Fact Sheet: Iran’s Nuclear and Ballistic Missile Programs
Updated January 2013
Prepared by Louis Hellman, Lesley McNiesh, Alex Rothman, with Laicie Olson and Kingston Reif
Updated by Usha Sahay
Iran has committed numerous violations of its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards obligations.
- An IAEA report issued in November 2012 stated: “Iran is not providing the necessary cooperation, including by not implementing its Additional Protocol,” adding that the agency is therefore “unable…to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”
- Continuing evidence indicating possible past military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program and its refusal to allow sufficient access to inspectors have resulted in a long list of international sanctions.
However, Iran does not currently possess a nuclear weapon of any kind.
- A classified 2011 U.S. intelligence estimate reaffirmed previous assessments that Iran’s goal is not to build a nuclear weapon, but to reach “breakout” capability to be able to construct one within a short period should it make the political decision to do so.
- Iran needs three components for a usable weapon: highly enriched uranium, a device capable of initiating a nuclear explosion, and a delivery vehicle.
- The IAEA has noted in successive reports since 2010 that Iran has succeeded in enriching uranium to about 20%, far above the 3-5% necessary to fuel a civilian reactor, but still below the 90% needed for a weapon However, it is far easier to enrich from 20% up to 90% than from uranium’s natural state of less than 1% up to 20%.
- In November 2012, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) reported that Iran has enriched 7,611 kg of uranium to 3.5%. This is enough uranium to make, “in theory, six or seven nuclear weapons,” if all of the uranium were to be enriched to weapons grade (90%). Approximately one fourth of this amount has already been enriched to 20%.
- As of November 2012, Iran has produced 232.8 kg of 20% uranium. However, of that 232.8 kg, 96.3 kg, or roughly 40%, has been converted to powder for the production of fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor or otherwise downblended, effectively leaving 134.9 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium for further enrichment.
- If a state pursues uranium enrichment as a path to nuclear weapons, building the actual warhead is generally the easiest piece of the puzzle.
- However, the U.S. intelligence community believes Iran has not yet made the political decision to build a nuclear weapon.
The Delivery Vehicle
- Even if Iran decides to develop a nuclear weapon, most evidence suggests that it will not possess a missile capable of reaching all of Europe or the United States – to say nothing about its ability to arm the missile with a nuclear warhead – for years to come.
- Iran has developed and deployed Shahab-1, -2, and -3 ballistic missiles in addition to shorter-range missiles; the Shahab-3 has the greatest range at an estimated 800-1000 km, which means it could reach Israel, Turkey, and portions of southeastern Europe. The Ghadr-1 missile, which began flight testing in 2004, is an advanced version of the Shahab-3, with an extended range of 1,100 – 1,600 km, although it cannot carry as heavy of a payload as the Shahab-3. Finally, Iran successfully tested the Sejil-2 missile in 2009, which reportedly has a range of 2,000-2,200 km, but has not yet been deployed.
- Reported ranges are often based on statements from the Iranian government, which has an incentive to exaggerate its capabilities.
- Further, many estimates do not take into account the fact that loading a nuclear warhead onto the missile will increase its weight and therefore reduce its range. Iran’s claims of possessing missiles with a range of 2,000 km do not take into account the weight of the warhead: carrying a standard payload weighing 1,000 kg, Iranian missiles have an estimated maximum range of only 1,100 km.
- A May 2009 report by the East-West Institute argued that an Iranian ballistic missile capable of reaching all of Europe or the United States remains at least six to eight years away from development. Indeed, while Iran reported successes in 2009 with the Sejil-2 test and the Safir-2 rocket that launched a small satellite into orbit, no further advances in range have been apparent and a series of tests in July 2012 included only Shahab-3 and shorter range missiles.
- In its 2012 Annual Assessment of the Military Power of Iran, the Defense Department stated that “With sufficient foreign assistance, Iran may be technically capable of flight testing an intercontinental ballistic missile [ICBM] by 2015." However, the report doesn’t explain whether other states are providing this assistance or whether the assessment takes account of setbacks imposed by economic sanctions on Iran. Moreover, some observers have pointed to differences between the 2012 assessment and the 2010 assessment and concluded that the intelligence community has pushed back its predicted timeline for an Iranian ICBM. Finally, the DoD report focuses on when Iran will test an ICBM, not when it will be able to deliver a nuclear warhead on an ICBM.
All These Estimates Are Exactly That - Estimates
- There is no hard consensus as to exactly how close Iran is to acquiring a nuclear weapon, fitting a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile, and/or developing a ballistic missile capable of reaching most of Europe and the United States.