Recently, James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence released an "Unclassified Statement for the Record on the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence". In this document, retired Lt. General Clapper outlines the Intelligence Community's assessment of threats to US national security as testified to the Senate Select Committee including al-Qa'ida, the threat of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) weapons and the threat posed by Iran. For this posting, I will concentrate on the Director's security assessment of Iran since the Iranians appear to be the heir-apparent of the world's next military action now that Iraq is on its own and Afghanistan appears to be heading that way.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) is concerned that the October 2011 foiled attempt to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, shows that some officials in Iran are increasingly willing to stage an attack within the United States if the ruling regime perceives a threat. The ODNI is also concerned that Iran could be plotting against United States or their allies overseas.
The ODNI is very concerned about the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) from Iran. The ODNI believes that Iran is keeping its options open for the future development of nuclear weapons capacity by continuing its current nuclear enrichment capabilities. Expansion of its enrichment program has allowed Iran to accumulate 4150 kg of 3.5 percent LEU (low enriched uranium) and 80 kg of 19.75 percent enriched UF6 by the end of October 2011. Iran's growing technical skills in uranium enrichment suggests to the ODNI that Iran will ultimately have the capacity to produce nuclear weapons if and when they are politically willing to do so. The ODNI suggest that Iran would likely choose to deliver its nuclear payload with a ballistic missile system that is already in place since the country already has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East and is expanding the scale and reach of its missile forces.
Let's step aside for a moment. I found a rather interesting study on Iran's pending nuclear capability entitled "The Iranian Nuclear Program: Timelines, Data, and Estimates" on the American Enterprise Institute website. This is particularly pertinent given President Ahmadinejad's recent speech in which he proclaimed that Iran would soon announce "...very important and very major nuclear achievements...". In this document, the author, Maseh Zarif, projects when Iran will have converted LEU to create sufficient weapons-grade high-enriched uranium (HEU - 60 to 90 percent enriched) for a weapon. Please note that this study does not assess Iran's intentions to weaponize the HEU, rather, it simply provides a timeline for Iran’s technical feasibility of doing so.
How is weapons-grade uranium created? The process involved in enriching natural uranium (0.7 percent U-235) to HEU is a two- or three-step process using centrifuges; Iran currently is operating 6208 centrifuges at the Natanz facility alone with an additional 348 centrifuges at the Fordow facility. Both processes involved enriching 0.7 percent natural uranium to 3.5 percent LEU; in the case of the two-step process, this is followed by a process that enriches 3.5 percent LEU to 19.75 percent LEU which is followed by an additional process that enriches the 19.75 percent LEU to 90 percent HEU. In the three-step process, an additional step enriches the 19.75 percent LEU to 60 percent HEU followed by enrichment to 90 percent HEU. The time taken for conversion in both two- and three-step processes is the same, however, the two-step process requires between 85 and 116 kilograms of 19.75 percent LEU compared to 243 kilograms in the three-step process. A small atomic weapon can be built from cores containing between 10 and 25 kilograms of 90 percent U-235 (HEU) yielding an explosive yield of 15 kilotons from a 15 kilogram core. For comparison, the blast yield from Little Boy at Hiroshima in 1945 was between 13 and 18 kilotons and is usually estimated at around 15 kilotons.
From the report, here is the author's timeline:
There are three scenarios from the timeline as follows:
1.) Iran could acquire enough weapons-grade uranium within one month of starting to race to breakout HEU - this is deemed highly unlikely.
2.) Iran can acquire weapons-grade uranium for one weapon by mid-August 2012 under currently announced plans for expansion - this scenario is deemed somewhat likely.
3.) Iran will acquire sufficient 19.75 percent enriched uranium by June 1, 2012 to be within 2.5 months of producing weapons-grade uranium for one 15 kiloton bomb - this scenario is deemed most likely.
Now that we’ve seen a potential timeline for Iran's nuclearOn the conventional side, Iran has a growing inventory and production capability of anti-ship ballistic missiles that it views as necessary to both deter and retaliate against forces in the area, including the United States. With these missiles having the capability of delivering WMD, the ultimate risk is increased.
One security issue that the ODNI raises that I found rather surprising was Iran's dramatic increase in intelligence operations against the United States, including increased cyber capabilities, which puts them in the company of both China and Russia. The ODNI notes that corporate financial networks that are increasingly relying on global links including cloud data storage could make American businesses more vulnerable to security breaches by the aforementioned nations.
The ODNI notes that Iran's leaders are confronting domestic political instability with growing rift between Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmahdinejad leading up to the presidential election in 2013 and the legislative elections in March of 2012. That said, it is unlikely that sanctions that seem to be impacting the Iranian economy to some degree, will actually topple the current regime. While the sanctions have worked to some degree, it certainly seems that both energy-hungry China and India are more than willing to step into the infrastructure investment gap that has prevented other countries from investing in Iran's massive oil and gas reserve base. Despite restrictions on importation of Iranian oil by many developed nations around the world, both India and China have proven time and time again that they are most willing to work with the pariah nations of the world to secure their supplies of commodities for the future. The very presence of a highly militarized China in the region certainly complicates potential military action by NATO or any other western-based alliance.