US intelligence Iran watchers, sizing up the latest trends in Iran’s nuclear weapons program, agree on the two fundamental directions Tehran has charted for the next three years, assuming that a nuclear bomb is its goal for 2012:
1. Tehran has sunk hundreds of millions of dollars and employs a huge staff of nuclear engineers and technicians working around the clock to complete the Qatran heavy water complex inaugurated in 2006 near Arak in central Iran, 240 kilometers south of Tehran.
The crash program was launched after Moscow’s promise in August to finish building Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr by the end of 2008, after dragging its feet for years.
The two projects when paired add up to plutonium production.
Some of the Arak experts have been traveling to Bushehr for discussions with the Iranian and Russians getting the reactor ready to go on stream.
Up until mid-2008, the Iranians showed no particular interest in the plutonium track.
If it was noticed at all, it was considered by American, British and Israeli intelligence experts to be no more than a distraction from the main theme, which was uranium enrichment. Today, US intelligence experts confirm that emphasis has shifted radically: The Iranians appear to be investing an equal amount of effort and funds in the two routes, plutonium and enriched uranium. Both are capable of producing fissile material for nuclear weapons by the presumed target date of 2012.
2. At their present tempo of P2 centrifuge production, Iran will have 15-20,000 machines turning out enriched uranium by mid-2012. With 6,000 centrifuges spinning smoothly and without interruption, the Iranians can produce enough enriched uranium for one bomb or warhead per month, or 8-12 a year.
At present, they have 3,800 to 4,000 centrifuges producing enriched uranium.
The only production lines which Tehran allows the UN nuclear watchdog’s cameras to monitor – i.e. the Isfahan plant producing low-enriched 5 percent uranium – would need years to process the quantity needed to “break out” into 90 percent weapons-grade material.
Tehran is therefore about to resort to two short cuts, according to US intelligence observers:
First, to stash 6,000 centrifuges out of sight of the UN monitors and operate them at a covert venue hidden from satellites and cameras.
Second, to follow North Korea’s example: After partially dismantling its nuclear installations, Pyongyang Wednesday, Sept. 24, tossed the IAEA inspectors out of its Yongbyon nuclear complex, removed their cameras and seals, and announced the center would start working again in a week.
Tehran is quite capable of one fine day simply smashing the watchdog’s cameras and barring the inspectors’ access to Isfahan.