Iran’s Growing Weapons Capability and Its Impact on Negotiations

David Albright and Jacqueline Shire

The crisis over Iran’s growing nuclear weapons capabilities is rapidly reaching a critical point. Recent developments do not bode well for the prospect of successful negotiations that can end concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, at least in the short term.

These concerns center on two related questions: whether Iran can be prevented from using its nuclear program for weapons purposes, and how much confidence the United States and other countries can have in verification measures to ensure that the Iranians are not using their program for such purposes. Iran still has far to go to establish convincingly the peaceful nature of its nuclear efforts. The international community, chiefly through the diplomatic efforts directed by the “P5+1”—the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) plus Germany—has sought to resolve the issue both through diplomatic engagement and, where necessary, pressure.

President Barack Obama is giving the diplomatic process until the end of the year, at which time his administration will take stock of its initiative to pursue nuclear negotiations with Iran.[1] French President Nicolas Sarkozy also set December as a deadline for negotiations to make progress. These cutoff dates now appear unattainable, mainly because of Iranian unwillingness to negotiate limitations on its nuclear program. In early November, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed reservations about the prospects for negotiations with the United States, complaining that the United States under the Obama administration had not “changed” and that the Iranian-U.S. relationship remains one of “sheep and wolf.”[2]

Iran’s ability to negotiate is further complicated by an ongoing internal power struggle generated by the June 12 presidential elections and the violent repression of protests that followed. It is unclear how long this period of uncertainty will last. For now, the Iranian regime might be unable to make significant concessions on the nuclear issue because it remains politically divided and preoccupied with the long-term stability of its rule.

The United States might have few options beyond invoking harsher sanctions and other methods to isolate and contain Iran while continuing to attempt to negotiate limitations on Iran’s uranium-enrichment program in conjunction with greater transparency over Iran’s entire nuclear program.

Prospects for negotiations looked far better only a few weeks ago.

On September 25, in a dramatic announcement on the margins of the Group of 20 economic summit in Pittsburgh, Obama, joined by Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, announced that Iran had been building a covert enrichment facility inside a mountain northeast of the holy city of Qom. This facility was just what many had feared: a secret centrifuge plant in which Iran could potentially produce weapons-grade uranium for nuclear weapons.

The revelation was stunning for its timing and substance. Earlier that week, in the opening statement at the 64th session of the UN General Assembly, Obama had called on countries to “stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and seek the goal of a world without them” and warned Iranian leaders that if they chose to “put the pursuit of nuclear weapons ahead of regional stability and the security and opportunity of their own people,” they would be held accountable.[3] The exposure of the Qom facility and the demand for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections severely damaged the Iranian regime’s credibility and strengthened charges that its covert enrichment activities continued despite its apparent openness at the safeguarded Natanz enrichment facility.

The Qom revelation was followed by an imaginative proposal put forth by the IAEA with the support of the P5+1. Under the proposal, Iran would send out 1,200 kilograms, or almost 70 percent, of its estimated growing stock of low-enriched uranium (LEU)[4] and receive a multiyear supply of 19.75 percent fuel for the small Tehran Research Reactor. The LEU would travel to Russia for further enrichment and then to France for fabrication into fuel, before being shipped back to Tehran in about a year. Earlier in 2009, this LEU stock had become large enough to provide a quick route to a nuclear weapon, which is suspected to be one of the intended purposes of the Qom site, which Iran calls the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant. Further enrichment of the current stock could bring it to weapons-grade levels quite quickly and easily.

By reducing Iran’s stock of LEU, the deal would have bought time and built confidence among all the parties in the negotiations. At current rates of enrichment, Iran would need until almost mid-2010 to produce enough additional LEU to have adequate material once again to produce a sufficient quantity of weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon.[5] Iran would have received badly needed fuel for the research reactor. Iran asked the IAEA last June for help in getting new fuel because it expected to run out in December 2010. Given the many months needed to fabricate this fuel and the inability of Iran to buy new research reactor fuel in the international market, the deal is the best way to keep the reactor from shutting down next year.

