The nuclear countdown

Is Iran really 16 days away from having a nuclear bomb? Not exactly.


Tim Grieve
April 13, 2006 7:49PM (UTC)

Could Iran produce a nuclear bomb in just 16 days?

That's what the Bloomberg News story headlined over at the Drudge Report says, and we're sure that the saber-rattlers at the White House don't mind it a bit.

But are things really as frightening as all that? Not quite.

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Bloomberg gets its "16 days" estimate from Stephen Rademaker, the assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation. Using 50,000 centrifuges, Rademaker told reporters in Moscow this week, Iran could "produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in 16 days." The catch? Iran is a long way away from having 50,000 centrifuges it can use. As Peter Baker explains in the Washington Post today, Iran now claims that it has used a 164-centrifuge network to enrich uranium to 3.5 percent. It says it has plans to build a 3,000-centrifuge system within a year and vows that it will eventually expand that system to 54,000. Only then would Iran have a 16-day capability.

And even that's not a sure thing. As Baker notes, scientists say it's no small feat to make 54,000 centrifuges work together. And as the New York Times reports today, Iran lacks the materials it needs just to build the centrifuges themselves. "It took Tehran 21 years of planning and seven years of sporadic experiments, mostly in secret, to reach its current ability to link 164 spinning centrifuges in what nuclear experts call a cascade," the Times' William J. Broad, Nazila Fathi and Joel Brinkley write. "Now," analysts tell the Times, "Tehran has to achieve not only consistent results around the clock for many months and years but even higher degrees of precision and mass production. It is as if Iran, having mastered a difficult musical instrument, now faces the challenge of making thousands of them and creating a very large orchestra that always plays in tune and in unison."

So Iran is 16 days away from producing a nuclear weapon? Yep, and our beloved Sacramento Kings are just one game away from winning the NBA championships -- assuming that they can make the playoffs, prevail in the opening rounds and then win the first three games of the finals first.

We jest, but we shouldn't. If the White House is serious about its war plans for Iran -- or even if it just wants to present a credible threat that it is -- the president and his supporters are going to need to make the case to the American public that Iran is the "gathering threat" that Iraq was supposed to have been. That's going to be hard to do -- not because the idea of a nuclear Iran isn't pretty scary, but because the American people don't trust the president to tell them the truth anymore. A new Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll has 54 percent of Americans saying that they don't trust George W. Bush to make the right decision on Iran. Three months ago, 57 percent said they'd support military action against Iran if it continues to develop material to be used in a nuclear weapon; today, only 48 percent say they would.

So don't be surprised now to see all sorts of dire predictions about the speed with which Iran can build a bomb. As John Aravosis notes this morning at AMERICAblog, a U.S. intelligence assessment last year estimated that Iran was a decade away from having a nuclear capability. The Times cites analysts today who say it could take even longer. But in an editorial today, the Bush backers at the Washington Post warn darkly that those long-term estimates could be wrong. "Some in Washington cite a U.S. intelligence estimate that an Iranian bomb is 10 years away," the editors write. "In fact the low end of that same estimate is five years, and some independent experts say three."

Three years isn't quite as scary as 16 days. But, hey, nobody knows for sure, and we wouldn't want the "smoking gun" to come in the form of a "mushroom cloud," would we?

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Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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