Crow Violation

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Monday, April 17, 2006

Iranian Nuclear Countdown

The debate over Iran's nuclear program has narrowed significantly. Once you leave the fever swamps of DailyKos, it's hard to find even a determined leftist who will argue that Iran's programs are just civilian. The question now is how much time we have before Iran has a nuclear weapon.

According to the Washington Post, a National Intelligence Estimate has given the time of about ten years. This is now a very popular figure being circulated among those who oppose striking Iran. We can take it as an upper bounds, the most optimistic estimate available.

If we go by history, then it might be useful to examine the case of Pakistan. Armed Liberal at Winds of Change notes that it took Pakistan about 7-8 years to go from start of enrichment (about where Iran is now) to a working bomb. Of course, Iran probably has the benefit of Pakistan's experience, being one of the beneficiaries of the A.Q. Khan network.

A more technical estimate can be found from the Federation of American Scientists, which has a Uranium Enrichment Calculator. This allows you to enter various assumptions and get an estimate of time required to get enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb. While interesting, this excersize is also nearly useless; reasonable estimates can vary from less than one year, up to five years. After having the bomb-grade uranium, Iran might require more time to put it into a working bomb. For the US during WWII, that took a few months - for Pakistan, a couple of years.

The bottom line is that we really have no idea how long it will take Iran to get the bomb. Long before the mullahs have a workable weapon, it may be too late to stop them with airstrikes. Recall that the Israel strike on Iraq's Osirak facility was timed to hit just before fuel was loaded into the reactor. If Iran has centrifuges full of nearly-bomb-grade uranium, some will no doubt argue that it would be an atrocity to bomb the uranium plants. Most likely, these will be the same people who had previously argued that we must not attack Iran because the diplomats still have years to sort out the problem.

In the end, it really doesn't matter. We know that Iran is a mortal enemy and is determined to obtain a nuclear bomb. That's all we need to know. We have no moral obligation to wait until the last possible instant. Bomb now.