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Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick...

7:50 PM, Mar 25, 2006 • By DANIEL MCKIVERGAN
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From today's Los Angeles Times:

Iran's Nuclear Steps Quicken, Diplomats Say

VIENNA - With efforts to halt its nuclear program at an impasse, Iran is moving faster than expected and is just days from making the first steps toward enriching uranium, said diplomats who have been briefed on the program.

If engineers encounter no major technical problems, Iran could manufacture enough highly enriched uranium to build a bomb within three years, much more quickly than the common estimate of five to 10 years, the diplomats said....

According to one non-Western official who closely follows Iran's progress, engineers at a pilot plant in Natanz are likely to start crucial testing in the next couple of days to ensure that the centrifuges and the pipes connecting them are properly vacuum sealed. They are likely to begin feeding uranium hexafluoride gas into a series of 164 connected centrifuges within about two weeks, the official said.

Diplomats and experts say Iran has forgone usual testing periods for individual centrifuges and small series of linked centrifuges, instead apparently trying to put together as many as possible, as quickly as possible.

They said Iran also was likely to begin assembling more centrifuges in mid-April to put together additional cascades of linked centrifuges. The pilot plant can hold up to six cascades of 164 centrifuges each. It could take many months to complete that work, the diplomats said.

The U.S. and its British, French and German allies believe Iran intends to build nuclear weapons, and must be stopped before learning how to enrich uranium. They view the ability to operate a series of centrifuges as a technological tipping point.

"If you can do one centrifuge, you can do 164," said Emyr Jones Parry, British envoy to the U.N. "If you can do 164, you probably can do many more. That means you have the potential to do full-scale enrichment. If you can do enrichment up to 7%, you can do 80%. If you can do 80%, you can produce a bomb"....

The three-year time frame for Iran to produce a bomb cited by diplomats is the same as an estimate by former nuclear weapons inspector David Albright.

In a paper that will be released Monday by the Institute for Science and International Security, which Albright founded, he and a colleague give a detailed description of how, under a best-case scenario, Iran would be able to manufacture enough highly enriched uranium for a crude nuclear device in three years. Albright cautioned, however, that Iran faces many technical hurdles it might find difficult to overcome....

The European Union and the Americans want to exert vigorous pressure on Iran. They insist on a reinstatement of a total moratorium on uranium enrichment that Iran had voluntarily put in place in late 2004 while negotiating with the EU. The U.S. and EU are willing to use a U.N. procedure that gives Security Council resolutions the force of law, and to impose sanctions.

The Russians and the Chinese, mindful of the buildup to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq three years ago, fear that taking too hard a line would lead to an escalation of tensions that could result in military action against Iran. They believe that sanctions and other measures might push Iran to abandon the nonproliferation treaty, which keeps international inspectors in the country.

Russia and China would be willing to allow Iran to retain a small cascade of centrifuges for research purposes....

"We're getting to the point where this fundamental difference between the U.S. and EU position and that of the Russians is being overtaken by Iran's … putting new facts on the ground," said Mark Fitzpatrick, a nuclear nonproliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, who previously worked for the U.S. State Department on nuclear issues. "Iran is closer and closer to enrichment, so the effort to deny them the capability is rapidly failing."

Let's hope our intelligence on the status of Iran's nuclear program is better than we had on Saddam's in 1991.

From a Worldwide Standard post, January 13, 2006:

Saddam Came Close to Having a Nuke in '91; Today, Iran Follows Saddam's Nuclear Procurement Playbook

It's easy to forget that the resolution authorizing force to kick Saddam out of Kuwait barely passed Congress. It's easy to forget that Iraq had passed frequent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections designed to ensure its compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or that its Manhattan Project-sized nuclear program went undetected by US intelligence. It's also easy to forget just how skilled Saddam became at deception post-Osirak.

Some history --