Less than two months into the new administration, the debate over Iran's nuclear activities is intensifying.
Numerous statements from senior officials suggest that some in the Obama administration may have concluded Iran is on the cusp of building its first nuclear weapon. But some analysts argue that such a conclusion is based on a misreading of the intelligence.
The most recent statements on Iran's nuclear intentions came on the Sunday Washington talk shows. Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked on CNN whether Iran has enough fissile material to make a bomb. He answered bluntly.
"We think they do, quite frankly. And Iran having a nuclear weapon, I believe, for a long time is a very, very bad outcome for the region and for the world," Mullen said.
Mullen's comments suggesting Iran could build a nuclear weapon quickly because it possesses the essential component — fissile, or explosive, nuclear material — have been widely reported.
Some analysts say Mullen is wrong, pointing out that Iran does not possess fissile material. That, for weapons experts, means highly enriched uranium. Iran has manufactured low-enriched uranium using gas centrifuges at its facility at Natanz. Low-enriched uranium can be used as fuel in nuclear reactors.
To acquire fissile material would take more work and more time, says Jeffrey Lewis, who runs the nuclear strategy initiative at the New America Foundation in Washington.
"Iran would have to reconfigure its centrifuge cascades, which would be a highly visible activity that would take some time," Lewis says. "And then it would have to actually go about the business of enriching that uranium, which we know there's a debate in the intelligence community about whether they could do quickly or whether it would take several years."
And so this distinction may account for the way Defense Secretary Robert Gates contradicted Mullen on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday.
"They're not close to a weapon at this point, and so there is some time," Gates said. "And the question is whether you can increase the level of the sanctions and the cost to the Iranians of pursuing that program. At the same time, you show them an open door if they want to engage."
Possible Breakout Capability
This current debate was sparked by a recent report from the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, which disclosed that over the past two years, Iran has produced more than a ton of low-enriched uranium, all of which is under seal and monitored by the IAEA.
Some analysts believe this gives Iran a breakout capability to produce enough highly enriched uranium if a decision is made to build a bomb, says Joshua Pollack, a consultant on arms control issues.
"What breakout capability means is the ability to rapidly, and without warning, take civilian materials and equipment and produce the core of a nuclear weapon," he says.
There is no consensus among experts either in or out of the government on whether Iran has reached this capability. One other factor has emerged recently that is fueling this debate: whether Iran has enough natural uranium to supply a civilian nuclear power industry.
Iran has been enriching uranium from 600 tons of uranium yellowcake it purchased from South Africa in the 1970s, and that supply is now dwindling. Iran does have two uranium mines in its territory, but they don't produce enough uranium to run a nuclear power program, says Jacqueline Shire, an analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.
"Even together, their output of uranium ore on an annual basis is projected to be relatively low — only a fraction of what Iran would need to sustain, for example, the production of fuel for a single nuclear reactor," Shire says.
An Option For Nuclear Weapons?
That has caused some analysts to conclude Iran is producing low-enriched uranium so that, some day, it could turn it into highly enriched uranium for bombs. This breakout capability appears to be what at least some in the leadership in Tehran want, says Pollack.
"I think it's unambiguously the case that they want a nuclear weapons option," Pollack says. "Beyond that, there's not much consensus. I am skeptical of the idea that they are intent, they are hell-bent on trying to sneak a bomb past us, to produce it at the earliest possible opportunity."
Lewis, who also runs a Web site called armscontrolwonk.com, believes there are many views in Tehran about the nuclear program — ranging from those who want the bomb now, to those who want a capability, to those who want to demonstrate Iranian scientific achievement to the world, to those who don't want a bomb but realize, Lewis says, that if they oppose the uranium enrichment program, they will appear to be weak.
"I think you could have a multiplicity of explanations that establish a consensus to at least acquire this capability," Lewis says. And I don't think any of us know what decision the Iranians will make when they actually get to the point where they can build a bomb."
So far, it is not clear how the Obama administration intends to get past this debate and actually decide what to do about Iran's nuclear program.