February 20, 2007

Five Years Went By Fast

Remember when people kept assuring us that Iran was at least five years from developing the technology to produce a nuclear weapon? Well, time apparently flies, because the IAEA now says that Iran may be as close as six months from producing the fuel for a nuke. Given their earlier access to the AQ Khan network, that could make Iran a nuclear power by the end of summer:

Iran could be as little as six months away from being able to enrich uranium on an industrial scale, having mastered the technology since last August, the head of the UN's nuclear watchdog warned in an interview published today. However, Mohamed ElBaradei, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general, stressed that Iran was still years away from developing a nuclear weapon.

"The intelligence, the British intelligence, the American intelligence, is saying that Iran is still years, five to 10 years, away from developing a weapon," he told the Financial Times in an interview on the eve of Wednesday's deadline for Tehran to suspend its enrichment work. But Mr ElBaradei said he expected Iran to ignore the deadline.

He said Iran could install a network of 3,000 centrifuges - enough to begin producing fissile material for a bomb - within months. "It could be six months, it could be a year," Mr ElBaradei said. However, he added, "there's a big difference between acquiring the knowledge for enrichment and developing a bomb".

Since August last year Iran has been using centrifuges at a pilot plant in the town of Natanz to enrich uranium. It has refused to halt this process, insisting its purposes are purely peaceful.

It's true that building a centrifuge cascade does not lead directly to a nuke. Even building the centrifuges themselves in bulk can be a high hurdle for developing nations. Iran has had its share of problems with this stage, and the Guardian has reported on more than one occasion that the Iranian claims of progress may have been overstated.

However, ElBaradei apparently believes they have surmounted their production difficulties, including the ball bearings that they had difficulty manufacturing accurately. A cascade of 3,000 centrifuges could quickly produce enough material of high enough enrichment for nuclear weapons. In fact, it would be designed with that in mind. Nuclear power stations do not require a high enrichment value, and such a large cascade would either have an application for generating fuel for a large number of commercial power stations or fuel for a few bombs.

The Iranians only need to master the technology to produce the fuel. The rest of the technology had been available in the region for years, thanks to Pakistani nuclear designer AQ Khan. The Iranians benefitted from Khan's largesse and have the design for nuclear weapons. They need to produce the other elements of the device, but the toughest hurdle was the centrifuge cascades, which they apparently have resolved, according to ElBaradei.

Five years sure passed quickly, didn't they?


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