After tentatively agreeing to the deal on October 1, Iran backed away from it in late October and early November. Iranian officials conveyed conflicting signals about whether the regime had ever accepted this agreement in the first place and then made a counteroffer to send out the LEU only once the research reactor fuel arrived. Other Iranian officials said that Iran wanted to buy fuel without sending out any LEU at all. All the statements reflected deep mistrust of the P5+1 to deliver any fuel once the regime exported the LEU. Some officials even threatened that if Iran’s proposals were not accepted, it would itself enrich the LEU further to 19.75 percent uranium-235, the level currently used in the Tehran reactor.[6] Abolfazl Zohrevand, adviser to Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Saeed Jalili, told the Iranian news agency IRNA that “circumstances may arise under which Iran will require uranium enriched to 63 [percent], which it will have to either purchase or manufacture itself under IAEA supervision.”[7]

The United States and its European partners quickly rejected these proposed changes to the original offer. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on November 2, “We continue to press the Iranians to accept fully the proposal that has been made, which they accepted in principle.”[8] As discussed further below, sending out the LEU only after fuel arrives or in batches would run the risk that Iran would replace this LEU with fresh material and maintain a stock of LEU large enough for a nuclear “breakout.” Under that scenario, Iran would remove its LEU from IAEA safeguards, possibly withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and further enrich its existing stock of LEU to obtain enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon. Without the crucial aspect of buying time and reducing concern about a breakout, this deal has little benefit to the United States and its European allies.

Rather than accepting Iran’s strategy of extended and inconclusive negotiations, the Obama administration and its partners have little choice now but to implement strategies to impose harsher sanctions and take additional steps to contain Iran. The Obama administration should make clear to the Iranian regime that it remains open to negotiations as long as they lead to measures that increase confidence that Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons. However, the recent disclosures regarding the Qom facility, Iran’s reneging on the LEU deal, the ongoing uranium enrichment at Natanz, and Iran’s growing nuclear weapons capability do not permit the type of extended negotiations Iran seeks.

Iran’s Damaged Credibility

For months before the Qom revelation, the Institute for Science and International Security had heard rumors of a secret enrichment plant, but never with sufficient detail to pinpoint a location. Notwithstanding these reports, the September 25 announcement about the Qom facility deep inside a mountain changed the calculation on Iran.

Obama and IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei charged that the facility was a violation of Iran’s safeguards obligations. More importantly, the revelation eroded confidence among many nations, including China and Russia, in the peaceful and transparent nature of Iran’s nuclear program.

The exact timing of the Qom announcement was prompted by a letter from Iran to the IAEA four days earlier, on September 21, notifying the agency that a new pilot fuel-enrichment plant was under construction in the country[9] without providing a location or any further details on the facility. Iranian officials subsequently announced that the facility would be completed in about 18 months. It appears that Iran had learned that France, the United Kingdom, and the United States knew of the facility; Tehran apparently decided to try to pre-empt any diplomatic maneuvering by the three. U.S. officials stated that the Obama administration planned to reveal what it knew about the site to the Iranians at a later date but that the letter forced their hand. British, French, and U.S. officials spent a frantic few days briefing the IAEA and preparing the public announcement. It remains a mystery how the Iranians learned that their site was discovered.

Intelligence agencies had monitored the site outside Qom for several years. Construction of the centrifuge plant reportedly started in 2006, utilizing a tunnel complex on a military base originally built for another purpose. Commercial satellite images show that the tunnels existed as early as 2004, but significant new construction activities started no sooner than 2006, consistent with the reported start of construction of the centrifuge plant.[10]

Until early 2009, the U.S. intelligence community considered the site an “enigma” facility, a term used in the community to underline uncertainties in ascribing a definitive purpose to a site.[11] Sometime in early 2009, U.S. intelligence agencies accumulated enough evidence to determine with “high confidence” that the site was intended to be an enrichment facility. One important indication was the detection of Iran’s installation at the site of infrastructure necessary for centrifuges.

At the time of the announcement, U.S. intelligence officials estimated that the facility could hold about 3,000 centrifuges. The officials said the facility’s relatively small size, compared to Natanz, which is slated to hold about 50,000 centrifuges, reinforced suspicions that it was intended to produce weapons-grade uranium, despite Iranian statements that the Qom site is intended only for civil research and development. A military enrichment facility producing weapons-grade uranium can be far smaller than an enrichment plant designed to make LEU for nuclear power reactors. The Qom site is appropriately sized to make weapons-grade uranium either in a breakout mode using diverted stocks of LEU from Natanz or more slowly as a parallel effort starting from clandestinely produced natural uranium hexafluoride. No evidence of a secret uranium hexafluoride production facility has surfaced. However, Iran conducts modest uranium mining operations, which are not safeguarded by the IAEA, and some of this uranium could be diverted to a clandestine uranium hexafluoride production plant.

