A revealing exchange at today’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Iran’s nuclear program that featured some of the administration’s defense policy heavy hitters. Things got interesting when director of military intelligence, Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, said Iran could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb in one year.
This led a number of SASC committee members to assume that Iran could have a nuclear bomb in one year, which is not the case. Burgess was referring only to uranium enrichment. Committee chair Sen. Carl Levin asked for further clarification: If Iran made the decision today to develop a nuclear bomb, how long would it take them?
To produce enough highly enriched uranium would take Iran one year, said vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. James Cartwright. To develop a “deliverable weapon that is usable tactically… something that can actually create a detonation, an explosion that would be considered a nuclear weapon” would take “another two to three, potentially out to five years.”
Sen. John McCain said he was somewhat astonished as every report he’s seen has said one year to 18 months. He pressed Cartwright to clarify. And Levin specifically asked the vice chairman what the intelligence community’s best assessment was as to how long it would take should Iran decided to simultaneously enrich uranium and to develop a deliverable nuclear weapon?
“Three to five years is a historical estimate of how long it takes a nation with a low enriching capability to move both through the high enrichment protocols and then to things that would put it together to make it a weapon. Three to five years,” Cartwright said.