Wall Street Journal Europe: Time is no longer on our side in keeping the atom bomb away from Tehran.
The Wall Street Journal – Europe
Time is no longer on our side in keeping the atom bomb away from Tehran.
By CON COUGHLIN
Nuclear experts working for Western intelligence agencies have identified a number of glaring discrepancies in Iran’s submissions to the IAEA, which suggest Tehran is making little effort to build the facilities and infrastructure that are normally required for a civilian program. Instead, Western officials have concluded that its civilian program is nothing more than a cover designed to conceal its attempts to build nuclear weapons.
“The closer you examine Iran’s declarations, the more you realize that they do not have a workable civilian nuclear program,” said a senior Western counter-proliferation official who has assessed Iran’s IAEA declarations.
The controversial 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that concluded “with high confidence” that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 can now be safely put to rest. “There is only one program in Iran, and that is the military program. There is nothing that indicates the suspension Iran undertook of its nuclear weapons program in 2003 was anything other than temporary.”
For example, while Iran has made rapid progress at developing its uranium-enrichment capability, it has, to date, no capacity to adapt the two-and-a-half tons of enriched material it has so far produced for use in a nuclear reactor. In a civilian program, the enriched uranium would be processed to produce uranium dioxide, which is used in the fuel rods required for nuclear power stations. But Western nuclear experts have concluded that Iran has no such facility, nor any current plans to develop one.
The current set-up at Iran’s main uranium enrichment facility at Natanz is another cause for concern. The Natanz plant, located in a bomb-proof underground bunker, was originally designed to house 54,000 centrifuges. That would give it the capacity to provide fuel for nuclear power reactors such as Bushehr, which has been built by Russian technicians on the Gulf coast. But to date only 9,000 centrifuges have been assembled, of which only 4,000 are operational. U.N. inspectors who regularly monitor the plant on behalf of the IAEA report that the Iranians appear to have no intention of building the remaining 45,000 centrifuges.
“Natanz is nowhere close to producing enough power for a nuclear plant,” explained a senior counter-proliferation official with access to Iran’s submissions to the IAEA on its nuclear program. “The only capacity Natanz has at present is to provide enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.”
The absence of any nuclear reactors that could use the enriched material produced at Natanz also undermines Iran’s insistence that its program is designed solely for civilian use. Russia has agreed to provide the Bushehr reactor with fuel for a 10-year period once it becomes operational, which means the material currently being produced at Natanz is surplus to requirements. Even though Iran has said it wants to build a network of nuclear reactors by 2030, there is little evidence of any development work. Iran claims work has started on building a nuclear power plant at Darkhovin, in Khuzestan province. But Western officials say the pace of development at the site, which was originally ear-marked for a nuclear power plant during the Shah’s era in the 1970s, is “glacial,” and amounts to little more than “a few pegs in the sand.”
“If Iran was serious about developing its civilian program, you would expect it to devote as much energy to the construction of nuclear power plants as it does to the enrichment of uranium,” the counter-proliferation official explained. “But the basic fact of the matter is that the civilian part of Iran’s civilian nuclear program is missing. So the only logical conclusion that can be drawn from this is that all Iran’s activities are designed for a military program.”
As a consequence, senior Western intelligence officials on both sides of the Atlantic are now convinced that there has been no change of thinking in Iran’s ultimate ambitions since 2003. “It only imposed a suspension of the military program because it feared the Bush administration would launch military action if it continued with its proliferation activities,” said the counter-proliferation official. “Now that fear has subsided it has no reason to maintain the suspension.”
There is now growing concern among Western negotiators that the Obama administration is not giving sufficient credence to the latest assessment of Iran’s nuclear capability. Washington has opposed Iran’s recent offer to ship 1,200 kilos of enriched uranium to Turkey, which amounts to less than half of its known stockpile of two-and-a-half tons. Nuclear experts estimate that Iran needs about 1,200 kilos to build a nuclear warhead, so it would still have enough material for an atom bomb even if it went ahead with the shipment to Turkey.
But the Obama administration appears to be more concerned about building international consensus on the Iran issue than tackling the actual threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program. The White House is particularly pleased by its apparent success in securing Russian support for a new U.N. Security Council resolution against Tehran. But to do so U.S. negotiators have had to water down the strength of the sanctions, as well as make significant concessions to Moscow, such as allowing it to sell sophisticated S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran.
For every month that Iran continues with its uranium enrichment program, it produces another 100 kilos of material that can be used to build atom bombs. “This new assessment of Iran’s nuclear program shows that time is no longer on our side,” said a senior Western official. “If we are to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons we need to take urgent action, and we need to take it now.”
Mr. Coughlin is executive foreign editor of London’s Daily Telegraph and the author of “Khomeini’s Ghost” (Pan Macmillan).