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Irans Real Nuclear Power

A map showing the location of Iranaian nuclear plants.
by Anthony H. Cordesman
And Khalid R. Al-Rodhan
UPI Outside View Commentators
Washington (UPI) Apr 18, 2006
In a new Center for Strategic and International Studies report, we argue that there are still major gaps and uncertainties about the knowledge of Iran's nuclear programs, facilities, and weapons development efforts.

Our study does not find conclusive evidence or some smoking gun, but it raises deep concerns about Iran's actions and concludes it is almost certainly seeking to deploy nuclear weapons and nuclear-armed long range missiles.

These concerns have been exacerbated by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's, announcement on April 11 that Iran was successful at enriching uranium. "At this historic moment, with the blessings of God almighty and the efforts made by our scientists, I declare here that the laboratory- scale nuclear fuel cycle has been completed and young scientists produced enriched uranium needed to the degree for nuclear power plants [on April 9]."

The head of the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran and Iran's Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh stated that Iran had:

-- Started enriching uranium to a level-3.5 percent- needed for fuel on a research scale using 164 centrifuges, but not enriched enough to build a nuclear bomb;

-- Produced 110 tons of uranium hexafluoride or UF6- this amount is nearly double the amount that Iran claimed to have enriched in 2005;

-- Aims to produce a gas high with an increased percentage of U-235, the isotope needed for nuclear fission, which is much rarer than the more prevalent isotope U-238; and

-- Plans to expand its enrichment program to be able to use 3,000 centrifuges at the nuclear center at Natanz by the end of 2006.

Some believe that Iran's claims are credible. However, others speculated that Iran made the announcement to send a message that military strikes or sanctions would not deter Iran from achieving a full nuclear cycle.

Much also depended on what the announcement really meant. Iran had previously obtained at least 2 percent enrichment from the experimental use of centrifuges and possibly significantly higher levels. The International Atoimic Energy Authority had previously made it clear that it lacked the data to determine how far Iran had actually progressed. Iran also had reached enrichment levels as high as 8 percent making experimental use of laser isotope separation, although it seemed far from being able to scale such efforts up beyond laboratory tests.

The Iranian claims also said nothing about how efficient the claimed use of a small 164 centrifuge chain was, what its life cycle and reliability was, and about the ability to engineer a system that could approach weapons grade material.

As our report shows, it is at best possible to speculate on how many centrifuges of the P1-type centrifuge derivative involved Iran would need to get a nuclear device and then move on to develop a significant weapons production capability.

It would, however, probably be in the thousands in terms of continuously operating machine equivalents to slowly get the fissile material for a single device or "bomb in the basement," and tens of thousands to support a serious nuclear weapons delivery capability.

One thing was already clear long before these Iranian claims. There was nothing the United Nations or the United States could do to deny Iran the technology to build a nuclear weapon. The IAEA's discoveries had made it clear Iran already had functioning centrifuge designs, reactor development capability, and plutonium separation capability.

It had experimented with polonium in ways that showed in could make a neutron initiator, had the technology to produce high explosive lenses and beryllium reflectors, could machine fissile material, and had long had a technology base capable of performing the same non-fissile of actual weapons designs used by Pakistan in its nuclear weapons design efforts.

It also seemed highly likely that Iran had acquired P2 centrifuge designs and the same basic Chinese design data for a fissile weapon suitable for mounting on a ballistic missile that North Korea had sold to Libya.

As a result, both the claims of the Iranian president that Iran had made a major breakthrough, and President George W. Bush's responding statement that Iran would not be allowed to acquire the technology to build a nuclear weapon, seemed to be little more than vacuous political posturing.

Ahmadinejad's statement seemed to be an effort to show the UN that it could not take meaningful action and exploit Iranian nationalism. The Bush statement a combination of basic technical ignorance on the part of his speech writers and an effort push the UN towards action and convince Iran that it could face the threat of both serious sanctions and military action if diplomacy and sanctions failed.

It effectively ignored the fact that Iran not only already had the technology, but could disperse it to the point where it was extremely unlikely that any UN inspection effort could find it, even if Iran allowed this, or any military option could seriously affect Iran's technology base -- as distinguished from its ability to create survivable large-scale production facilities and openly deploy nuclear-armed delivery systems.

In reality, such developments were at most evolutionary and had been expected. Diplomats and officials from the IAEA were quick to point out that the announcement by Iran should not be a sign of concern and that Iran may face many technical hurdles before it can enrich enough quantities of uranium at high levels to produce a nuclear weapon.

One European official said that while the 164-machine centrifuges were more industrial, "it's not like they haven't come close to achieving this in the past." This assessment has been reflected in reports by the IAEA, which argue that Iran has used centrifuges and laser to enrich uranium throughout the 1990s and even before.

These conclusions are described in detail in our CSIS report. A previous report has addressed how Iran might use its nuclear weapons, if it produces them, and options for sanctions, containment, and US or Israeli military action.

(Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair of Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Khalid R. Al-Rodhan is a fellow at CSIS)

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

Source: United Press International

Related Links

War With Iran Will Do US More Damage Ex-Officials Warn
Washington (AFP) Apr 16, 2006
Two former US National Security Coucil experts warned Sunday that military action against Iran could be more damaging to US interests than the current struggle in Iraq has been.

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