Friday, May 19, 2006

West May Bring Forward Date of Possible Iran N-bomb

Daniel Dombey and Stephen Fidler, The Financial Times:
Western intelligence agencies are likely to speed up their estimates of when Iran could develop a nuclear weapon, so increasing the pressure on President George W. Bush to act against the Islamic republic, according to western officials and nuclear experts.

In the latest public pronouncement on the issue, John Negroponte, US director of national intelligence, said in February that if Iran continued on its current path it would “likely have the capability to produce a nuclear weapon within the next decade”.

Since then, Iran’s announcement last month that it had “joined the nuclear club”, together with other evidence that it has stepped up its nuclear programme, is likely to make the US intelligence agencies think again.

Tehran insists its programme is purely peaceful and intended to bolster its energy security, but the US and the EU believe it is intended to develop nuclear weapons capacity.

Intelligence calculations about when Iran could have a nuclear bomb are beset with great uncertainty and, given the American intelligence debacle in Iraq, may be greeted by the world with great scepticism. But they will provide critical ammunition for arguments within the US administration over a military strike against Iran – especially in the light of diplomatic deadlock on a United Nations Security Council resolution on the issue.

“Perhaps the single most important factor in this whole dispute is the CIA estimate of when Iran could get nuclear weapons and whether in the light of present events they move the probable date to before the end of President Bush’s term in office,” says François Heisbourg, an adviser at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “With a five to 10 year estimate he has more leeway. If the date was moved he would have to explain why he wasn’t doing anything.”

The momentum of Iran’s nuclear programme has picked up since last August when Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad took office as Iran’s president. Since then, Iran has in steps abandoned a freeze it had agreed to its programme, culminating in the production of 3.6 per cent enriched uranium – fit for a nuclear reactor though not a bomb – in April. People close to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, say the amount produced was “grams” not “kilograms”.

“The CIA estimate [for when Iran could develop enough material for a nuclear weapon] has been five to 10 years,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, a former US official, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “Iran has made progress, so it’s necessary to recalibrate it.”

Analysts say that Iran would need 15-25kg of highly enriched uranium for a single device. But what questions confront intelligence agencies in deciding when this could be achieved?

According to David Albright, president of the Washington-based Institute of Science and International Security, the most important single question is “how fast it can put together and operate the P-1 centrifuges” for uranium enrichment.

He estimates that the Iranians would need to assemble 1,500-3,000 of the P-1s – P stands for Pakistan from where Iran obtained the technology – in a so-called cascade. This could conceivably be done by the end of 2007, after which it would take a further year, barring problems, to enrich enough uranium for a bomb. READ MORE

The assessment assumes that there is no secret enrichment programme on which Iran has moved further. But otherwise this is a “worst case estimate”. Aluminium centrifuges such as the P-1 are required to spin in a vacuum at rapid speeds of up to 500 revolutions per second and many are likely to crash. Added to this, the P-1 – based on a model originally designed and subsequently rejected by Urenco, a European consortium – “is not a very good centrifuge”, said Mr Albright.

Pat Upson, responsible for research, development and centrifuge manufacturing at Urenco, said it could take three to five years to get a large cascade built and running effectively – but he indicated that, once working, it could produce enough material relatively quickly. But he said: “One machine crashing can start other machines crashing. If you have a cascade of 3,000 centrifuges the quality has to be very high for it to work.”

Analysts have also recently raised questions about the quality of Iran’s uranium hexafluoride, the highly corrosive gas fed into the centrifuges. Mr Upson said it had to be of good quality – free of contaminants – to produce highly enriched uranium. Iran admitted in 2003 that it had previously had to resort to using Chinese uranium hexafluoride in its programme.

Assuming enough highly enriched uranium is produced to make a bomb, Iran would also need to fashion a nuclear warhead and, to achieve a credible deterrent, fit it into a ballistic missile. While research on this could run concurrently with enrichment, these are not negligible steps.

Some analysts say the more US rhetoric is stepped up, the greater incentive there is for Iran to move ahead. Already, said Mr Albright, “fear of a a US military strike seems to have led them to accelerate their P-1 programme.”
This assessment assumes Iran has no P2 centrifuges, which Ahamdinejad claims they are developing.