way to look at this problem:
    USA indicates that would ever Iran need nuclear fuel, we will sell them at our price and our time. You know nuclear fuel is the oil of tomorrow. We want to keep our own nuclear fuel cartel. Wait until their oil wells go dry sometimes before 2025, they will come to USA begging for nuclear fuel, i.e. if we would allow them to have any nuclear reactor. We would not even allow them to have a Geiger Muller counter.

    Be serious. It is all about management of international resources.

  8. This non-proliferation thing is so not scalable. If India and Pakistan can have WMDs, that too by two very different means, development and acquisition, then anyone can, especially someone with oil money. Who all are we going to stop from acquiring/developing nuclear weapons? Another way needs to be figured out.

    Of course, when I say that, I assume that the objective is to do just that, “prevent proliferation” and not to use non-proliferation as a stick to beat countries who are stationed in the opposite corner of the ring.

    OK, now that I’ve had my caffeine shot(..and got my realism back..), let me point out that an Iranian bomb is not beneficial to us, not just because of all the points mentioned by others in the thread, but also and more significantly because it undermines American influence and leverage in the region, and as KSub pointed out in the Pragati interview, that with us lower down in the power order, it is better to ensure that almost-an-ally like US stays in the No. 1 position till we are able to improve our own status.

  9. Mr. Hegemon displays an utter lack of understanding of how international politics should be played.

    1. States are allowed to be hypocritical if it is in their self-interest.

    2. don’t know about shia muslim demographic profile. Suffice to say, another nuclear armed islamic fanatic state in the neighborhood makes India even more isolated in a setting where the notorious Pak-China grouping has already bleeded it a lot.

    3. Flawed logical deduction. From where did proliferation of conventional weapons come into discussion.

    India has already suffered a lot due to the moral high ground it invariably never fails to occupy in any global conflict. It is high time India becomes as fiercely selfish as China or US or, for that matter, any intelligent country in the world.

  10. @Harshit

    “1. States are allowed to be hypocritical if it is in their self-interest.”

    If states are allowed, then shouldn’t everyone be allowed? Anyways, you won’t be hypocritical unless it is in your self-interest.

    The question is rather what should be allowed as deterrence. India is not supplying any material related to nuclear technology nor is it supplying any nuclear raw materials. We can get oil/gas from Iran and ONGC among other firms has oil interests in Iran. We should just keep our mouth shut. If Iran has the bomb, it might just motivate US to break Pakistan-China nexus especially with regards to nuclear proliferation and “co-operation”.

  11. stop sucking up to the west, and mention reasons which singles out Iran as the sole culprit if you can.

    Mr. Hegemon,

    You should stop raising the boogie of West and start focusing on Indian interests instead. Overlapping interests, especially long-term ones, is an asset in world diplomacy. Probing for them and acting in unison does not mean sucking up but is rather considered prudence.

    Iran is the sole culprit because of its irresponsible actions and those of its leaders. Its current President is on record saying that he will use nuclear weapons towards some messianic purposes. This turns all the dynamics of nuclear weapons use on its head. The world, India included, can only allow such an antediluvian power as the Iranian regime to acquire nukes at its peril–who knows what Iran will choose next?

    As for your points:

    1. regional hegemon: the US is a global hegemon. it is hypocritical to “join forces” with someone who already is a global hegemon.

    >>>It certainly is. Doesn’t mean we’ve to let the creation of another regional hegemon go unchallenged. Iran has violated its international agreements under NPT. The real hypocrisy would be not to call Iran to account for its violations. Not since India itself makes it a point to follow the treaties it is party to. Shouldn’t you be happy that the world hegemon is “joining forces” with us towards this noble purpose?

    2. influences Shia Muslims. and this is relevant how? considering that they pretty much have all the world’s Shias.

    >>>Everytime Iran gets in trouble due to its own irresponsible actions, it foments trouble in Shia pockets around the world to deflect attention. The massive Shiite mullah protests in India during President Bush’s visit were a disturbing wake up call of its influence on our internal politics. A nuclear armed Iran will be more prone to such egregious behavior. We, or for that matter any country with Shia presence will be vulnerable to Iran’s shenanigans. India should make sure that this doesn’t repeat.

    3. proliferation. are we saying that conventional weapons are not being proliferated by the west?
    Your point being? Conventional weapons are being proliferated by every country since time immemorial. Iranian Shah’s have proliferated those to Islamic insurgents in India for centuries. China was caught selling weapons to Zimbabwe to help Mugabe subvert democracy. Russia has been a know proliferator. So is the West. Proliferation of nuclear weapons is however something else. Pakistan has become a headache for us because China supplied them with nukes. Iran’s proliferation can destabilize Middle East and the fragile oil supplies there, sending the world economy for a toss.

  12. This from the preamble to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran:

    In the formation and equipping of the country’s defence forces, due attention must be paid to faith and ideology as the basic criteria. Accordingly, the Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps are to be organized in conformity with this goal, and they will be responsible not only for guarding and preserving the frontiers of the country, but also for fulfilling the ideological mission of jihad in God’s way; that is, extending the sovereignty of God’s law throughout the world (this is in accordance with the Koranic verse “Prepare against them whatever force you are able to muster, and strings of horses, striking fear into the enemy of God and your enemy, and others besides them” [8:60]).[emphasis mine]

    You be the judge of on which side India should be.

  13. To add to what TheRationalFool pointed to:

    “We must believe in the fact that Islam is not confined to geographical borders, ethnic groups and nations. It’s a universal ideology that leads the world to justice. We don’t shy away from declaring that Islam is ready to rule the world. We must prepare ourselves to rule the world.” — Ahmadinejad, Jan 5th, 2006. [Source.]

  14. Iran is a signatory of the NPT and has, legally and morally committed to not enriching U outside ‘safeguards’. Iran is also hell bent on cheating out of its int’l commitments. Pak cant really be compared to Iran in that Pak, like India, never signed the NPT.

    Iran’s bomb is sure to bring out a counter set of sunni bombs. Saudi, Egypt and Pak are the primary hankerers for such status.

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