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Beneath the hype: Is Iran close to nukes? Pt.2

In part two of the presentation delivered to congressional aides and press members separating fact
from fiction in the Iran nuclear debate, key Iraq weapons program whistle-blower Greg Thielmann
weighs-in. Thielmann, now a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, gives a primer on the
elements needed to build a successful nuclear weaponry program. He then explains how the
intelligence consensus over recent years is actually prolonging the time horizon for Iran to develop a
useful bomb. Thielmann details that while the intelligence community is of the belief that the Iranian
regime is ultimately interested in developing such a weapon, they are not making considerable strides
toward such ends. He points out that recent news of Iran’s identification of another enrichment site,
while possibly a little late, demonstrates compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and should be
viewed as evidence that the regime is not moving any closer to a developed bomb.

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Story Transcript

GREG THIELMANN, FMR. STATE DEPT. INTELLIGENCE OFFICER: Last month I wrote a paper that argued there is time to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. I think there are copies of it in the room here. After last week’s Geneva meeting between Iran and the six powers and the results of that meeting, I would make that argument with even greater confidence. And I wanted to start a little presentation by just reciting some of—or giving you a historical footnote about Iran and nuclear power. The Islamic Republic of Iran inherited very ambitious nuclear plans from the Shah, and this involved planning to build a score of nuclear reactors for energy production fueled by domestically enriched uranium that would not be reliant on foreign sources for the fuel. Now, the government in Tehran has been very successful at making their nuclear program a matter of national pride and prestige. There is a strong domestic support in Iran for Iran’s nuclear program, both among the hardline government and among the reformers. But that support is not necessarily for a nuclear weapons program. And one of the reasons why you can’t necessarily make that assumption is that it’s always been the position of this clerical government in Iran that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic, they are immoral. This was the view of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the government, and it’s been the position of the supreme leader, Khamenei, who, incidentally, was the author of a fatwa, a religious proclamation, saying that it’s not only un-Islamic to possess and use nuclear weapons, it’s un-Islamic to develop them. Now, the US intelligence community is a little more agnostic, and properly so, on whether or not Iran wants a nuclear weapon. In fact, the intelligence community suspects that Iran probably has plans to build nuclear weapons, or at the very least to achieve a breakout capability, that is, to be able to build nuclear weapons quickly if necessary. I just want to review the three things you need to do to build a nuclear weapon: you first need the ingredients or fissile material, which is either highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium; you need a package to put those ingredients together in a way that allows you to trigger a sudden change in their geometry and chemistry, releasing incredible amounts of destructive energy and exactly when you want it to occur; and then, finally, you need a means for transporting this package, or a delivery vehicle, which will be quick and reliable. Iran is making steady progress in two of these three requirements: getting the ingredients and developing the delivery vehicles. And the hardest of those two is getting sufficient amounts of fissile material. It takes a long time, a lot of skill, through the efforts of many people, and a lot of industrial plant. And Iran, through its allegedly peaceful nuclear energy program, is putting together the industrial plant, getting the skill required to ultimately make fissile material for a weapon. It has a lot of installed centrifuges that are spun at very high speeds in order to get the uranium isotope needed for fissile material. They have by now accumulated 1,500 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, which is the feedstock for making the highly enriched uranium that becomes the fissile material. In fact, they have done enough that if they were to enrich it further, they would have enough for one nuclear weapon already. Iran has also been working for years on developing ballistic missiles, albeit ballistic missiles with conventional high explosives in their nosecone. But these missiles that Iran has now could be used to deliver a nuclear weapon. Iran has deployed dozens of Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missiles that have sufficient throwaway to deliver a nuclear weapons package as far as Israel—a little bit farther, in fact, 1,300 kilometers. Now, these are some of the reasons that we hear a lot of talk about red lines being crossed and time is running out, yet the projections of the earliest possible arrival of an Iranian nuclear threat are actually being extended outward, and this is not very well appreciated by the public. The 2007 national intelligence estimate that Ray [McGovern] alluded to said that Iran could have enough high-enriched uranium for a weapon between 2010 and 2015 if the Iranians chose to enrich it further, which the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has monitors in Iran, would of course notice, and they are not allowed to do that under their Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty membership, which they still declare allegiance to. So one has to remember that that timeline for the amount of HEU necessary presumes something which hasn’t happened, and if it happened would set off all kinds of red flags. In fact, the intelligence community said the way this would happen would be not at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility that is declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency, but they would build a secret facility somewhere out of sight of the UN monitors, and they would eventually get the material they needed at that secret site. So, needless to say, a couple of weeks ago, when the US intelligence community exposed its knowledge of a secret uranium enrichment facility, that gave rise to a lot of concerns. And it’s true that the Iranians told the International Atomic Energy Agency just a couple of weeks ago that they had a second facility, and there’s an argument on about whether they were obliged to say this before. I’m personally convinced they were certainly obligated to have told the International Atomic Energy Agency about this long ago. But the irony of all this is that if this was their intention, to use this facility for military purposes, for achieving high-enriched uranium, then they have just wasted a lot of money and several years, because now the site is known. Iran has said that the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors can visit it. It will happen on October 25. And presumably they will establish permanent monitoring of whatever happens at the site, and it is no longer available for the use of covert highly enriched uranium enrichment. And therefore what has happened in the last two weeks is a very encouraging development, in my opinion. Now, Secretary of Defense Gates recently testified there’s been a change also in the intelligence community’s understanding of the ballistic missile threat. There are actually more medium-range ballistic missiles in Iran than we thought there would be when we looked at this issue some years ago. But the other interesting thing is that we had apparently overestimated the number of longer-range ballistic missiles that Iran would be developing and deploying. And, of course, this is the missile that would threaten the United States. Over a decade ago, when I participated in a national intelligence estimate on the foreign ballistic missile threat, most people were looking at the appearance of an Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile in maybe 2010, early-next-decade timeframe. I might add that this was not the State Department Intelligence Bureau’s opinion at the time—we dissented from that opinion. But the estimate of the community is now no sooner than 2015. So that has been moved outward as well. What we have, then, is a moving out of the timelines for both of these two elements of what is needed to develop a nuclear weapon in at least the most threatening way that one can foresee. The other issue here, though, that I wanted to spend time on is the other one of the three requirements for building a nuclear weapon. This is the weaponization part of it. This is what created the blockbuster bottom line of that 2007 national intelligence estimate. The actual military use of this technology—the making of a weapon and what you need to study and work on in order to make a weapon—was assessed to have actually been halted in the fall of 2003. And, interestingly, the US intelligence community, every time it has addressed this in an open hearing this year has said that they are sticking by that estimate and that they believe that we do not have evidence that Iran has moved forward or reconstituted its nuclear weaponization program. And just to remind you that in order to actually make a weapon, it’s not just getting a blueprint and making a simple device that—as the line goes, a good graduate student can do this if you give him the right material. If you do that, if you make a simple device, you get something the size and weight of an automobile, and this is not a very appropriate delivery vehicle for a ballistic missile. So it has to be reduced; a lot of work has to be done to make it appropriate for delivery on a nuclear missile. Building nuclear weapons is both an art and a science. It’s not just assembling furniture from IKEA. So there is no evidence that Iran has completed this work as yet, and there is little reason to believe it could do so quickly. There has been a tendency, even in the intelligence community among experts, to remind the readers of intelligence documents that the hardest part of this is getting the ingredients for a nuclear weapon. Once you get the ingredients, you can actually assemble one in a matter of months. That formula, though, ran into some real problems in retrospect when we looked at Iraq and one could see the nuclear scientists promising Saddam that when they got sufficient fissile material, they could actually deliver one in not a few months but a couple of years. So there is reason to believe that we are exaggerating somewhat traditionally about how easy it is to actually make a nuclear weapon, that weaponization part of the process. My bottom line is that we have years and not months before Iran could pose a real nuclear threat, and that this does allow time to dissuade Iran from building nuclear weapons. I see one principal danger in that reassuring bottom line, and the principal danger I see is trying to push Iran in a way that strengthens the hardliners in the country and actually leads them to definitively choose the path of developing a nuclear weapon on a crash course, which I think could be brought about most readily by the US or its friends exercising the military option. This is the most dangerous, the greatest danger we face with regard to Iranian nuclear weapons possibilities, and this is one of the dangers that Ray was addressing in his remarks.

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Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.