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CIAO Focus, February 2015: The Iran Nuclear Deal

Regardless of the outcome of the nuclear talks, it is highly likely that Iran will retain a latent nuclear capability for the foreseeable future. A latent nuclear capability is the possession of the technical capacity, including the ability to indigenously produce weapons-grade fissile material, to build nuclear weapons on short order. There are a number of states in the world, including Japan, a close ally of the United States, with such a capability.

According to this definition, Iran is already a latent nuclear power. Secretary of State John Kerry has estimated that, from a political decision to do so, it would take Iran two to three months to produce sufficient quantities of weapons-grade uranium (WGU) for its first nuclear weapon. The time to produce WGU is often referred to as Iran’s “breakout” timeline because once Iran produces enough fissile material for one bomb, the United States can no longer physically prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons. For the purpose of preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power, therefore, the timeline to producing one bomb’s-worth of fissile material is by far the most important.  With sufficient quantities of WGU, analysts estimate that it would take Iran roughly one month to produce a crude, gun-type nuclear warhead and about one year to produce a more sophisticated implosion-design weapon.  The estimates on warhead design must come with the caveat that Iran has not come clean on its past weaponization research and, therefore, the international community has much less certainty about Iran’s capabilities in this realm. Moreover, it is likely that if Iran were to dash toward a nuclear weapons capability, it would work on producing nuclear fuel and designing warheads in tandem, reducing the combined timeline. Historically, countries have been considered actual (as opposed to latent) nuclear powers from the date of their first test, or from the date at which it is believed they assembled their first nuclear warhead.  If at this point, therefore, Iran conducted a nuclear test, or was widely believed to have assembled a functioning warhead, it would be considered a nuclear-armed state.

Of course, to have a militarily useful arsenal, Iran also would need to develop a reliable means to deliver nuclear warheads to an opponent. This could take more time. Tehran has fighter aircraft that could be employed to deliver even the larger gun-type nuclear weapons to neighboring states, but the fleet is aging and the aircraft often have technical difficulty in routine training missions. Tehran also has a large stockpile of ballistic missiles, which could be employed immediately, assuming the previous design stage was successful in producing a warhead small enough to fit on the nosecone of a ballistic missile. It is also quite possible, however, that Iran would struggle with its technical efforts to marry warheads with delivery vehicles. Nevertheless, as noted above, Iran would be considered a nuclear power as soon as it was believed to possess a warhead, whether deliverable or not.

At present, assuming no external interferences, Iran could breakout in two to three months and possess a nuclear warhead in an additional one month to one year. In other words, Iran is already a latent nuclear power.

--Matthew Kroenig, Atlantic Council


From the CIAO Database:

Mitigating the Security Risks Posed by a Near-Nuclear Iran

Congress's Role in Verification After an Iranian Nuclear Deal

Nuclear Iran: A Glossary of Terms

Can Iran be Contained? Thoughts on the Possibility of Extended Deterrence in the Middle East

Iran and the Bomb


Outside Sources: *

Obama’s Pivot to Iran

Crisis Guide: Iran (Council on Foreign Relations)

Timeline of Iran's nuclear programme (Al Jazeera)

International Atomic Energy Agency


* Outside links are not maintained. For broken outside links, CIAO recommends the Way Back Machine.