Washington has recently upped its estimates of the Iranian nuclear program’s rate of progress, in the light of fresh Intelligence data on Tehran’s bid for weapons and nuclear materials on the international black market. The projected timeline for the Islamic Republic to attain a nuclear bomb has been cut by five to six years to 2009-2010.
The new projection has not yet prompted changes in the Bush administration’s scale of priorities or level of urgency in relation to the Iranian nuclear threat.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 257 of June 16: Calling a Nuclear Spade a Spade)
Meanwhile, the months slip by – and still no reply from Tehran to the big powers’ incentives package offer. That reply, given Iran’s genius for procrastination, promises no clear-cut yes or no, but several more years of aimless, time-consuming haggling aka diplomacy as the Islamic Republic moves closer to its target.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources reveal how Iran is using the time gained by these tactics to push on towards its goals:
1. Some 150 Iranian agents have fanned out through the illicit conventional and nuclear weapons markets of Russia, Ukraine and the Central Asian republics of the Russian Federation. Waving hundreds of millions of dollars, they are buying up every available scrap of weapons-grade enriched uranium. Sources close to the trade estimate that five to seven bombs could be built from the quantities on sale. But when sham products and amounts promised but never delivered by fraudulent traders are taken into account, the enriched uranium available to Iran’s agents would suffice for no more than two or three bombs.
Iran’s purchasing enterprise faces two big problems:
First: The quantity of enriched uranium for a single bomb must be collected from scores of dealers. Each has to be engaged separately in the bargaining process with no knowing if one or more are not working a sting operation for a double agent.
Second: The merchandise varies in the level of enrichment from one trader to the next. The Iranians are trying their best to buy from as few sources as possible and looking out for stocks of identical grades.
Iran goes shopping for weapons-grade uranium on the black market
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report Tehran is offering double or treble the going price to tempt any dealer who can supply the full amount of enriched uranium required and guarantee it is of uniform quality.
2. The agents are also on the lookout for diagrams and instructions for home production of nuclear warheads adaptable to Shehab-3 type surface missiles, or ready-made nuclear warheads left over from the Cold War in Red Army or former satellite stores. To speed transactions, Tehran has instructed its agents to offer a hundred million dollars ore more for a ready-made warhead, even if it is non-active and cleaned out of nuclear contaminants.
As DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iran experts recall, this is the first time Tehran has gone shopping for a nuclear warhead.
In 2004, US intelligence discovered documentary evidence of detailed Iranian plans for nuclear warheads for missiles. In the first half of 2005, they dropped this program, chiefly because the international community had become too nosy about its nuclear ambitions and a low profile was prudent, but also because they had decided to try their hand at domestic production. A year later, Tehran is back on the market for a foreign warhead.
3. US intelligence has also learned that the Isfahan facility is turning out 10 tons of UF6 gas each month. With this output, Iran will have a little more than 100 tons of the gas in hand per year. It is reported to be transferred to the Natanz and Kashan plants for enrichment by advanced P2 centrifuge machines.
When this data was received, officials in Washington were stunned. Only a month ago, US intelligence was certain that Iran did not possess these high-speed centrifuges after having failed to manufacture them. Now the administration must rethink much of its strategy. Iran still has only a small number of the P2 centrifuges, but its scientists are studying methods for assembling large clusters. Each cluster needs to be composed of at least 164 centrifuges in order to maintain a rapid and efficient enrichment process and produce a product of uniform grade.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources add that US intelligence estimates that Iran can overcome its technology problems in eight months, which means a breakthrough in February or March 2007. From that point, Iran will be able to move forward with the assembly of tens if not hundreds of P2 centrifuge clusters. The work can be scattered across the country out of the purview of international inspectors.
Iran‘s concealment tactics prevail
4. Iran’s ability to conceal its illicit activities was amply demonstrated to the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors during their last tour in the country. While inspecting the nuclear laboratories of Tehran University, the inspectors discovered a pump of a type used exclusively for uranium enrichment, which they had never before encountered in Iran’s nuclear facilities.
They asked Iranian officials what the pump was doing in the University labs, and got no answer. The pump in question is not applicable to any of the university’s current research projects or any of the enrichment projects in Iran known to the nuclear watchdog or the West. That particular pump is known as a tool used exclusively for producing weapons-grade enriched uranium.
Its unexplained discovery in Tehran has opened up new avenues of suspicion in the IAEA and the key levels of US government and intelligence. They are convinced that the pump was brought for testing or upgrading to the university lab from secret nuclear facilities which the Iranians had successfully hidden from the inspectors and the West.
The obvious conclusion is that the Iranians are running a secret program far more advanced than those which are known to be operating in Natanz, Isfahan and Kashan.
The pump is the first piece of concrete evidence of a secret operation of this kind to have fallen in to the hands of the nuclear watchdog.
Our sources note that if this is the case and Iran is already deep into highly-advanced clandestine programs for military nuclear applications and missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads, then US-European policy and the group’s proposals have reached an impasse.
As a Western intelligence expert put it to DEBKA-Net-Weekly, “The trouble with intelligence, especially on the Iranian nuclear issue, is that what intelligence knows, it knows, but there is no way of gauging how much it doesn’t.”
He offered the example of the 12 advanced Russian X-5518 nuclear cruise missiles (also known as AS-15 and Kh-55) with a range of 3,000 km and capable of carrying a 200-kiloton nuclear warhead that Tehran got hold of on the Ukrainian black market. “No one in the West,” said the officer, “had a clue that those missiles had reached Iranian hands until the dealers in Ukraine and Russia who sold them to Iran fell out. It was only when the dispute went to court in Kiev that the sale broke surface and the Americans found out that Iran had managed to arm itself with top-line cruise missiles.