The United States and Israel now calculate that they have less than a year to stop Tehran’s headlong race for a nuclear bomb. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources reveal that both appreciate that if, by early summer 2004, Iran’s advance towards large-scale uranium enrichment capacity is not halted in its tracks, by September or October Iran will have completed a number of nuclear bombs. Our Washington sources hear that President George W. Bush is intensifying his drive to halt the Iranian program since discovering that Tehran is targeting a capacity for turning out 15 nuclear bombs or warheads a year by 2007.
Chapter and Verse
DEBKA-Net-Weekly discloses here some of the data contributing to this timetable:
A. Inspections carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Iran reveal that in 1991 Iran purchased from China one ton of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas and used it to test four centrifuges at a previously undisclosed facility called Kalaye Electric in Tehran. This test was carried out in preparation for starting up a larger centrifuge pilot plant at Natanz.
In April, IAEA inspectors questioned the Iranians on their imports from China. They were told that the importation had indeed taken place but since the gas had never been used, Tehran saw no need to declare its acquisition. The inspectors asked to see the UF6 containers, only to discover that the amount of 1.9 kg was missing. The Iranians explained that the gas had been lying about for 12 years and so the sealing caps must have worked loose and some of the contents had evaporated. Further examination showed the caps fitted perfectly and no evaporation was possible.
The UN inspectors took soil samples at the nuclear complex in Natanz and, secretly, at Kalayeh Electric, despite permission denied by Iran, and found traces of the UF6, the feedstock for centrifuges, indicating that centrifuges had been secretly tested at both sites.
B. According to fresh intelligence reaching Washington, in mid-May Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf secretly authorized the dispatch of a Pakistani nuclear engineering team to Iran with blueprints for the manufacture of gas centrifuges for enriching uranium. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report the Pakistani team is still there.
Although President George W. Bush publicly gave Musharraf a warm welcome to Washington and Camp David this week, he quietly took his visitor severely to task for extending nuclear aid to Iran. The generous $3 billion economic package approved for Pakistan was not quite up to Musharraf’s expectations. He had looked forward to the write-off of Pakistan’s $1.8 b debt. Instead, the US president demanded the immediate recall of the Pakistani nuclear team from Iran.
C. From intelligence data gathered on the building work going forward at nuclear sites in Tehran, Natanz, Arak and Bushehr, Washington has concluded that Iran has attained the ability to produce gas centrifuges independently and is planning to boost its capacity to 50,000 units so as to enrich enough uranium to yield 15 nuclear bombs a year.
D. The Bush administration has come to believe that one of the main obstacles to curtailing Iran’s nuclear weapons program is the presence of Dr. Mohamed ElBaradai at the head of the UN nuclear watchdog agency. Sources in the circles of vice president Dick Cheney, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and undersecretary of state John Bolton report they are complaining quite openly that ElBaradai is in favor of the Islamic Republic acquiring the first Islamic nuclear bomb. They have not forgiven his role in the run-up to the Iraq War.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported before the war that Washington had decided the Egyptian head of the nuclear agency must go and named Jordanian Prince Hassan as a leading candidate to take his place. The list of candidate has grown in the meantime. The Bush administration understands that the endorsement of other members of the IAEA Commission will be needed for any appointment. Obtaining EU members consent might be ticklish. The process might therefore be protracted.
A daunting obstacle has also presented itself to any military action aimed at wrecking Iran’s nuclear program before it is too late. Its nuclear sites are broadly distributed. The facilities going up across the country are spread out in such a way that if one location is hit, a replacement installation at the other end of the country is ready to take over.