There’s spirited debate on this issue, some of it informed. Estimates range from a few months to 10 years. My estimate is 18 months, but here are some snips for you to form your own opinion.
Charles Krauthammer in WaPo (my emphasis):
Makes you want to weep. …Britain, France and Germany admitted that their two years of talks to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program had collapsed. The Iranians had broken the seals on their nuclear facilities and were resuming activity in defiance of their pledges to the “E.U. Three.” This negotiating exercise, designed as an alternative to the U.S. approach of imposing sanctions on Iran for its violations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, had proved entirely futile. If anything, the two-year hiatus gave Iran time to harden its nuclear facilities against bombardment, acquire new antiaircraft capacities and clandestinely advance its program.
Ah, success. Instead of being years away from the point of no return for an Iranian bomb, as we were before we allowed Europe to divert anti-proliferation efforts into transparently useless talks, Iran is probably just months away.
Now Arms Control Wonk (my ellipsis):
When some moron like Charles Krauthammer claims Iran is now just “months” away from a bomb, you can pretty much ignore him: He has no idea what he is talking about.
Overall, Iran is probably a little less than a decade away from developing a nuclear weapon.
So, the real question, however, is how quickly Iran could assemble and operate 1,500 centrifuges in a crash program to make enough HEU for one bomb (say 15-20 kg).
Albright and Hinderstein have created a notional timeline for such a program:
- Assemble 1,300-1,600 centrifuges. Assuming Iran starts assembling centrifuges at a rate of 70-100/month, Iran will have enough centrifuges in 6-9 months.
- Combine centrifuges into cascades, install control equipment, building feed and withdrawal systems, and test the Fuel Enrichment Plant. 1 year.
- Enrich enough HEU (Highly Enriched Uranium) for a nuclear weapon. 1 year
- Weaponize the HEU. A “few” months.
Total time to the bomb—about three years.
Some of the comments on this piece are well informed, and there’s this splendid put down:
Comment 1 (Brit, I suspect):
My questions, as an obviously naive European, are as follows:
1) why is GWB trying to build up a case for war in Iran? What is the benefit to himself given that at the end of this term he can’t seek re-election? Or is there a cunning plan (cf. Baldrick in Blackadder) to place the next Bush in the dynasty at the White House?
2) Although I am not advocating appeasement, would it not be a good idea to tread carefully given that Iran’s internal politics is obviously in turmoil? Doesn’t lending credence and weight to the Iranian “agents provocateurs” actually give a longer lifeline to the wrong faction? Would it not be a rather radical step to endorse an entirely civilian programme under NPT protocols and verification?
I’ll agree that you’re an obviously naive European.
1. Where is GWB building up a case for war?? And even if he was, why must it necessarily be self-serving?
Maybe he’s just actually concerned about an apocalyptic regime who wants to wipe Israel off the face of the earth acquiring nukes. It doesn’t appear that the EU is too keen on it either. BTW why on earth would you think that another war would help him get re-elected anyway? Quite the opposite.
2. You are essentially advocating appeasement. Time is of the essence here. Ahmadinejad can pussy-foot around just enough to give him time to finish off the Tehran Project.
Sort of like allowing Hitler to re-arm after WWI.
Arms Control Wonk comes across as a bureaucrat who doesn’t understand crash programs. Assuming the Mullahs are running one (they’d be idiots not to), I’d expect them to test a weapon in 18 months.
For an insight into how these programs work, see the history of the Stealth and Blackbird projects here.