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Experts: Iran Progress On Nuclear Bomb Impossible To Gauge; Bomb Design A Problem

By | November 5, 2007

      Experts said outsiders can’t accurately assess just when a secretive Iran might develop a nuclear bomb, and also said it is unclear just when Iran might gain a workable nuclear weapon design.

      As well, it also is unclear whether Iran has 3,000 centrifuges spinning 24/7 to produce fissile materials that could be used in assembling a nuclear bomb, or whether centrifuges are less reliable and working only sporadically.

      Further, while arms inspectors likely could detect improper diversion of nuclear materials from legitimate programs supposedly producing nuclear materials only for electrical generation purposes, it is far from certain that inspectors would detect a hidden, clandestine nuclear materials production effort, the experts said.

      They are James Acton of King’s College London and Jeffrey Lewis of the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank focusing on defense and other issues, and they spoke to defense journalists at a luncheon of the Center for Media and Security, and the American Academy for the Advancement of Science — Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.

      "Given time, Iran will lern how to use its centrifuges constantly," without having many of them sidelined with maintenance problems at any given time, Acton said.

      He also reeled off some of the critical points where Western observers just don’t know with any degree of certainty what Iran is doing, such as in Iranian centrifuge employment. Centrifuges are required to process and concentrate nuclear materials.

      "There [are] gaps in the knowledge about Iran," Acton said. "You don’t know whether there’s clandestine centrifuge production plants" now making more centrifuges, he said. "You don’t know whether there’s clandestine" nuclear materials production centers filled with already-manufactured centrifuges.

      All of that uncertainty, he said, has created in the West a reluctance to strike at the Iranian nuclear program, because of uncertainty as to just where it is located, and in how many diverse spots.

      Their comments came as President Bush and his administration are fighting a multi-front battle to install a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Europe to guard against missiles that Iran might launch.

      Congress seems poised to slash funding for the planned installation of a Ground-based Midcourse missile Defense (GMD) system in Europe for the current fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2008. (Please see separate story in the issue.)

      Bush had sought $310 million.

      As well, Bush, administration leaders and Pentagon brass are fighting Russian attempts to kill the GMD plans. Moscow leaders say the GMD system would threaten Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Russians also threaten military force to annihilate any GMD system that might be built, referring to plans for a high-capability GMD radar in the Czech Republic and silos for 10 interceptors in Poland.

      But Bush has said the GMD system couldn’t possibly threaten hundreds of Russian ICBMs and nuclear warheads. Bush also warned that Iran might construct a nuclear weapon before the expected 2015 timeline. As well, Iran is testing increasingly long-range missiles, and launched a missile from a submerged submarine.

      And Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said Israel should be wiped off the map.

      It is thought that it might require years for Iran to produce sufficient materials to make a bomb. But whether Iran is two years or five years from having sufficient nuclear materials is unknown, the experts said. Also, it might take years to devise a workable atomic weapon design.

      Lewis also said it is unclear whether Iran has made the final decision to build the bomb, noting that "there are clearly people in the Iranian government who want a bomb," while others fear there might be some repercussion, some sort of cost that Iran might suffer for doing so.

      Acton later was asked whether Iran might short-cut that design process by purchasing a completed nuclear weapons design from, say, North Korea.

      "There is no question that Iran … could buy a design off someone else," Acton said, though there might be severe repercussions for North Korea if its sale of the design became known to the world, especially to any nation where Iran used a nuke produced from that design.

      Further, Acton said, even if Iran procured a completed nuclear device design, there might be substantial work ahead.

      "Just because you can buy a design," that may not mean you immediately can move forward to begin building a nuclear weapon using fissile materials that already has been produced, he explained.

      Rather, there may be differences in the fissile materials Iran is making, versus materials that North Korea has used in its nuclear weapons program. The isolated Asian regime has detonated one of its nuclear weapons in an underground test.

      Or, Acton continued, there may have been steps omitted in the design-and-description papers purchased from North Korea.

      If it elects to go that route, Iran may find that obtaining a finished design from another nation "is not a panacea," Acton said.

      For example, he said, even the British encountered difficulties when they attempted to use information from the U.S. Manhattan project that invented the atomic bomb in the 1940s. Some points didn’t translate well, and the Brits found they had some substantial development work to accomplish before the first U.K. bomb was completed.

      Acton, responding to a question, also said he is unsure whether Iran — assuming it succeeds in developing and producing several nuclear weapons — would sell one to a terrorist group for a substantial sum.

      Inspections: A Challenge

      Both he and Lewis made clear that it is difficult for the United Nations, U.S. and European leaders, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to know what Iran is doing in this high-stakes game of nuclear poker.

      Acton said that while the IAEA would be likely to detect any Iranian move to divert nuclear materials from an appropriate, peaceful electrical generation project to an illicit weapons production effort, there is far less likelihood that the IAEA would detect a heavily-cloaked clandestine nuclear weapons program.

      That would be true, he said, even if IAEA could move beyond a regular inspection regime and conduct an enhanced probe of Iranian nuclear efforts.

      Further, all of this presupposes that Iran would drop its current obstinate stance and agree to any inspections.

      Lewis also voiced substantial reservations as to whether inspections regimes, even enhanced probes, would offer any assurance that Iran would be telling the truth if it claimed that it was leveling with the West on its nuclear development program.

      The Iranian regime likely will insist on maintaining some centrifuges, or more, and extraordinary monitoring efforts would be required to ensure that Iran didn’t cheat on that promise, he said.

      Syrian Plant?

      Both Acton and Lewis expressed skepticism as to whether a building in Syria might have been a nuclear reactor producing materials for weapons.

      It was of a similar size and shape to a nuclear facility in North Korea.

      What is clear is that the building suddenly disappeared, and reports said Israel took it out in an air strike. Then, Syria swept the site clean.

      The experts said it is impossible to know from the outside configuration of a building just what purpose it might have had.

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