The Iran NIE…How Long Until A Nuke?

At first glance, it looks as if the time frame for Iran to build a nuclear weapon in the new NIE is the same as the one in the 2005 NIE. But I think the new estimate might actually suggest that the time frame is slightly longer.

One the last page of the “current NIE,”: there’s a chart comparing the two estimates. The last row discusses the date by when Tehran could produce enough HEU for a nuke. On this point, the two estimates are essentially the same. The 2005 NIE says that Iran could do it “by the end of this decade”; the 2007 NIE says that “the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a weapon is late 2009.”

But the row above that is more interesting. It shows that, according to the 2005 NIE, the IC judged it “unlikely” that Iran would “make a *nuclear weapon*… before early-to-mid next decade.” The corresponding box for the 2007 NIE, however, says that “the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of *producing enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a weapon* is late 2009…”.

After noting that this date is “very unlikely,” the chart explains that

bq. We judge with moderate confidence Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon
*sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame. (INR judges that Iran is unlikely to achieve this capability before 2013 because of foreseeable technical and programmatic problems.)*

That row is the only one that talks about weaponization. And only for the 2005 NIE. As we all know, there’s a distinction between these two things.

It’s a bit hard to compare these two estimates, but it _looks like_ the new one is positing a slightly longer time frame to a weapon than the previous estimate – it’s now early-to-mid next decade for Iran to acquire enough HEU for a weapon, as opposed to developing the actual weapon.

In addition to the lack of a weaponization date in the 2007 NIE, it’s hard to compare the two estimates because the 2005 NIE doesn’t compare the likelihood of different timeframes for weapons development. It’s possible that the 2005 estimate was a worst-case scenario and the time by which Tehran was _likely_ to have a nuke was later.

p=. *Covert Enrichment*

In any case, we should pay attention to the fact that the 2007 NIE is assessing the dates by which Iran could be capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon. However, the NIE says that

bq. We assess with moderate confidence that *Iran probably would use covert facilities*— rather than its declared nuclear sites—*for the production of highly enriched uranium for a weapon.*

I agree with this assessment…I find the notion that Iran would pull out of the NPT to be very unlikely, though I wouldn’t rule it out. If Tehran were to go this route, it would (for obvious reasons) take considerably more time to produce the relevant fissile material.

In other news, I was remiss before in failing to point out that Carah Ong has several good posts on the issue at “her place.”:

2 thoughts on “The Iran NIE…How Long Until A Nuke?

  1. PC

    I see your point about timeframes. My impression is basically that the estimates haven’t really changed though. Five years is a pretty big window when the early date is about 2 years off. I’d be curious to know if the classified version of the 2005 NIE (or perhaps the one that it was updating) included specific years like 2007, and was just changed to “early to mid-next decade” in the unclassified version.

    I agree with the covert enrichment route as well, and I suspect that influenced, in part, the notion that an early date for creating enough HEU for a weapon is very unlikely.

  2. MarkoB

    A very interesting post. The estimate totaly ignores the issue of when Iran can develop a nuclear warhead available for delivery against the CONUS by ballistic missile. Doing so pushes these dates out way further. If the purpose is to develop an estimate of when Iran could hit the US with a nuke you have to include that…especially given all the fuss about GMD interceptors for Poland.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *