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Q&A: How Close Is Iran To Getting Nuclear Bomb?

Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami at the Natanz nuclear facility (file photo) (AFP) Iran's resumption of uranium enrichment work has heightened concerns in Europe and Washington that Tehran is developing nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian atomic energy program. In an interview recorded on 13 January, RFE/RL spoke about Iran's capacity to produce nuclear weapons with Rose Gottemoeller, a former high-level U.S. nonproliferation official who recently became director of the Moscow office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an independent think tank.

RFE/RL: The talk is now of Iran crossing a 'red line' in its nuclear program, with this step of going towards enriching uranium. What does this mean in terms of a timeline for Iran having the capacity to build a nuclear bomb?

Gottemoeller: This new reopening of their research program, removing seals from some of the experiments and moving in the direction of expanding research activities again, this is one in a series of 'red lines' that they have crossed. However, it is important, I think, to recognize that Iran is not in the same position that North Korea is in. North Korea has already produced enough plutonium for eight or nine bombs and, so far as we know, Iran has not yet produced a significant amount of either highly enriched uranium or plutonium -- a significant amount is the [terminology] for the amount that's needed for a bomb, usually about 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium and eight or so kilograms of plutonium.

RFE/RL: There was some discussion after an article in "The New York Times" in November about Iran trying to design a compact warhead for use on the Shahab-3 missile. How much concern is there still about that particular issue?

Gottemoeller: Iran still has not even produced the fissile material to produce a bomb, much less taking the difficult steps [needed] to fabricate a bomb and then making it capable of mating up with a weapons platform, like a ballistic missile. So there are several, several stages they need to go through before they are at that point.

RFE/RL: There have been estimates -- one widely cited by Israeli intelligence -- of Iran being nuclear weapons-capable sometime midway through 2007. Is there a consensus on this issue?

Gottemoeller: I would say there's really no consensus on this topic. The Israelis feel very strongly about their estimate, that it is a good estimate. It tends to be, I would say, at the worst-case end of that spectrum, and more recent estimates from U.S. intelligence have placed the time farther out -- 2011, 2015, those kind of time ranges. So it is a situation at this point where there is a wide range of estimates and I think we have to take all of the estimates seriously [when] considering what might be possible. And so it is important to take account of the Israeli estimate of 2007, but to remember that there is a wide range of estimates on this point.

RFE/RL: What gives most concern that Iran is not pursuing purely peaceful means for nuclear power as it's repeatedly been saying?

Gottemoeller: The biggest concern is that Iran developed a very extensive network of secret facilities, which they took steps to hide by burying them underground and otherwise making them difficult to find via satellite imagery. This has been going on for 18 years, so it's pretty clear to the nonproliferation community that they've had a very serious nuclear program in mind. That is what, I think, is the greatest source of concern. Why have they developed such a large centrifuge plant at Natanz, for example? If they're only talking about peaceful nuclear uses, they wouldn't need such an enormous plant as they've already built and then [tried] to bury underground at Natanz.

RFE/RL: Some say you reach a point in this type of development where you suddenly, it's like you pick an apple from the tree of knowledge and there's no turning back. Is Iran near this point?

Gottemoeller: People like to say 'well, bomb designs are on the internet, it's something you can look up and figure out for yourself any day.' I think that that's a little too facile, to tell you the truth. Because it does take knowledge of metallurgy, it takes knowledge of electronics, it takes knowledge of a lot of issues and you have to bring a whole team together in order to actually fabricate a bomb. So the fissile material, acquiring the fissile material, we always say that that is the major barrier that any proliferator has to overcome and I do agree with that point. But then to say it's a snap after that to build a nuclear bomb I think is also inaccurate. It's very important to understand that it takes a number of technical steps and that you really have to have a lot of in-house expertise in various areas to make it happen. So Iran is, I believe, still in the process -- if it is moving down the bomb path -- it's still in the process of building that team.

Iran's Nuclear Program

Iran's Nuclear Program

THE COMPLETE PICTURE: RFE/RL's complete coverage of controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program.


An annotated timeline of Iran's nuclear program.