Six months to an Iranian bomb?

SAMUEL KUBANI/AFP/Getty Images Last Saturday, International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei sat for an Arabic-language interview on the al-Arabiya network. During a discussion about Iran, ElBaradei was asked how much time the country would need to “produce” a nuclear weapon. “It would need at least six months to one year,” he replied. Even though ...

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SAMUEL KUBANI/AFP/Getty Images

SAMUEL KUBANI/AFP/Getty Images

Last Saturday, International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei sat for an Arabic-language interview on the al-Arabiya network. During a discussion about Iran, ElBaradei was asked how much time the country would need to “produce” a nuclear weapon. “It would need at least six months to one year,” he replied.

Even though this estimate has been tossed around for years (particularly by Israel), given some caveats it is still within a generally accepted range of possible timelines for an Iranian bomb. ElBaradei’s statement is surprising, though, because previously he has “consistently said that it would take Iran from three to eight years to make a weapon.”

This sharp rhetorical shift could be the result of new findings about Iran that have not yet been released. Perhaps ElBaradei knows something we don’t and he just slipped. It is possible, for example, that large numbers of Iran’s third-generation centrifuges (the IR-3) are installed in secret locations. The IR-3 can probably enrich uranium significantly faster than Iran’s current models and could reduce the time needed to produce enough material for a bomb. Tehran has only installed a handful of these centrifuges as far as we know, though, and is apparently still having trouble with them.

It seems far more likely that this was a signal to Iran that patience is running out. ElBaradei trained as a diplomat, and gaffe-prone individuals almost never rise to his level. He was also careful to emphasize that the threat is not imminent, noting specifically that making a weapon so quickly would require Iran to expel inspectors and withdraw from the Nonproliferation Treaty. In a further sign that the IAEA is willing to increase pressure, its most recent report (pdf) on Tehran’s nuclear program expressed — in unusually blunt fashion — growing frustration within the agency at Iran’s “persistent stonewalling” and accused Tehran of withholding important information on alleged nuclear weapons programs.

So far, Iran has judged that fostering uncertainty about its nuclear weapons program would divide the international community and defuse pressure for stronger punitive actions. Hopefully, the IAEA’s shift signals that Tehran has failed to divide and conquer.

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