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Hot Debate Over Red Lines

11:50 AM, Sep 14, 2012 • By MICHAEL MAKOVSKY AND BLAISE MISZTAL
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The Israelis, on the other hand – partly out of concern for their own ability to strike Iran’s nuclear program – seem to have set their own red line at nuclear weapons capability and have become increasingly anxious as that capability draws closer. Indeed, based on the latest IAEA report released on August 30, Iran’s nuclear program is performing faster and better than in any prior period, despite tough sanctions and cyber warfare.  Iran continues to produce 3.5 percent enriched uranium at the fastest rate ever – 62 percent faster than the end of 2011—and is using more centrifuges than ever before. Most disturbingly, Iran continues to accelerate its production of 20 percent enriched uranium; the production rate has more than tripled since the end of last year.  Iran’s stockpile of 3.5 percent and 20 percent enriched uranium could already yield, with further enrichment, enough highly enriched uranium (HEU), uranium enriched above 90 percent, for several nuclear devices. Our calculations, and those of some other experts, suggest that if Iran chose to produce a nuclear weapon, which it has yet to do, it might be able to produce 20 kilograms of HEU – the minimum needed for a crude nuclear device – in between 26 to 102 days, depending on the production process (there remains uncertainty about the technical capability of Iran’s centrifuges and the knowhow of its scientists). We estimate that that 26-102 day range could shrink by early 2013 to 8-88 days, if Iran continues on its current trajectory.

With IAEA inspections happening on average every 40-60 days, Iran theoretically could already produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon, move it to a secret site, and, potentially, install it in a weapon before the world ever found out. Using the upper bound of the range as a guide, Iran is not yet at nuclear weapons capability.  But, given its current rate of production rate of 3.5 percent and 20 percent enriched uranium, it would reach that capability by early 2014. Once Iran is capable of producing enough HEU (uranium enriched above 90 percent) faster than IAEA inspectors can detect it, Israel’s ability to track down and destroy the elements of Iran’s nuclear program will diminish significantly. This, coupled with Iran’s moving more of its program into fortified underground facilities, is the “zone of immunity” that Israel has repeatedly warned it cannot risk allowing Iran to enter.

This trend clearly alarms Israel and leads some of its senior officials to argue for striking Iran’s nuclear facilities soon. Israel has conveyed that it would hold off if it had more confidence in the United States and was convinced that the United States, with our much greater firepower and ability to conduct a more sustained attack, would act if necessary before Iran becomes a nuclear power.

Fundamentally, the current tension reflects the difficult international dynamics at play over the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. The United States is attempting to not just prevent a nuclear Iran but also to stop an Israeli strike. Israel, on the other hand, is keeping an eye not just on Iran’s nuclear progress, but on the words and action of U.S. leaders. Rebuilding trust and cooperation between the two countries will prove critical to advancing their mutual interest in thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Michael Makovsky, a Pentagon official during the George W. Bush administration, directs the Bipartisan Policy Center's Foreign Policy Project, including its Iran Initiative. Blaise Misztal is associate director of BPC’s Foreign Policy Project.

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