The Key to Evaluating the Timeline for Iran’s Nuclear Bomb

Diplomacy has gone as far as it can to halt Iran’s race towards a nuclear weapon. The West now has to dream up more practical preventatives before it is too late, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources.

The poor shape of the equipment for enriching uranium discovered at the Natanz site after the UN seals were finally broken Thursday, Jan. 12, may provide a handle for a breakthrough.

That is, if it is true. It may be another Iranian ruse for strengthening the American assessment that a bomb is three years way, against the estimates of Israeli nuclear experts that Iran will arrive at its goal before the end of 2006.

The Iranians say they are reactivating the centrifuge equipment for the resumption of “nuclear research.” This would indicate that thousands of P1 and P2 type centrifuges – most of home production – are in no condition to go straight ahead with the orderly process of uranium enrichment for the manufacture of nuclear bombs and missile warheads in any quantity. The long testing still necessary would qualify as the nuclear research Tehran described.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports the intelligence community is divided over Iran’s centrifuge capabilities. No one knows their exact number, whether in the thousands or tens of thousands, but American experts believe most are of the inferior P1 type which uses an aluminum rotor, while the Israelis believe Iran has a large quantity of P2 centrifuges, which use a maraging steel rotor that is stronger, spins faster and therefore enriches more uranium per machine than the P1.


P2 centrifuges are the fast route to a bomb


This also accounts for the gap in time estimates for building a nuclear bomb – the Americans give Tehran at least three years, while the Israelis estimate that, by the end of 2006, Iran will have manufactured enough enriched uranium to take it nine-tenths of the way to a bomb. They are certain they are right and there is no time to lose.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in the nuclear industry report furthermore that the Iranians are in a mad rush to mobilize top talent to help them overcome technical snags. Engineers from North Korea, China, Russia and parts of Europe, such as Germany, are willing to hire out to Tehran without asking their governments.

According to a report in the London Observer last Sunday, Jan. 8, a truck loaded with 1,000 kilos of zirconium silicate from a British firm was stopped at the Bulgarian border with Turkey, before being allowed to continue its journey to Tehran. No British export license was required although zirconium metal which can be used in a nuclear weapons program can be extracted from the silicate.

With this much international help, Iran will short-cut its technical problems and be ready in the spring of 2006 to announce it can proceed to the “limited production of enriched uranium for research.”

Decoded, this means a further step towards a bomb.

It is worth mentioning that the Iranians never for a moment halted uranium enrichment for military purposes, but because the process went forward in clandestine conditions, the quantities yielded were small.

In recent weeks, the secret manufacture of P2 centrifuge manufacture has been stepped up to aim for a target of 60,000 units.

Iran’s clerical rulers are pleased with their brinkmanship tactics. They decided at closed conferences this week in the office of Iran’s supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the National Security Council to continue testing the limits of Western patience.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offered the opinion that a tough stance would make the West back down still further and was the most beneficial of any tactics.


Tehran could swing back to the Russian option


Khamenei, in a speech marking the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice, declared the Islamic Republic must adhere to its independent nuclear program in all circumstances.

Tehran’s tactics therefore remain unchanged: each important advance in their program is accompanied by an apparent softening in its hard-line position – all for the purpose of disarming the West and toning down its strident condemnations.

A case in point this week was Tehran’s unexpected waiver of its objections to temporarily relocating its uranium enrichment processing to Russia, with the reservation that this could happen only after Iran achieves full independent capacity.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Tehran, the Iranians are genuinely concerned to explore the Russian option, to find out if they can learn enough from the Russians to improve their enrichment techniques. A project in Russia would not prevent them from continuing their enrichment operations – openly in Natanz and covertly at the closed military compound at Parchin and other sites scattered around the country. It will therefore not be surprising if Tehran comes out with an offer to seriously discuss this project with Moscow.

At the internal councils in Tehran this week, our sources report the supreme ruler made fun of Washington’s threats to refer its nuclear activities to the UN Security Council for sanctions. Khameinei asked: Would the Americans go for an oil embargo and risk depriving the world of 2.5 million barrels of Iranian oil a day and so send the price shooting up from $60 to $100 the barrel?


Would UN sanctions raise oil to $100?


A more efficient sanction, Tehran realizes, would be to choke off its imported refined oil products from the neighboring Gulf emirates, to the tune of $8bn per annum.

This would bring grinding to a halt Iran’s civilian and military vehicles for lack of petrol and plunge the country in chaos. But Tehran is gambling on its neighbors’ wariness of siding with the West and putting up backs in Tehran.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s diplomatic sources suggest that Iran is not the only party playing for time. Washington too appears to be in no hurry to take drastic steps.

US intelligence believes that it will take the Iranians another four years at least to crack the problem of how to deliver a nuclear bomb. They lack the technology for making devices small enough to be carried by fighter planes or to fit as nuclear warheads on their missiles. Even if they mastered the construction of an atomic bomb the size of a house, how would they deliver it to target?

The Americans appear to have rejected out of hand an aerial attack on Iran’s nuclear installations. Critics claim they are scattered too widely to be knocked out quickly from the air. These installations range from the uranium mines at Saghand near Kashan, to the Isfahan facility where yellow cake is manufactured, Natanz, center of uranium enrichment, Arak where a heavy water reactor is under construction, and dozens of facilities in Tehran and its outskirts like Levizan and Parchin, and more facilities in the foothills of the Albroz mountains near Damavand north of the capital and the Moallem Kalayeh region.


The military option is still on the table


However the option of air attack has its proponents too in Washington They argue that snapping any of the links in the chain of Iran’s weapons production would derail the entire process and is therefore worth a try. The argument that most of the facilities are buried deep underground and therefore out of reach of Western bombs is advanced mostly for public consumption, to put people off the military option for snuffing out Iran’s nuclear aspirations. However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources believe that military action is worth considering because the right kind of bunker-busters or smart bombs could be effective. A hint in this direction was thrown out enigmatically this week by the Israeli chief of staff Lt.-Gen Dan Halutz who said there was a military way of overcoming Iranian installations in answer to a question put to him at Tel Aviv University. He did not elaborate.

The fact is that Washington appears to prefer non-military means. The conviction has gained ground in the US intelligence community that there is a cheaper way of doing away with Iran’s nuclear threat that would not entail large-scale bloodshed. That would be to help the Iranian people rise up and topple the clerical regime in Tehran. Given the right expertise and a good enough understanding of the Iranian people’s modes of behavior and psyche, the United States could engineer the downfall of the Iranian regime, as it did in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In this regard, Tehran was buzzing with rumors this week that sabotage brought down the small Falcon jet which crashed in northern Iran Monday, Jan. 9, killing the entire intelligence elite of the Revolutionary Guards ground forces. It just so happened that among the victims was the team that supervised the production of Iranian Shehab-3 and Shehab-4 missiles intended to carry nuclear warheads.

More about the new chapter of an apparent secret war for cutting down the rule of the ayatollahs in Tehran and scotching their nuclear aspirations – in the next article in this issue.

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