The IAEA defines a “significant quantity” of fissile material, or the amount needed to produce one functioning bomb, as 8 kg of plutonium or 25 kg of 90 percent highly enriched uranium. 25 kg of weapons grade uranium, however, does not a deliverable arsenal make.
I don’t pretend to be a physicist, not even close, but this much I know: Any attempt to have a serious conversation about Iran’s nuclear program would be tainted if I were not aware of the most basic principles behind the construction and delivery of a nuclear weapon.
Enter the United States Senate…
Yesterday, a disturbing exchange took place between Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Cartwright, and the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
During his testimony, Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess reported that Iran could potentially produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb within one year. This led a number of SASC committee members to assume that Iran could have a deliverable weapon within one year. Were it not for Committee Chair Sen. Carl Levin, they may have held on to that assumption. Apparently wise to the fact that there are a few more steps involved in the process, Levin asked for further clarification…
In terms of the highly enriched uranium, your answer is clear… it would take a year or more… Now, you indicated in terms of putting together a weapon, of assembling a weapon, that’s a different issue. We need in open session to learn something about that since intelligence officials apparently are indicating that’s something more than a year… Otherwise, the headline tomorrow is, ‘Iran could get a weapon in a year’… Should they make a decision today to put together a weapon, we know the uranium piece of it; tell us about the other piece what you can in open session.
Gen. Cartwright responded that it would take “another two to three, potentially out to five years to move from the idea of having the material to… something that can actually create a detonation, an explosion that would be considered a nuclear weapon.” Cartwright went on to clarify for Levin that, should the enrichment of uranium and the development of a weapon take place simultaneously, “experience says that it’s gonna take you three to five years.”
At that, Sen. John McCain expressed his shock:
You’re saying – to this committee – that before the Iranians would have a deliverable (also wrong in the context, but let’s not nitpick, yet) nuclear weapon it could be as long as five years? … That is obviously a very critical point in this entire situation. If it’s two to three to five years, then that’s one thing. If it’s one year, then that’s another… Every report I’ve seen is a year to eighteen months, that’s why I’m somewhat astonished to hear you say it could be two to three to five years. Now [getting flustered] this doesn’t clarify it to me.
Levin specifically asked again, receiving the same clarification, and then went on to tack on one more step: that ‘deliverable’ part McCain referred to earlier:
“Now on the missile piece, what can you tell us about that?”
Cartwright responded, “…again, not knowing exactly where they are, their capabilities… it would still take them another three years. That does not necessarily mean it would be sequential.”
So, at the end of all this (further clarifications not included) our minimum assumption becomes three to five years. Not one, not two, three to five.
This misperception of imminent danger becomes even more disturbing when we note that McCain opened the same Senate hearing by stating that Iran will get the bomb unless the United States begins to act more boldly…
I think “pull the trigger” may have been the gist of his statement.