Intelligence agencies were unable to ascertain the type of centrifuges planned for the site, and evidently Iran had not yet installed any centrifuges. Iran subsequently announced that the site would hold about 3,000 P-1 centrifuges but also said that it could reconfigure the facility to contain more-advanced centrifuges.[12] The P-1 centrifuge is installed in the main halls of the Natanz enrichment facility, while the adjacent pilot plant is testing more powerful models. The P-1 centrifuge is based on an old, inefficient model stolen by Abdul Qadeer Khan in the Netherlands in the 1970s and later sold to Iran. Khan also provided Iran a more advanced centrifuge design, which he also stole while in the Netherlands. Iran has modified this design and has tested several variants of it at the Natanz pilot enrichment plant. Iran would like to replace the P-1 centrifuge with one of these more advanced models.

Surprisingly, the IAEA did not demand immediate access to the Qom site, which it could have done even under the relatively weak traditional safeguards now in force in Iran. A quick inspection would have reduced the chances that Iran could have removed incriminating evidence, as it has done in the past at some of the enrichment sites that it tried to hide from inspectors.

The IAEA finally visited the Qom facility in late October and reported publicly on the site in mid-November in its quarterly safeguards report. The inspectors found the centrifuge facility to be at “an advanced stage of construction,” confirming Western intelligence analysis.[13] Iran did not answer all IAEA questions about the intended purpose of the facility and the chronology of the centrifuge plant’s construction. The IAEA stated that Iran’s declaration of the facility “reduces the level of confidence in the absence of other nuclear facilities under construction and gives rise to questions about whether there were any other nuclear facilities in Iran which had not been declared” to the IAEA.[14] One senior official close to the IAEA said that the Iranians’ verbal answer to the question about other sites was so convoluted that the IAEA insisted Iran provide a written statement on that point. According to the November IAEA report, the agency, in a November 6 letter, asked Iran to confirm that it had not “taken a decision to construct, or to authorize construction, of any other nuclear facility that had not been declared” to the IAEA.[15]

A Win-Win Agreement

All experts agree that the small safeguarded Tehran reactor, which makes medical isotopes and conducts civil nuclear research, is running out of fuel; Iran last received fuel for this reactor in the early 1990s from Argentina. Because of Iran’s suspicious nuclear activities, including secret plutonium production in this reactor many years ago, no country has been willing to provide any more fuel. As a result, the deal proposed by the P5+1 would concretely benefit Iran. In addition to providing a solution to the reactor’s looming fuel crisis, the deal includes assistance in upgrading the safety of the U.S.-supplied reactor, which is more than 40 years old, perhaps in the process extending the reactor’s lifetime.

For the United States, the chief appeal of the deal is that it would buy time, reducing pressure created by Iran’s ability for a breakout using the LEU stock. This aspect of the agreement is especially important in helping to dissuade Israel from launching any military strikes. If Iran sent out the agreed amount of LEU and continued to enrich at its current rate, it would take Iran until spring or early summer 2010 to have the minimum amount of LEU needed to provide, after further enrichment, the weapons-grade uranium for a weapon.[16] The exact date remains uncertain. It could be extended if Iran slows its enrichment pace or advanced if Iran brought online some of the more than 4,500 centrifuges currently installed at Natanz but not currently enriching. In any case, the deal would create many months of reduced pressure that might build confidence in the negotiating process and encourage Iran to slow its enrichment output.

One concern raised by this otherwise elegant solution is that it could be construed as de facto acknowledgment and acceptance of Iran’s enrichment activity. U.S. and European officials deny that the deal does that. In fact, the quantity of fuel that would be produced by enriching 1,200 kilograms of LEU hexafluoride, approximately 120 kilograms of 19.75 percent LEU, would last Iran more than a decade at past operating power levels of about 3 megawatts-thermal and more than five years if Iran operated the reactor at its rated power of 5 megawatts-thermal.[17] Because the Tehran reactor does not create an ongoing demand for fuel and any future demand for enriched uranium could easily be met by a foreign supplier, this deal does not establish a precedent for Iran’s continued enrichment. This deal is a small but important step to build confidence and reduce anxiety in the Middle East.

