Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Iran much closer to a bomb than US believes

Daily Times - A nuclear expert warned on Tuesday that Iran could build a nuclear bomb much earlier than a recent US estimate which said Iran was between six and 10 years away from success.

Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, writes in the New York Times that “Americans should resist the latest intelligence-agency lullaby. Given the dismal performance of our spies and analysts in recent years, why should we think they have suddenly wised up? Iran is determined to get the bomb - all the agencies agree on that - and dealing with that threat is not a job that can be left for the next administration.”

According to him, Americans should not be comforted by the 6-10 year time lag before Iran gets itself a nuclear weapon, but be alarmed. Iran, he points out, started an essential part of the process this month by resuming the conversion of about 37 tons of natural uranium into the gaseous form that can be fed into centrifuges that spinning the gas at high speed, enrich its potency, either to a low level for fueling a reactor, or to a high level for fueling a bomb. The 37 tons, which are expected be ready for enrichment in about a month, would be sufficient for six to nine weapons.

The American estimate, Milhollin argues, is based on the assumption that Iran’s centrifuges are of poor quality and that Iranian scientists may have trouble connecting them into a “cascade”, in which the uranium must flow from one machine to the next. This prediction, he adds, discounts an overwhelming amount of countervailing evidence.

An IAEA official told the nuclear expert that the Iranians can produce high-quality centrifuges. It is known that Iran has built a string of workshops as part of a plan to produce some 50,000 centrifuges, with an assumed production rate of many thousand per year. It also has thousands of components for the centrifuges on hand, some Iranian-made others believed to be imported from Pakistan.

“It is unreasonable to assume that Iran could not, after deciding to begin a concerted effort, assemble a 2,000-machine cascade in a year. In 2002, Iranian scientists enriched a small amount of uranium in an experimental cascade at the Kalaye Electric Company, a secret operation in Tehran that the International Atomic Energy Agency didn’t discover until 2003,” Milhollin points out.

He believes that after a year’s operation of such a cascade, Iran would have one bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium, and could have built and started running 2,000 more centrifuges. Continuing at this pace would yield three bombs’ worth of enriched material in three years, and about six bombs’ worth in four. A US scientist told the writer that he was “stunned” by the administration’s 6-10 year estimate before Iran has a weapon. IAEA inspectors have said that Iran has never explained how far it got in its efforts to build a more advanced model of centrifuge that could save much production time.

Iran got the blueprints for this machine around 1995 from Pakistan’ sources and imported hard-to-find components such as specialised magnets. “This raises the possibility that Iran may have centrifuges or laboratories we still don’t know about, a risk that seems quite high given that for almost two decades Iran managed to hide work on uranium enrichment that international inspectors found out about only after visiting the site at Natanz in 2003,” he adds.

Milhollin maintains that the Iranian “concealment” has continued. Last year, Iran razed a building at one suspected nuclear site and scraped away the underlying soil to prevent analysis Iran is also barring inspectors from following up their work at another site, the Parchin military complex near Tehran, which many suspect is being used for work on the non-nuclear parts of a nuclear weapon. “This latter activity - the making of bomb parts other than the uranium or plutonium metal that explodes - is easily hidden because it would most likely occur in parallel at laboratories not involved in creating the nuclear fuel. And it seems very possible that Iran received a complete bomb design, plus blueprints showing how to manufacture it, from Mr (AQ) Khan. In the 1990’s he sold both Iran and Libya packages of centrifuge technology; we know that in the case of Libya he threw in the bomb design for good measure. Why would he not have given the plans to his other good customer, Iran, as well?” asks the nuclear expert.