The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as it currently exists grew out of President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program in the 1950s. It actually encourages countries that obtain nuclear reactors to produce electricity to also enrich uranium. The problem is that, if a country enriches uranium up to 3 percent, which is what is suitable for a reactor to generate electricity, it has done nearly three-quarters of the work needed to move along the road to 90 percent enrichment, which is what is required to make a bomb.
Once a country reaches that higher level of enrichment, the weapons are the relatively easy part. A simple “shotgun” device like the bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima is the way every state starts out in the nuclear business. Unfortunately, it is quite easy to design and construct. (That is why the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that said Iran had halted its effort to build a nuclear weapon was the single most deceptive NIE in history. It is also one of the most consequential because it gave the impression that the Iranians had halted what was most important to get to the nuclear bomb threshold – enriching uranium. But they were doing that in spades. They had possibly merely halted weapons design work.)
Either by withdrawal from the NPT – and thus avoiding monitoring – or by secretly placing their facility in a mountain, Iran or like-minded regimes can process enough low-enriched uranium it needs for a weapon.
The first Iranian bomb doesn’t have to be that sophisticated. Something that goes “boom” and sends a mushroom cloud up in the northern Iranian desert – even if it doesn’t have a decent yield-to-weight ratio, even if it would not fit into the nose cone of a Scud – would still make Iran a nuclear power.
That would change the world.