Moreover, the LEU deal was never seen as an ultimate goal, even in the near term. Although it could have stimulated additional diplomacy, it did not remove more pressing issues that require Iran’s cooperation. The principal one is creating a multilateral negotiating structure that would lead to Iran’s suspension of its uranium-enrichment program, which remains in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. In addition, Iran must reverse its continued refusal to address forthrightly its weaponization research and development, make scientists engaged in that work available to the IAEA, open relevant facilities for inspection, and reaccept the more advanced inspection and reporting requirements contained in the additional protocol to Iran’s safeguards agreement with the IAEA.

If Iran acts on its threat to make 19.75 percent enriched uranium, it would likely succeed relatively quickly by utilizing centrifuges already installed at Natanz. Fabricating the fuel for the reactor would be more difficult, as Iran does not currently have the capability to make this type of fuel. Establishing that capability would likely take at least a few years. If Iran produced the 19.75 percent enriched uranium, it would further advance its nuclear weapons capability, even though the operations would be under IAEA safeguards.

Growing Capabilities

In a January 2009 assessment delivered to the Senate Intelligence Committee on behalf of the U.S. intelligence community, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair stated, “Although we do not know whether Iran currently intends to develop nuclear weapons, we assess Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop them.”[18]

The most visible part of Iran’s nuclear weapons capability lies in its ability to enrich uranium at the Natanz enrichment site. As of November 2, 2009, Iran was enriching uranium in approximately 3,936 P-1 centrifuges in 24 cascades, each with 164 centrifuges.[19] This number was six cascades fewer than were operating in June 2009, when the total number of centrifuges enriching uranium was 4,920 in 30 cascades. In addition, Iran had installed or had “under vacuum”[20] an additional 4,756 P-1 centrifuges and was installing another cascade. In total, the underground Natanz plant contained 8,692 centrifuges in 53 complete cascades.

Iran’s average rate of LEU production has remained steady for the nine months preceding the IAEA’s November 2 inspection. On average, it produced about 2.75 kilograms of LEU hexafluoride per day during this period. In total, Iran had produced by that time 1,763 kilograms of LEU hexafluoride. If this material were further enriched, Iran could produce more than enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear device. A minimum amount of LEU required to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a weapon is estimated to be about 1,000 to 1,200 kilograms, depending mainly on a range of assumptions about the amount of weapons-grade uranium needed for a nuclear weapon.

The reason for Iran not enriching in more cascades is unknown. One possibility is that Iran is experiencing continued failures of centrifuges and is viewing the additional cascades as a reserve in case large numbers of cascades fail. (Because individual centrifuges can be replaced after they break, this large reserve is not necessary for routine breakages.) Alternatively, Iran might be holding some cascades in reserve in case it decides to produce higher enriched uranium. A new possibility is that enrichment work has slowed at Natanz as Iranian centrifuge experts focus on getting the Fordow site running.

Iran also may have slowed the pace of enrichment deliberately for political reasons. It might seek to reduce tensions with the rest of the world and avoid provoking additional UN Security Council sanctions. In addition, Iran might have slowed its centrifuge program as a result of the installation of new leadership of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), which might have launched a review of the program. Gholam Reza Aghazadeh resigned as head of the AEOI on July 16, 2009. Aghazadeh, who also resigned as a vice president of Iran, had been the AEOI’s chief since 1997 and had served in the 1980s as the deputy to Mir Hossein Mousavi, who ran against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the June 12 presidential election.[21] Aghazadeh was replaced by Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s longtime representative at the IAEA in Vienna.

So little is known about Iranian intentions regarding Natanz that possibly nothing in particular is wrong. If so, the pace of bringing the additional centrifuges into full operation at Natanz will resume when Iran chooses to speed up the process.

Although Natanz’s cascades so far are configured to produce LEU (less than 5 percent enriched), the plant is large enough to be configured to make significant quantities of weapons-grade uranium. Already, the number of P-1 centrifuges at the underground Natanz enrichment plant exceeds that given in an early Pakistani design for the Kahuta enrichment facility to make weapons-grade uranium using P-1 centrifuges. Iran received this design from the Khan network. This design is configured to produce in four enrichment steps enough weapons-grade uranium for two or more nuclear weapons per year. It requires about 5,800 P-1 centrifuges in 38 cascades, significantly fewer than those that are now at Natanz.

