I am by no means a nuclear expert. Thankfully, Prof. Juan Cole parses the nuclear bits so that I don’t have to — and does a very clear job for layfolks who are trying to make sense of the Iran news of the day.
The ability to slightly enrich uranium is not the same as the ability to build a bomb. For the latter, you need at least 80% enrichment, which in turn would require about 16,000 small centrifuges hooked up to cascade. Iran does not have 16,000 centrifuges. It seems to have 180. Iran is a good ten years away from having a bomb, and since its leaders, including Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei, say they do not want an atomic bomb because it is Islamically immoral, you have to wonder if they will ever have a bomb.
The crisis is not one of nuclear enrichment, a low-level attainment that does not necessarily lead to having a bomb….
What is really going on here is a ratcheting war of rhetoric. The Iranian hard liners are down to a popularity rating in Iran of about 15%. They are using their challenge to the Bush administration over their perfectly legal civilian nuclear energy research program as a way of enhancing their nationalist credentials in Iran.
Likewise, Bush is trying to shore up his base, which is desperately unhappy with the Iraq situation, by rattling sabres at Iran. Bush’s poll numbers are so low, often in the mid-30s, that he must have lost part of his base to produce this result. Iran is a great deus ex machina for Bush. Rally around the flag yet again.
I hope that Prof. Cole doesn’t mind my producing a longish excerpt here, but this is the clearest explanation that I have found anywhere of the issues involved — and the egos. Go and read the entire essay — you’ll walk away both amazed at Prof. Cole’s distillation of such a complex problem into a single article and the sheer idiocy of it all.
UPDATE: Also worth a read is Laura Rozen’s question on strategic ambiguity.