By Yousaf Butt
Consider yourself warned - "[I]n the next few years Iran will be in position to detonate a nuclear device," so writes Ray Takeyh, confidently, in a recent Washington Post OpEd . Why? Because the Iranian government willingly informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it would begin installing additional centrifuges with higher capacity to enrich uranium. 
Just like fertilizer can be used to increase crop yields - or make bombs - uranium is a dual use material.
Uranium enrichment has been conflated with nuclear weaponization so often that it has morphed into a virtual bogeyman bomb itself - an absolutely impermissible activity for the likes of Iran to pursue. This was not always the case. In irony
In 1970, the US proposed installing 23 nuclear power plants in Iran by the year 2000. A 1976 directive by then-president Gerald Ford offered Iran a US-built reprocessing facility for extracting plutonium from nuclear reactor fuel, another key ingredient for making nuclear bombs.  This "nuclear fuel-cycle" infrastructure is precisely the type of technology the US is now keen to keep out of Iran.
While it would be nice if Iran stopped enriching uranium, does the international community have any right to insist on that? Unfortunately, none of treaties and legal agreements that Iran is party to have changed since the time of the shah: what was legal then is legal now. 
Iran is a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and, as such, is entitled to enrich uranium under IAEA safeguards, which it does. Argentina, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the US all enrich uranium without any fuss.
In Brazil's case, there actually ought to be some fuss: their leaders have publicly expressed great interest in nuclear weapons  and have - unlike Iran - restricted IAEA inspectors from full access to their main uranium enrichment facility. 
Uranium enrichment is useful for generating the fuel for nuclear power plants, and for making radioisotopes for medical and agricultural uses - and, yes, for nuclear weapons as well. Asking how many years Iran is from making a bomb only makes sense if we know - or suspect that - Iran has a nuclear weapons development program.
But earlier this year, the US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper released a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the Iranian nuclear program that could settle this question. 
This document represents the consensus view of 16 US intelligence agencies. Although the content of the new NIE is classified, Clapper confirmed in senate questioning that he has a "high level of confidence" that Iran "has not made a decision as of this point to restart its nuclear weapons program". 
This jibes with the Intelligence community's 2007 NIE, the unclassified version of which publicly stated that Iran wrapped up its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Recent State Department cables provided by WikiLeaks back this up - for instance State Department officials confirmed that some rehashed IAEA reports of suspicious Iranian activities in 2004 were "consistent with the 2003 weaponization halt assessment, since some activities were wrapping up in 2004". 
To be clear, what the NIE and the State Department cables refer to as Iran's "nuclear weapons program" (or "weaponization") pre-2003 was some possible - but disputed - evidence of research by Iranian scientists having to do building and potentially delivering a bomb, not a full-blown actual bomb factory.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient who spent more than a decade as the director of the IAEA, recently told investigative journalist Seymour Hersh that he had not "seen a shred of evidence that Iran has been weaponizing, in terms of building nuclear-weapons facilities and using enriched materials ... I don't believe Iran is a clear and present danger. All I see is the hype about the threat posed by Iran." 
Indeed, every year, the IAEA has confirmed that Iran has complied with its nuclear materials' accountancy. There has never been any diversion of nuclear material into any alleged weapons program. Ever.
So, unless Iran starts a real nuclear weapons program it will never make the bomb - no matter how much enrichment takes place.
The only "evidence" of Iran's nuclear weapons program is its refusal to grant the IAEA completely unfettered access to whatever facilities the IAEA would like to inspect. But since the Iranian government has not ratified the "Additional Protocol" agreement it has no obligation to open every door to the IAEA.
Pretty much everything the US and its allies have done with regards to Iran's nuclear program has been counter-productive: the sanctions have improved Iran's domestic scientific capabilities. 
The assassination of Iranian scientists has led to one of the victims-to-be - Professor Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani - to be named head of the Iran's Atomic Energy Organization and therefore, automatically, one of the vice-presidents of the country.  And cyber-warfare, like the STUXNET virus suspected to be the work of US and Israel,  has not made a significant dent in Iran's enrichment capabilities: to the contrary, the Iranians have reportedly begun deploying second- and third-generation centrifuges which may boost their enrichment capability three-fold. 
So what to do?
Call off the cyber-warfare. Call off the assassinations. Call off the sanctions.
