Netanyahu's estimate for Iran nuclear breakout "Sheer Nonsense"

Talks aimed at pausing Iran's nuclear enrichment capabilities are stalled by the French.  Netanyahu fears are dismissed by experts. Photo: Delegates from the P5+1 and Iran meet in Geneva (AP/Fabrice Coffrini)

WASHINGTON, November 20, 2013 – Claims from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Iran has enough low enriched uranium to make up to five nuclear weapons in a matter of weeks are not plausible, according to experts.

In an interview with a German newspaper published Tuesday, Netanyahu said, “The Iranians already have five bombs’ worth of low-enriched uranium,” which they could build within a matter of weeks after making the decision to rush for a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu’s estimate is a “chalkboard equation that does not match up with the realities of what it would actually take for Iran to breakout,” Daryll Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, said in an interview.

“It is designed to create a sense of alarmism,” about the ongoing negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany).

The high-level talks, which fell apart in Geneva last week after France unexpectedly vetoed a deal the rest of the parties reportedly agreed upon, aim to reach a first phase agreement that would pause Iran’s enrichment capabilities in exchange for limited sanctions relief until a final deal can be reached sometime in the first half of 2014.

Muhammad Sahimi, professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the University of Southern California, said Netanyahu’s estimate of a breakout time is “sheer nonsense.”

“Iran does have a significant stockpile of LEU [low-enriched uranium], but it would take 9 months to convert them to crude bombs, and much longer to useable warheads (1-2 years at least),” Sahimi added. “There is no evidence that Iran does have the capability of miniaturizing the bomb for a missile. 

In addition, Kimball explained, “If Iran were to decide to try to race to produce a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon, it would be, even with current safeguards in place, easily detected well before they were to reach that point.” 

Iran’s enrichment facilities are inspected “every 1-2 weeks, and in some cases more often,” by the IAEA, the UN’s nuclear watchdog.

The U.S. and its European counterparts, along with Russia and China, are largely optimistic about reaching a deal that would reliably undermine Iran’s ability to begin a nuclear weapons program, which U.S. intelligence has concluded it has not yet done. 

But U.S. allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia insist any deal that fails to completely halt Iran’s civilian nuclear program is a bad deal. Israel in particular has been lobbying much of Congress to oppose the negotiations and increase economic sanctions on Iran.

This obstructionism, however, could actually increase the likelihood that Iran’s nuclear program is expanded.

Iran’s ability to produce fissile material “would be even more worrisome if the P5+1 and Israel fail to seize this opportunity to pause Iran’s nuclear progress,” Kimball said, adding that Netanyahu’s “approach is a strategy for failure, because this is a good deal.”

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John Glaser

John Glaser is Editor of He has been published at The Huffington Post, Al Jazeera English, The American Conservative, and The Daily Caller, among other outlets. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

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