Iran is Only Months from Bomb Technology, says Britain
Simon Tisdall and Ian Traynor, The Guardian:
The west's confrontation with Iran over its nuclear activities intensified yesterday after Britain claimed that Tehran could acquire the technological capability to build a bomb by the end of the year.
A day after the International Atomic Energy Agency referred the dispute to the United Nations security council, British officials also indicated that London would back Washington's efforts to impose a UN deadline of about 30 days for Iran's compliance with international demands.
The five permanent members of the security council began consultations on an expected statement on Iran on Wednesday after Russian-led attempts to broker a compromise at the IAEA in Vienna failed. A deadline could be set as early as next week and would cover a period "of weeks, not months", officials said.
A senior Foreign Office official said that while it could take Iran several years to build a serviceable nuclear weapon, it might gain the technical knowhow within months. "By the end of the year is a ... realistic period," said the official. "It would be really damaging to regional security if Iran even acquired the technology to enable it to develop a nuclear weapon." READ MORE
Until now, European diplomats have referred to a period of five to 10 years during which Iran might potentially build a bomb, while conceding that hard evidence is lacking. By publicly focusing on the level of Iran's technical capabilities, Britain may have shortened the timeframe for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.
Iran denies it is seeking nuclear weapons. The IAEA concluded this week that its assurances were insufficient.
Iran has 85 tonnes of uranium gas stockpiled for enrichment at its Isfahan facility, held under UN seals. American officials say this is enough for 10 bombs. Iran says it plans to install 3,000 centrifuges for enriching the gas at its Natanz underground complex by the end of the year. Western diplomats said any signs that Iran was moving the gas from Isfahan to Natanz would set alarms ringing.
Since last month, the Iranians are reported to have been feeding uranium gas into a small rig of 20 centrifuges at Natanz. That can yield little useful fissile material, but plenty of knowhow for a later, more ambitious project, said a senior official close to the IAEA investigation.
At the end of the Vienna talks this week, a statement by Britain and European negotiating partners said: "Indicators of a possible military dimension to Iran's programme continue to be a legitimate source of intense concern."
Britain maintains that military action to destroy Iran's suspect facilities is not under discussion. But the Bush administration, backed by Israel, has refused to rule out the use of force.
This week's Vienna breakdown has prompted angry recriminations. Faced with the threat of possible sanctions, Iran warned the United States on Wednesday that it could also inflict "harm and pain" in the dispute. Yesterday, Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, said at a congressional hearing in Washington: "We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran, whose policies are directed at developing a Middle East that would be 180 degrees different than the [one] we would like to see developed."