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The Nuclear Connection

12:21 PM, Jan 30, 2007 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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Last week, the Telegraph's Con Coughlin reported that Iranian scientists had been sent to North Korea last fall to observe that country's nuclear test. Furthermore, Coughlin said the North Koreans were actively assisting the Iranians in their own preparations for a nuclear test.

The report was met with some skepticism--the estimable Dr. Jeffrey Lewis went so far as to call Coughlin a "super-hack." Paul Kerr, another well-respected expert, also mocked the report, pointing out that the Iranian program is designed around the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) as weapons fuel, while the North Koreans used plutonium for the core of their weapon.

Now we have a report from Bill Gertz alleging intense cooperation on ICBM missile development between the two remaining members of the axis of evil. Also, Paul Kerr has changed his tune after consulting with a number of physicists who explained that the Iranians could still learn a great deal from the North Korean test, despite the use of HEU instead of plutonium. Lewis, too, seems less certain that such collaboration is unlikely.

The crux of this debate is whether or not the North Koreans will provide Iran enough assistance to shave months, or even years, off the time it will take Iran to build a bomb. Kerr points to statements from Bush administration officials asserting that Iran will need 5 to 10 years before being able to test a functioning nuclear weapon. In Kerr's opinion, the only way to significantly shorten that estimate was if the North Koreans sold weapons-grade fuel, presumably plutonium, to the Iranians. That seems unlikely, given North Korea's own limited supply, but the accumulating evidence of increased cooperation between the two countries is not good news. According to John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, Iran could be ready to test as early as this summer.

So why has the administration not repudiated the U.S. intelligence community's fantastically optimistic 5-10 year estimate? One explanation is that the Bush administration is suffering from a credibility deficit after it overhyped the WMD threat from Iraq. But isn't the intelligence community just as much to blame, if not more so. Regardless, the Bush administration, and every other government, ought to err on the side of caution when dealing with Iran, which means assuming the worst case scenario: a nuclear Iran within the year.