Natanz’s design has many similarities to Kahuta’s. Twenty-four, or approximately two-thirds, of the cascades in the Pakistani design are identical to the existing cascades at Natanz. Eight more cascades, which enrich the LEU to 20 percent, are identical to those at Natanz, except for relatively minor modifications in the equipment to feed the uranium hexafluoride into the cascades and withdraw it later. Weapons-grade uranium (90 percent enriched) is produced in six smaller cascades in two steps, first from 20 percent to 60 percent, and next from 60 percent to weapons-grade. The feed and withdrawal equipment would also be smaller.

If Iran decided to make its own 19.75 percent enriched uranium, it could straightforwardly modify a fraction of Natanz’s cascades to make this material. The IAEA would apply safeguards to the enriched material, but Iran would inch significantly closer to having an installed capability to make weapons-grade uranium.

If Iran sought to produce weapons-grade uranium, it would be expected to pursue covert enrichment, either by diverting its safeguarded LEU or by depending on covert production of natural uranium hexafluoride, in order to lessen the chance of military strikes thwarting its plans. Nonetheless, the above discussion serves to highlight Iran’s growing nuclear weapons capability. The discovery of the Qom site underscores Iran’s growing ability to duplicate covertly what it has accomplished at Natanz. Although the Qom facility became known to intelligence agencies well before it started enriching uranium, governments cannot exclude the possibility of other, undiscovered clandestine enrichment sites either now or in the future, a concern now shared by the IAEA.


Although few doubt that Iran is acquiring the capability to make weapons-grade uranium, debate continues on whether Iran is working on the nuclear weapon itself, a collection of complex activities typically called “weaponization.” A key question is how close Iran is to building a reliable, relatively small nuclear warhead for the Shahab-3 ballistic missile. Able to reach Israel, the Shahab-3 is Iran’s most likely nuclear delivery system.

The oft-cited 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran, now two years old, states with high confidence that “in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” [22] The NIE narrowly defines Iran’s nuclear weapons program to include nuclear weapons design and weaponization work and covert uranium-enrichment work, not its declared and safeguarded work related to uranium enrichment. Nonetheless, it assessed with “moderate confidence” that as of mid-2007, Iran had not restarted weaponization work. A subsequent assessment by the director of national intelligence, issued in January 2009, hewed to the 2007 judgment.

Yet, there is growing evidence that the NIE assessment about weaponization might not be the full story. British, French, and German officials have stated that Iran probably has resumed working on the nuclear weapon itself.[23] The German equivalent to the CIA, the Bundesnachrichtendienst, has published in a court case its assessment that Iran’s nuclear weapons development efforts likely existed in 2007.[24]

Perhaps more to the point, the IAEA has raised doubts regarding Iran’s claims that its program is entirely peaceful in nature. An internal IAEA working document, based on a large collection of information obtained from several member states about Iran’s alleged weaponization activities through the fall of 2003, the same period to which the 2007 NIE refers, sheds light on just how much Iran already knows about making nuclear weapons:

Iran has sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable implosion nuclear device based upon highly enriched uranium as the fission fuel. The necessary information was most likely obtained from external sources and probably modified by Iran. The Agency believes that non-nuclear experiments conducted in Iran would give confidence that the implosion system would function correctly.[25]

Overall, the report concludes that Iran had not yet “achieved the means of integrating a nuclear payload into the Shahab-3 missile with any confidence that it would work” but with “further effort it is likely that Iran will overcome problems and confidence will be built up.”[26]

Little is known about what Iran considers a reliable nuclear warhead. Its engineers might not be experienced enough or have the time to demand the same level of reliability, safety, and security for their nuclear weapons as Western nuclear-weapon states. The choices these engineers make in conjunction with their military leaders will have a major impact on the time Iran will need to field a warhead for the Shahab-3 missile.

Has Iran resumed work on its weaponization problems, getting that much closer to being able to field a warhead for the Shahab-3 missile? Answering this question remains an urgent priority.


U.S. intelligence estimates of when Iran could be technically capable of producing its first nuclear weapon have been broad, falling somewhere between 2010 and 2015. The wide range reflects uncertainties about how fast Iran could surmount technical problems in its centrifuge program, produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a weapon, and deploy a nuclear weapon. These judgments are strictly technical; the Iranian regime would still need to make a political decision to build the weapons. Most believe that this decision has not yet been made.

