In his Oct. 11 debate with Congressman Paul Ryan, Vice President Joe Biden scoffed at Ryan’s concerns about the danger of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, declaring both that “[t]here is no weapon that the Iranians have at this point,” and that “we’ll know if they start the process of building a weapon.” As Biden’s comment illustrates, the Obama administration has been dangerously cavalier in assuming their own omniscience and omnicompetence vis-à-vis Iran. Their smug confidence is misplaced.
It is presumably true that Iran has “no” nuclear weapon at this point, but no one has ever alleged that they do. Rather, the concern is that Tehran's march toward it has now been permitted to come perilously close to completion. Just how close is subject to controversy, but there is enough evidence on the public record to make Biden’s blithe confidence that “we’ll know” if the Iranians “start” building a weapon seem foolish.
In fact, Iran “started” building a weapon many years ago, in the mid-1980s, when it began secretly purchasing equipment for this purpose from the A.Q Khan proliferation network, concealing its work behind systematic lies to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran’s weapons development program consisted of multiple efforts to develop fissile material production and efforts to develop the “weaponization” capability needed to turn such material into a bomb.
Today, the centrifuge-based enrichment program – known publicly since 2002 – has been permitted to come to maturity, and Iran is presently producing highly-enriched uranium (HEU) at a level of about 20 percent purity. (A level of 90 percent is optimal for a weapon, but by the time you gets to 20 percent some four-fifths of the work has already been done: it’s quick and easy to go from there to bomb-grade, using the same equipment.)
Some U.S. intelligence officials still believe Iran suspended weaponization work in 2003, however recent IAEA evidence suggests otherwise. I would love to share Vice President Biden’s confidence that we know all about everything the Iranians are (or are not) presently doing, but no serious observer is so blasé about the U.S. Intelligence Community’s omniscience. (Don’t forget: it took until 2007 for our spies to assess that Iran had supposedly suspended weaponization in 2003.)
Even if Tehran did suspend weaponization work, moreover, it had clearly done a good deal of it beforehand, and in any event it is material production rather than weaponization that is considered the biggest challenge for would-be proliferators. The IAEA has already shown Iran to possess documentation describing how to machine bomb parts out of uranium metal, and it has long been suspected – though never proven – that Tehran (like Libya) received actual bomb designs from the Khan network. To some extent, therefore, weaponization is for Iran perhaps less of an R&D challenge than simply a matter of following directions in order to assemble a pre-tested device of Chinese and/or Pakistani design.