The Blog

Iran's Nuclear Surge Capacity

2:32 PM, Dec 23, 2011 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s comments concerning Iran’s nuclear program have caused quite a stir. In an interview aired on Monday, CBS News’s Scott Pelley asked, “So are you saying that Iran can have a nuclear weapon in 2012?”

Panetta Leon

Panetta replied, “It would probably be about a year before they can do it. Perhaps a little less. But one proviso, Scott, is if they have a hidden facility somewhere in Iran that may be enriching fuel.” In that case, Panetta explained, Iran could be on a “faster track” to developing nuclear weapons.

Pelley also asked Panetta about a possible Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. “Well, we share the same common concern,” Panetta replied. “The United States does not want Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. That's a red line for us and that's a red line, obviously, for the Israelis. If we have to do it we will deal with it.”

Panetta left unsaid what he meant, exactly, by “deal with it.” And the Pentagon quickly walked back Panetta’s comments.

“The secretary was clear that we have no indication that the Iranians have made a decision to develop a nuclear weapon,” George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters. According to the New York Times, Little continued: “He was asked to comment on prospective and aggressive timelines on Iran’s possible production of nuclear weapons — and he said if, and only if, they made such a decision. He didn’t say that Iran would, in fact, have a nuclear weapon in 2012.”

There is no indication in the portion of the interview televised by CBS News that Panetta was asked about “aggressive timelines.” Perhaps that exchange took place before the clip that was aired. Even so, Panetta entertained a possible timeline that was less than one year. This is alarmingly soon.

Moreover, Little’s clarification is problematic and raises more questions than it answers. Namely, what does it really mean to say the U.S. government has “no indication that the Iranians have made a decision to develop a nuclear weapon”? In reality, this is gobbledygook.

The problem is that if, under certain scenarios, Iran is possibly only one year or less away from a nuclear weapon – as Secretary Panetta claims – then the mullahs have certainly decided to “develop a nuclear weapon.” Nuclear weapons cannot be developed overnight. Quite obviously, assembling a missile with a nuclear payload requires years of research and experimentation, as well as accumulated technical knowledge and skill. The decision to start down this path had to be made years ago.

As Weekly Standard contributor Michael Anton points out: Imagine someone argued that all of America’s efforts to build a bomb between 1940 and 1945, prior to testing, amounted to little absent a decision to put all the pieces together. No one would believe that, of course, but that is what Little’s argument, which has been repeated throughout the U.S. government, amounts to.  

And there is every reason to think that Iran has been “develop[ing] a nuclear weapon” for years. As the IAEA reported in November:

Since 2002, the Agency has become increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile, about which the Agency has regularly received new information.

The IAEA documented numerous aspects of Iran’s nuclear weapons development, efforts that require coordination, funding, and – fundamentally – the will of Iran’s ruling elite. The point is to bring Iran to the verge of a nuclear capability, with only one last decision or two to be made – not a wholesale decision about whether or not the mullahs should develop a nuclear weapons capability in the first place.

The original Iranian nuclear program, which predated the mullahs’ rise to power, was conceived to offer just such a breakout capability. Here is how Ardeshir Zahedi, Iran’s foreign minister from 1967 until 1971, explained it in on the pages of the Wall Street Journal in 2004:

All nations with a civilian nuclear base are capable, if they so decide, of moving into the military sphere of nuclear technology as well. This fact was well known to policy makers in the Shah's regime. The Iranian strategy at the time was aimed at creating what is known as a “surge capacity,” that is to say to have the know-how, the infrastructure and the personnel needed to develop a nuclear military capacity within a short time without actually doing so. No firm time frame was established then. But the assumption within the policy-making elite was that Iran should be in a position to develop and test a nuclear device within 18 months.

Panetta’s remarks suggest that the mullahs have now successfully developed this “surge capacity” and they are waiting to make one last decision.

We cannot know for certain what this decision entails. One possibility, consistent with Panetta’s original remarks, is that the Pentagon officials are narrowly referring to the issue of Iran’s uranium enrichment.

Iran can generate enough uranium for a bomb by using its declared enrichment facilities to produce weapons-grade uranium, which would require kicking out international inspectors. This would signal the world that Iran will be armed with nuclear weapons rather soon. Is this what Panetta meant when he said it would be “about a year” before the mullahs could have a bomb – a year after they dispensed with any pretense that their enrichment facilities are for civilian purposes only?

This seems plausible, if not likely, given Panetta’s “one proviso” – that Iran could have other covert enrichment facilities we don’t know about. In that case, Iran would not have to kick out the inspectors as it could be enriching weapons grade uranium at other facilities. And, therefore, Iran could be less than a year away. In this scenario, no final decision about enrichment would be needed – it has already been made.

Assuming he was not speaking extemporaneously, Panetta’s comments suggest that Iran has already made substantial progress with respect to delivering a nuclear weapon and the only thing left for the mullahs to do is enrich enough uranium for a bomb. If so, then we are rather late in this game indeed.  

It is doubtful that Panetta was speaking off-the-cuff as Iran’s nuclear weapons program is, quite obviously, a hot-button topic. It is possible, of course, as even senior administration officials can let it fly on occasion. But Panetta has certainly seen multiple estimates for how long it will take Iran to build nukes - first as the director of the CIA and now as defense secretary. It is difficult to imagine that Panetta would say anything that was wildly at odds with those assessments.

Needless to say, the state of the world posited by Panetta is a far way off from the now thoroughly-discredited 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program. In that assessment, America’s spooks claimed that Iran had halted its weaponization efforts in 2003. The IAEA’s most recent report, and other evidence, have dispensed with this notion.

Still, all of this requires a great deal of guess work. No one can be certain just how close the Iranian regime is to acquiring nuclear weapons. Previous guesses have proven to be far off the mark.

But if the mullahs are only a year away from the bomb, as Panetta suggests is possible, then they have already made the decision to develop a nuclear weapon. To suggest otherwise is foolish.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 15 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers