The Clock on Iran Is Ticking — But How Fast?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Behrouz Mehri / AFP / Getty

An security guard stands in front of the building housing the reactor of Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran.

Iran's ancient Persian New Year celebration is known as Nowruz, which literally means "new day", and President Barack Obama marked the occasion on Friday with an unprecedented taped message to Iran's leaders and its people offering "a new beginning" in relations between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic. Obama said he was "committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community," and looked forward to an era of "engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect." By grounding his overture in the call for a 'grand bargain' that addresses all areas of conflict, and speaking of integrating Iran's current regime into a responsible role in the international community, the President expressed an openness to accommodating some of Tehran's key concerns. And his message was cautiously welcomed in Tehran. Although he avoided the knotty issue of Iran's nuclear program, he did warn that "terror and arms" did not fit with the responsibilities attached to Iran resuming its rightful place in the community of nations.

While the broader rapprochement initiated by the Obama Administration could be integral to resolving the standoff over Iran's uranium enrichment program, there's some concern in Washington and beyond over how much time Obama has to find a diplomatic solution on the nuclear issue. The urgency of the nuclear question itself is a matter of some debate. (Read "Top 10 Ahmadinejad-isms".)

"From all the information I've seen," CIA chief Leon Panetta said on Capitol Hill last month, "I think there is no question that they are seeking [nuclear weapons] capability." Israel and more hawkish voices in Washington concur, and stress that Iran has already crossed the key technological threshold in what they portray as a headlong drive to attain atomic weapons. But the U.S. military and intelligence community says that while Iran is assembling a technological infrastructure that would enable it to develop nuclear weapons, it has produced no weapons-grade materiel. In fact, according to the Obama's Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, Tehran has not yet taken the fateful decision to actually use its new technological capacity to develop weapons. (See pictures of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad)

Admiral Blair told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that "the intelligence community agrees ... that Iran has not decided to press forward... to have a nuclear weapon on top of a ballistic missile," adding that "Our current estimate is that the minimum time at which Iran could technically produce the amount of highly enriched uranium for a single weapon is 2010 to 2015." (See TIME's photoessay "Faces of Iran".)

Iran's current uranium-enrichment efforts are strictly monitored by international inspectors who have certified that they have produced only low-enriched uranium (LEU), which can't be used in weapons and is kept under seal of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But the fear is that Iran is developing "breakout capacity" — putting bomb development within fairly easy reach if it opted to break out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and its inspection regime, and reprocess that LEU to bomb-grade materiel. (Read "The Long Shadow of Ayatullah Khomeini".)

President George W. Bush often spoke of the need to stop Iran from "mastering the technology" of enriching uranium, but that goal has been rendered moot by Iran's growing stockpile of LEU. The IAEA inspectors have found that Iran had produced around 1,000 kilograms of LEU, which, if reprocessed, would be enough to create a single, crude nuclear device. But media reports spinning that fact as meaning that "Iran now has enough uranium for a bomb" prompted Defense Secretary Robert Gates to make clear that Iran was, in fact, nowhere near nuclear-weapons capability. To begin reprocessing its current stockpile into bomb materiel would require kicking out IAEA inspectors. Developing bombs and other aspects of a combat-ready nuclear-weapons arsenal would take still more years. And the working assumption of many involved in diplomacy around Iran's nuclear program is that if Iran signaled its intention to weaponize by ousting IAEA inspectors, it would probably trigger a preemptive military strike by the U.S. or Israel. (See "Sparring With Iran's President".)

Vote for the 2009 TIME 100 Finalists

See TIME's Pictures of the Week

  1. Previous
  2. 1
  3. 2