A little over a month ago, Iran announced it could enrich uranium on an “industrial scale”. In short order, IAEA inspectors were shown 8 cascades, amounting to 1,312 centrifuges, operating within the bowels of the subterranean Natanz enrichment facility. Yesterday, the New York Times reported, Atomic Agency Concludes Iran is Stepping Up Nuclear Work. The IAEA now says that Iran is installing a 164 centrifuge cascade each week and could have 8,000 operating by year’s end – assuming no increase in the installation rate. The most recent report states that the IAEA was able to sample the product stream and it was low enriched, reactor grade uranium – unsuitable for a bomb which, practically speaking, needs to be in the mid-to-high 90% range (20% is theoretically enough but totally impractical for military purposes). Still, 8,000 centrifuges – even low tech ones – can produce around 80 kilograms of weapons grade uranium a year, enough for several bombs.
The New York Times article mentions that Iran may be going for “breakout” capability. In the world of nuclear non-proliferation, breakout refers to the ability of a civilian nuclear program under full IAEA safeguards to rapidly transition to a military weapons program. Many signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) having no weapons program whatsoever can go to full scale weapons production in a few months should they choose to do so (for example, Belgium, Germany, and Japan fall into this category). Should Iran manage to get the U.S. and the international community to accept its “civilian” program – and under the NPT there is really no reason why they shouldn’t – then Iran could put Natanz under full IAEA safeguards until it has its 50,000 centrifuges operating. The speed with which the cascades could be reconfigured from low enriched uranium to weapons grade uranium is speculative but let’s say that it takes a month – it should almost certainly take much less time than this. Once reconfigured, the 50,000 centrifuges would output over 40 kilograms of weapons grade uranium a month. The Iranians could play all manner of games to prevent inspectors from monitoring their activities though their intent would be obvious. The amount of time for Iran to have enough material for its first bomb could be 6 weeks. Iran would have almost certainly prepared for this breakout so 6 weeks would be the time required to insert the uranium into the completed bomb and stick it on top of a ballistic missile.
Of course, Iran could prevent inspectors from accessing the product stream at any point and switch to a slow-motion breakout strategy that would give it several weapons early next year. At present, the strategic initiative rests solely with Iran. This became the case as soon as Iran was allowed to spin up its centrifuges with impunity.
Over the lifetime of this blog and before, going back to late 2002 or early 2003, I have written that the Bush Doctrine called for neutralizing terrorist states with the capacity to produce nuclear weapons. Neutralizing means either changing the government or removing the capacity to produce nuclear weapons – or both.
As the Bush administration has had to adjust to changing political fortunes, both at home and abroad, it has appeared to lose focus on the goals of the Bush Doctrine. The reasons for the administration’s political difficulties are as manifold as they are obvious, for example: the immediate failure to find “stockpiles” of poison gas in Iraq, the rise of sectarian violence in postwar Iraq, the paralysis of the Iraqi government, and so on. These and other problems – such as the President’s deficient communication skills - have made it difficult for Bush to change the subject to Iran.
The success or failure of the Bush Doctrine hinges on Iran and the range of options available to the administration has been significantly reduced over the past two years. Congress is never going to authorize the sort of open ended authority it gave the President for dealing with Iraq – authority that amounted to a declaration of war. The only option remaining is for the President to use his authority as Commander in Chief to launch an aerial campaign designed to eliminate the nuclear threat and, perhaps, to attrition the Iranian military in the process. Most Democrats in Congress would welcome such a campaign as would Sunni Arab states and most, if not all, of the member states of the European Union. None are willing to support it publicly – “let Bush do it and take the heat” seems to be the consensus view.
Can “Bush do it” without Congressional approval? The short answer is, “yes”. In Libertarians! Embrace your inner Republican!, I said that Jefferson’s undeclared war against the Barbary Pirates was based upon Article II powers given to the President as Commander-in-Chief. Presidential candidate Senator Joe Biden has said that the President may launch preemptive strikes to defend U.S. forces from attacks originating in or supported by Iran. Even if some members of Congress want to oppose the President, under the War Powers Act, the President can commit troops for 60 days before Congress can force a withdrawal. The focus of the War Powers Act seems to be ground troops – boots on the ground – and an air campaign, even with SpecOps, probably wouldn’t activate its provisions (even if it does, there would be plenty of room for legalistic wrangling that could take months to resolve).
Assuming that Bush still intends to destroy Iran’s nuclear program before it fabricates its first nuke, the question is, when? Since Bush & Co. didn’t attack before the first centrifuge spun inside the hardened facility, it means that some threshold number of centrifuges must exist before military action will be sanctioned. At 50,000 centrifuges, Iran could easily produce its first bomb between inspections, such would be the production rate. Irrespective of the breakout problem, allowing Iran to install all 50,000 would so undermine the U.S. position as to make it unlikely that the U.S. would do anything to prevent Iran from going nuclear. The threshold must, therefore, be less than 50,000.
At 8,000 centrifuges, Iran could produce its first bomb in two or three months. This offers very little time for the U.S. to respond, particularly with Iran’s likely gaming of the inspections regime. Thus, 8,000 would have to be the upper threshold for U.S. action. I’d put it lower – around 6,000 – assuming regular assays of the output stream by the IAEA. In any case, this means that we are fast approaching the point at which the U.S. will strike. If the MOP (which I mentioned in this article) is deployed on schedule, it would be available for use on the Natanz bunkers around the time Iran crosses the centrifuge threshold – sometime in the September or October time frame.
If the U.S. doesn’t attack by that point, it’s not going to attack. That’s when Israel will step up to the plate if it hasn’t already done so.