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Iran's Nuclear Surge Capacity

2:32 PM, Dec 23, 2011 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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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.

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