Iran has mastered the technology necessary to produce weapons-grade uranium and currently has enough centrifuges operating to produce fuel for several weapons each year, if its leaders choose to do so.
The U.S. is currently negotiating with Iran in hopes of reducing its stockpiles of enriched uranium and centrifuge capability, but the Obama administration has already conceded that Iran will retain some indigenous enrichment capacity. It has also apparently conceded that Iran will not have to come clean about the history or even current state of its efforts to perfect a workable nuclear warhead. Iran’s progress toward weaponization as opposed to enrichment has thus largely dropped from policy discussions. The trouble is that careful review of Iranian published scientific papers and advertised industrial capabilities indicates that Iran may be much closer to being able to build a nuclear weapon than many people think. In the worst case, Iran may already have the technical capability to complete every part of the weaponization process, including testing a nuclear device.
Too much of the policy discussion in Washington has focused on Iran’s intentions, although very little serious evidence has been brought to bear even on that question. The U.S. and its European partners must be clear-eyed about Iran’s actual capabilities as we head into what may be the final stages of the negotiations. Iranian nuclear proliferation is a threat if Tehran is able to build and test a warhead and retains the ability to produce weapons-grade uranium, regardless of the current statements of its leaders. The West seems to be underestimating that capability, unfortunately, by ignoring the work being done in Iran’s leading universities rather than in its military centers.
An examination of Iranian scientific literature demonstrates that Iran has conducted studies relevant to four of the five components of a basic nuclear implosion device (electrical firing set, detonators, high explosive lenses, and tamper/reflector) and may already have firing equipment and detonators suitable for a bomb. Several of the researchers involved in these experiments can be tied to Malek Ashtar University or the Organization of Defense Innovation and Research (SPND), both of which have been placed at the heart of Tehran’s potential nuclear weapons research by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The close ties between the Iranian academy and the regime evident in this research show that Iran’s university system must be included within the verification protocols of any final nuclear deal with Tehran.