For Immediate Release: March 2, 2009
Press Contacts: Greg Thielmann, (202) 463-8270 x103 and Peter Crail, (202) 463-8270 x102
Experts at the nonpartisan Arms Control Association (ACA) urged senior U.S. officials and the media to exhibit greater care to accurately state what is known about Iran's nuclear capabilities. The experts highlighted the confusion created over the weekend by inaccurate portrayals of the type of nuclear material Iran has produced which suggested that Tehran was closer to a nuclear weapon than public U.S. intelligence and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports indicate.
Responding to a question on CNN's "State of the Union" Mar. 1 regarding whether Iran has enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen stated "we think they do, quite frankly, and Iran having a nuclear weapon, I've believed for a long time, is a very, very bad outcome for the region and for the world."
The question was based on a Feb. 19 IAEA report which found that Iran has now stockpiled approximately 1010 kilograms of low-enriched uranium (LEU), an amount which, theoretically, could be enough to make material for a weapon if enriched further. The question confused this stockpile with fissile material, which is either highly-enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium. LEU cannot be used in a nuclear weapon.
"Mullen's answer unfortunately contributed to this confusion and suggested that the United States believes that Iran has already created the material needed for a nuclear weapon, which does not seem to be the case according to published U.S. intelligence assessments," stated Greg Thielmann, senior fellow with ACA. Thielmann directs ACA's new "Realistic Threats and Responses" project.
Mullen's spokesman, Captain John Kirby, later offered a correction to CNN, stating that Mullen was only referring to the LEU identified in the IAEA report.
"The confusion surrounding the question of what material Iran has and whether or not it has enough for a weapon demonstrates the need to be precise when defining what we know about Iran's capabilities, especially considering the impact such assessments may have on public perception," said Peter Crail, a research analyst for ACA.
"Low-enriched uranium is not fissile material and the IAEA did not say that Iran had any of the latter," Crail noted. "But with headlines running over the past week stating that Iran had enough material for a bomb, one could easily assume there was not much of a difference," he added.
The stockpile of LEU cited in the IAEA report remains under agency safeguards. In order to use this material for a weapon, Iran would need to remove it from agency containment and surveillance and enrich it further to the high levels needed for a weapon. Iran's declared enrichment facility at Natanz is not currently configured to carry out this additional enrichment and doing so would require actions that would be detected by IAEA inspectors. Accordingly, the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) assessed that Iran would most likely use a clandestine facility to produce HEU if it decided to build a weapon. It is not known whether Iran has such a secret facility at present.
The U.S. intelligence community also continues to assess that Iran is still some time from having enough HEU for a weapon. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said in Senate testimony Feb. 15, "Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame."
"There are a number of reasons for this timeframe, including assumptions about the efficiency Iran has demonstrated in running its centrifuges," Thielmann stressed.
When asked Mar. 1 on NBC's "Meet the Press" about the possibility of getting Iran to abandon nuclear weapons, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates offered a measured answer, stating that the Iranians are "not close to a stockpile, they're not close to a weapon at this point and so there is some time," to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
"Gates underscored an important point regarding what we know about Iran's capabilities and what it means for our strategy," Thielmann said. "His remarks imply that there has been no change in the intelligence community's 2007 assessment that Iran halted its covert nuclear weapons program in the Fall of 2003. If Iran is still some time from having sufficient material for a weapon, and indeed, has not made a decision to develop and test a weapon, there is still time for a diplomatic strategy to try to walk Iran away from such a course," argued Thielmann.
"In terms of the bigger picture, what is far more worrisome than Iran's stockpile of LEU under IAEA safeguards is the fact that Tehran is not providing the agency with broader access under the agency's Additional Protocol so that it can better detect any undeclared nuclear activities in the country, including through the monitoring of Iran's centrifuge manufacturing efforts," Crail asserted. "The public focus on the known nuclear material seems to gloss over the more critical risk of Iranian efforts that may occur, or may be occurring in secret," he said.