Because 2010 is so near and most assume that the Iranian regime has not yet decided to build a nuclear weapon, another way to understand Iran’s timeline is to consider worst-case assessments of how long Iran needs to produce its first nuclear weapon. These scenarios might not be the most probable ones, but they are unlikely to underestimate the time Iran needs to build a nuclear weapon, as long as the assumption is true that the Iranian regime has not yet made a decision to make nuclear weapons.

According to a European intelligence official, in May 2009, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom agreed on a common position that Iran could make enough weapons-grade uranium and then build a nuclear device in 12 months. This device would be unlikely to be weaponized for the Shahab-3 missile, the intelligence official said.[27]

A worst-case estimate for the time Iran needs to build a weaponized warhead was reported recently as 18 months.[28] This estimate is reportedly a rough agreement but not a formal assessment shared by top Western intelligence agencies. It is longer than the previous estimate and includes the time needed to weaponize the weapons-grade uranium into a nuclear weapon. Weaponization means, as stated to one of the authors, the construction of a warhead for the Shahab-3 missile. About six months would be necessary to produce the weapons-grade uranium from the LEU and another 12 months would be needed for weaponization.[29]

The LEU removal deal would have the advantage of adding many months to these estimates. Without this deal, the soonest one could expect an Iranian nuclear weapon is late 2010 to mid-2011. These estimates would be pushed back if Iran experienced significant technical problems or delayed a decision to build nuclear weapons.


Iran has an intermediate nuclear status. It has the technical capability to make nuclear weapons, but it has not acted on that capability, as far as is known. It has been compared in this respect to Japan, which has a latent nuclear weapons capability because of its advanced civil nuclear fuel cycle. Yet, Iran differs markedly from Japan, which has never had a nuclear weapons program and has not deceived or stonewalled the international community as to the purpose of its major nuclear fuel-cycle activities. More apt comparisons are South Africa in the 1970s, Brazil in the late 1980s, and India in the 1960s and early 1970s, although those countries were not NPT parties during the relevant period.

How the United States and its allies manage this dangerous period of Iran’s growing nuclear weapons capabilities could determine whether Iran takes the step to build nuclear weapons. Like the other cases, the outcome is by no means certain. Undoubtedly, the Obama administration will expand economic, political, and possibly even military pressure on Iran in an attempt to keep Iran from stepping out of its threshold status and convince it to suspend its enrichment program. At the same time, the United States needs to avoid pushing Iran into a corner from which the Iranian leadership believes building nuclear weapons is its only option or worth the risk that such a step entails. All the while, the United States will need to avoid giving other states in the region incentives to seek nuclear weapons.

The prospects for negotiations currently appear dim, despite Obama’s promise of a new start to U.S.-Iranian relations, and Iran continues advancing its nuclear weapons capabilities. The manner in which Iran has conducted negotiations has given little hope that its current ruling regime intends to compromise on two critical issues: suspension of its uranium-enrichment program and the acceptance of far greater transparency of its past and current nuclear program. Nevertheless, efforts to negotiate with Iran should not be abandoned, nor should military strikes of Iran’s nuclear sites be considered. The latter is unlikely by itself to set back Iran’s nuclear efforts significantly, and military strikes carry an immense risk of significantly worsening the conflict and accelerating Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons.

The Iranian regime must now make a new choice, if any future negotiations are to be fruitful. Few expect the regime to do so at this time. The most likely scenario involves a chilling of relations with the Iranian regime and the development of a containment and deterrence strategy similar to the one deployed against the Soviet Union in the early days of the Cold War. Under this strategy, one priority would be to build alliances with Arab states to meet their security concerns and head off any ambitions for their own nuclear weapons capabilities. Another would be to improve regional missile defense systems aimed at reducing the threat posed by Iranian short- and medium-range missiles. Bolstered sanctions would also serve as an important tax on Iran’s economy as well as a more effective disruption of Iran’s ability to shop overseas for goods vital to its nuclear and missile programs. Containment, however, is not an end in itself; it must have the goal of changing Iran’s calculus on the nuclear issue. But if that fails, there would already be a mechanism in place to mitigate the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons. Its prospects of convincing the Iranian regime to reverse its nuclear course might not be great in the short term, but in the longer term, containment stands a far better chance of success than military action or the current path of extended, inconclusive negotiations.

David Albright, a physicist, is president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). Jacqueline Shire is a senior analyst at ISIS and a former official of the Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.


