Iran could produce enough weapons-grade uranium to build a nuclear bomb in as little as a month, according to a new estimate by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), considered one of the United States’ top nuclear experts.
ISIS made the estimate in a new report published on Thursday by USA Today.
"Shortening breakout times have implications for any negotiation with Iran," stated the report. "An essential finding is that they are currently too short and shortening further."
David Albright, president of the institute and a former inspector for the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said the estimate means that Iran would have to eliminate more than half its 19,000 centrifuges to extend the time it would take to build a bomb to six months.
The Obama administration has said Iran is probably a year away from having enough enriched uranium to make a bomb. Requests for comment on the ISIS report from the National Security Council and the State Department were not answered.
In the report, Albright said negotiations with Iran should focus on so-called "breakout" times, or the time required to convert low-enriched uranium to weapons-grade, according to USA Today.
Albright, who has testified before Congress, said the negotiators should try to find ways to lengthen the breakout times and shorten the time that inspectors could detect breakout.
ISIS' analysis is based on the latest Iranian and United Nations reports on Iran's centrifuge equipment for producing nuclear fuel and its nuclear fuel stockpiles.
Iran's stockpile of highly enriched uranium has nearly doubled in a year's time and its number of centrifuges has expanded from 12,000 in 2012 to 19,000 today.
Senator Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican whose Senate Banking Committee is considering legislation to tighten Iran sanctions, said the report shows that Iran is expanding its nuclear capabilities under the cover of negotiations.
"The Senate should move forward immediately with a new round of sanctions to prevent Iran from acquiring an undetectable breakout capability," he told USA Today.
The White House has said new sanctions legislation should wait while current negotiations - scheduled to resume officially in Geneva next month - are moving forward.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said his country has no interest in nuclear weapons but that producing nuclear fuel is Iran's right. His foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has said Iran will not ship its nuclear stockpile to a third country.
Iran has refused to let international inspectors into its nuclear facilities to verify they are being used for peaceful purposes, access required under international agreements it has signed.
On Wednesday it was reported that a prominent Iranian lawmaker has claimed that Tehran does not need any more 20 percent-enriched uranium.
“Tehran reactor fuel has been supplied and currently no need is felt for production of 20 percent-enriched uranium," the lawmaker, Hossein Naqvi Hosseini, was quoted as saying.
He added that "Tehran is ready to convert its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium to fuel rods and remove concerns over its non-peaceful use.”
The comments come a week after Iranian negotiators met with representatives of the so-called P5+1 - the United States, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany.
During the two-day session in Geneva, the first round of talks between the sides since the election of Rouhani, Iran presented what it described as a breakthrough proposal that would include snap inspections of its atomic sites.
The proposal was described by the White House as "useful". White House spokesman Jay Carney said it showed a "level of seriousness and substance that we have not seen before." Western negotiators described the talks as the most detailed and serious to date.
ISIS estimated in October of 2012 that Iran could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb within 2-4 months. The new estimate is based on an analysis of the latest reports by Iran and the IAEA.
ISIS considered various scenarios, including if Iran decided to build a covert enrichment plant like it has under a mountain in Fordow, near the city of Qoms, that was designed for optimal efficiency and minimal time to enrich enough uranium for bomb making.
Such a facility built with current Iranian technology could produce enough material for a bomb in a week, according to the ISIS report.
"If they did that and they were caught it would be a smoking gun of a nuclear weapons program," Albright said, according to USA Today.
ISIS has in the past produced satellite imagery which proves that Iran was making alterations to the Parchin complex, a military site that the IAEA says was possibly used to test conventional explosive triggers for a nuclear blast.
Iran has refused to give the IAEA access to sites, documents and scientists involved in what the agency suspects were efforts, mostly in the past but possibly ongoing, to develop nuclear weapons.