Not only are United Nations sanctions counterproductive, they are not even legal. The UN charter clearly outlines the conditions needed to kick off such sanctions - only after a determination of "the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression" is found, something that has never been done.
Far from marching towards making a nuclear bomb, Iran has repeatedly offered to place additional restrictions on its nuclear program well in excess of its legal obligations, including opening the program entirely to joint US participation and limiting the number of centrifuges they operate. More recently they agreed to a Turkish-Brazilian brokered deal to export their enriched uranium for fabrication into reactor fuel abroad. In each case, the US deliberately undermined or ignored these offers.
The underhanded way in which the US and its allies are misusing the IAEA to issue trumped up reports about Iran's alleged - and it should be stressed many years' past - "intransigence" over possible military activities threatens the very legitimacy of that agency.
The 118 nations that make up the non-aligned movement (NAM) - ie the real "international community" - have raised howls (or, at least, what passes for "howls" in diplomatic circles) about how politicized the agency has become lately .
In a statement read during an IAEA board of governors meeting, representatives of the NAM nations noted "with concern, the possible implications of the continued departure from standard verification language in the summary of the report of the director general [Yukio Amano]". 
As it turns out, Amano himself comes with some baggage attached. Leaked cables cast him as "solidly in the US court" on Iran. . To save the legitimacy of the IAEA, Amano should give serious thought to gracefully resigning his post.
Surely, Iran should be stopped - but only when it does things that are illegal. A lot of dust has been kicked up recently because Iran has expressed interest in enriching uranium to 19.75% as fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor so that it can produce medical isotopes. (Normally, reactors used for generating nuclear power use uranium of 3.5% enrichment.) But anything less than 20% is considered low-enriched uranium (LEU) by the IAEA - not highly enriched uranium (HEU) as some have reported.
And in fact there is nothing in the law stopping Iran from enriching uranium to any level it pleases, so long as it does so under IAEA safeguards.
The most objective reading of Iran's intentions is that it may be stockpiling enough LEU to give itself a "break-out" option to weaponize in the future - unfortunately for the US and its allies, there is nothing illegal about that. The fault lies with NPT that allows such behavior - not with Iran. The US may as well insist that Iran also not produce fertilizer since that, too, can be used in bombs.
Iran could certainly take its stock of LEU and enrich it to a grade required for making bombs, but its LEU is under the surveillance of the IAEA - and has been for decades.
Diverting this material for military purposes would be discovered by the IAEA. So either Iran could cheat and get caught, or it could kick out the IAEA inspectors.  These, then, should be the real "red-lines" for taking any tougher actions on Iran.
1. The march toward a nuclear Iran Washington Post, August 4.
2. See here - subscription required.
3. See America's on-again/off-again love affair with Iran's nuclear program. Race for Iran, June 8, 2011.
4. Past Arguments Don't Square With Current Iran Policy Washington Post, March 27, 2005.
5. See America's on-again/off-again love affair with Iran's nuclear program. Race for Iran, June 8, 2011.
5. Jose Alencar, Brazil VP, Says Country Should Build Nuclear Arms Huffington Post. September 25, 2009.
6. Brazil's Nuclear Ambitions, Past and Present NTI, September 2006.
7. See here.
8. See here.
9. See here
10. How real is the nuclear threat? By Seymour M Hersh.
11. The march toward a nuclear Iran Washington Post, August 4, 2011.
12. Mossad behind string of assassinations in Iran Froeign Policy, August 2, 2011.
13. Israeli Test on Worm Called Crucial in Iran Nuclear Delay New York Times, January 15, 2011.
14. Iran Claims Progress Speeding Nuclear Program Wall Street Journal, August 4, 2011.
15. The IAEA and Syria: A New Paradigm for Noncompliance? Carnegie Endowment, June 17, 2011.
16. Non-Aligned Movement backs Iran Asia Times Online, September 17, 2010.
17. WikiLeaks cable portrays IAEA chief as 'in US court' on Iran nuclear program Christian Science Monitor, December 2, 2010.
18. How to Deal with Iran The New York review of Books, February 12, 2009.
Yousaf Butt is a nuclear physicist and is currently serving as a scientific consultant to the Federation of American Scientists on global security issues. Previously, he was a fellow on the Committee on International Security and Arms Control at the US National Academy of Sciences, and on the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.