1. Howard LaFranchi, “Iran Nuclear Deal: Why the Haggling Might Be Different This Time,” Christian Science Monitor, October 31, 2009,

2. “Leader: Iran Not Seeing U.S.-Promised Changes,” Press TV, November 3, 2009.

3. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by the President to the United Nations General Assembly,” New York, September 23, 2009,

4. As of October 30, 2009, Iran had 1,763 kilograms of low-enriched uranium (LEU) hexafluoride.  See IAEA Board of Governors, Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and Relevant Provisions of Security Council Resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008) and 1835 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Report by the Director General, GOV/2009/74, November 16, 2009. When the IAEA Iranian LEU deal was first agreed on October 1, 2009, the amount of LEU slated for removal comprised about 75 percent of the total LEU stock at that time, or 80 percent of the LEU quantity in mid-August. The last quantity is often given in media reports.

5. This estimate assumes that the entire agreed quantity of LEU would be sent out by the end of the year.

6. Originally, the Tehran Research Reactor used weapons-grade uranium fuel (90 percent uranium-235) provided by the United States. After Iran’s 1979 revolution, the United States cut off any further fuel supplies. In the late 1980s, Argentina agreed to supply more fuel, but insisted that Iran accept a new fuel enriched to only 19.75 percent, which is just below the level of highly enriched uranium (HEU), defined as containing more than 20 percent uranium-235. Although HEU can be used in nuclear explosives, the material enriched to 19.75 percent could not for practical purposes be turned into a nuclear explosive. Until now, no supplier, including Argentina, has been willing to provide Iran with more fuel for this reactor.

7. Middle East Media Research Institute, “Iranian Supreme National Security Council Advisor: ‘Circumstances May Arise Under Which Iran Will Require Uranium Enriched to 63%,’” MEMRI Special Dispatch, No. 2605 (October 19, 2009),

8. U.S. Embassy, “Secretary Clinton’s Remarks With Moroccan Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi-Fihri in Marrakesh, Morocco,” London, November 2, 2009,

9. Mark Heinrich, “Iran Tells IAEA It Is Building 2nd Enrichment Plant,” Reuters, September 25, 2009,

10. Paul Brannan, “New Satellite Image Further Narrows Construction Start Date,” Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), November 15, 2009.

11. U.S. intelligence official, communication with author, September 25, 2009.

12. Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement, Nov. 16, 2009.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. If Iran sent out 1,200 kilograms of LEU, then its remaining stock as of October 30 would be 563 kilograms (see note 4). Iran is estimated to need at least 1,000 to 1,200 kilograms of LEU hexafluoride to enrich further and end up with enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon. At current average rates of enrichment (2.75 kilograms of LEU hexafluoride per day, or about 83 kilograms per month), Iran would need about 5.3-7.7 months to re-establish a breakout capability. Thus, Iran is roughly estimated to achieve this capability once again in mid-April to mid-June 2010.

17. David Albright, “Technical Note: Annual Future LEU Fuel Requirements for the Tehran Research Reactor,” ISIS, October 7, 2009,

18. Dennis Blair, “Annual Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence,” February 12, 2009, p. 20,

19. Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement, Nov. 16, 2009.

20. Centrifuge cascades operate under vacuum in order to reduce the friction caused by rapidly spinning centrifuge rotors. Thus, one of the first steps in starting a centrifuge is to establish a vacuum inside the cascade. Then, the centrifuge rotors are turned on, giving rise to the term “centrifuges operating under vacuum.” The next and last major step is introducing the uranium hexafluoride into the cascade.

21. BBC News, “Iranian Nuclear Chief Steps Down,” July 16, 2009,

22. U.S. National Intelligence Council, “National Intelligence Estimate: Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities,” November 2007, The National Intelligence Estimate incorporates intelligence reporting available as of October 31, 2007.

23. Multiple interviews with German, French, and British officials by ISIS staff (Albright and Shire), 2008 and 2009.

24. David Albright and Christina Walrond, “The Trials of the German-Iranian Trader Mohsen Vanaki,” ISIS, September 16, 2009.

25. ISIS, “Excerpts From Internal IAEA Document on Alleged Iranian Nuclear Weaponization,” October 2, 2009,

26. Ibid.

27. European intelligence official, communication with author, August 2009.

28. Louis Charbonneau, “Iran Would Need 18 Months for Atom Bomb: Diplomats,” Reuters, October 26, 2009.

29. Ibid.