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Friday, February 22, 2008

Iran could have uranium for bomb by year's end

Der Spiegel reports that EU experts have suddenly awoken and discovered that Iran could have enough uranium to make a nuclear bomb by the end of 2008.

It didn't take long for experts to question the report's conclusion that Tehran was no longer interested in building the bomb. And now, a new computer simulation undertaken by European Union experts indicates that the NIE's time estimates might be dangerously inaccurate as well -- and that Iran might have enough fuel for a bomb much earlier than was previously thought.

As part of a project to improve control of nuclear materials, the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC) in Ispra, Italy set up a detailed simulation of the centrifuges currently used by Iran in the Natanz nuclear facility to enrich uranium. The results look nothing like those reached by the US intelligence community.

For one scenario, the JRC scientists assumed the centrifuges in Natanz were operating at 100 percent efficiency. Were that the case, Iran could already have the 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium necessary for an atomic device by the end of this year. Another scenario assumed a much lower efficiency -- just 25 percent. But even then, Iran would have produced enough uranium by the end of 2010.

For the purposes of the simulation, the JRC modelled each of the centrifuges individually and then hooked them together to form the kind of cascade necessary to enrich uranium. A number of variables were taken into account, including the assumption by most experts that Iran isn't even close to operating its centrifuges at 100 percent efficiency. What is known, however, is that the Iranians are operating 18 cascades, each made up of 164 centrifuges. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself said last April that the country had 3,000 centrifuges in operation. At the time, most Western observers discounted the claim as mere propaganda. But the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed Ahmadinejad's assertion in November. [Maybe it's time to start taking what Ahmadinejad says seriously? CiJ]

Centrifuges from Pakistan

Another variable is the type of centrifuge Iran is using. For its simulations, the JRC assumed cascades using 2,952 P1 centrifuges -- the P stands for Pakistan, where the centrifuges were manufactured. But recent reports indicate that Iran might be in the process of installing so-called "IR2" centrifuges. These centrifuges -- the IR stands for Iran -- are made out of carbon-fiber instead of aluminium and are an estimated 2.5 times as powerful as the P1 devices.

It remains unclear, however, if the new centrifuges can be used in the same way as the old ones. Independent experts doubt whether Iran is able to produce the old-style aluminium centrifuges themselves. Given the strict embargo currently in place against Iran, it is possible that the centrifuges currently in use are still from the stock delivered to Iran by Pakistan. The Pakistani government admitted in March, 2005 that Abdul Qadir Khan, the scientist responsible for the Pakistani bomb, sold centrifuges to Iran.

Despite the uncertainties, however, the scientists at the Joint Research Centre are confident that their simulations are realistic. But, the group is quick to point out, they are theoretical. They don't make any claim to know whether Tehran is currently working toward the production of an atomic bomb.

Just why the new simulations came to such a different result than the National Intelligence Estimate issued by Washington is "a good question," a JRC expert told SPIEGEL ONLINE. The American government, he points out, wasn't clear about the technical details upon which its report was based.

That's because the American report was based on politics and not on 'technical details.' The American report was designed to emasculate any possibility of the Bush administration taking action against Iran. And the proof is that the efforts to explain to the American public why the NIE was wrong have fallen on deaf ears. Congress ought to be investigating how and why the intelligence agencies chose to pull the wool over the public's eyes in such a blatant manner. Maybe now this report will be taken seriously. And French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner looks like an even bigger fool than he did earlier this week. And for those who think that Iran is seeking nuclear energy for 'peaceful purposes,' this ought to give you pause:
There are a number of indications that Iran isn't just interested in civilian nuclear technology. Just on Wednesday, an exiled Iranian opposition group published satellite images it claims shows an Iranian atomic bomb-making facility. In January, physicist Richard Garwin, who is also a US government adviser, calculated that the Natanz facility -- even were it to reach its maximum capacity of 54,000 centrifuges -- could not produce enough low-enriched uranium for a nuclear power facility. But, he said, the 3,000 centrifuges currently in operation could be sufficient to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon. [Note that it takes less enriched uranium for weapons than it does for civilian uses. CiJ]

Iran's successful launch of a ballistic "research rocket" into space at the beginning of the month is likely doing little to reduce concerns. A rocket that can carry a satellite into space, after all, could be modified to carry a nuclear warhead.

Roland Schenkel, the director-general of the JRC, says it is time for European politicians to re-evaluate. It is time, he said in Boston during a weekend meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, for the world's atomic powers to allow inspections of their nuclear facilities and to take steps toward disarmament instead of modernizing their nuclear arsenals. Both the US and Great Britain have recently invested large amounts of money in their nuclear weapons caches.
That last paragraph reminds me of the American argument that if you make laws controlling guns, only criminals will have them. While I wouldn't take that sound bite to an extreme, it does seem to me that it does not necessarily follow that if states like the US and Great Britain disarm, Iran and Pakistan will follow suit.

As I have argued before, the problem with Iran is that they are not deterred by mutually assured destruction - the doctrine that kept the US and the Soviets from nuking each other in the 60's and 70's. Iran is not a rational actor. Disarming all the other nuclear powers will only make the situation worse.


At 3:26 PM, Blogger sashal said...

relax, Carl.
You may not like Iranians much.
Me neither.
But they are as rational as any human being on earth.
The country and the leadership of any country is not suicidal.
Don't be so scared by Iran.

At 11:17 PM, Blogger Carl in Jerusalem said...


That's what they said about Hitler in the 1930's.

At 6:16 AM, Blogger NormanF said...

Carl in Jerusalem is right. The Iranians talk repeatedly of annihilating Israel. This is the highest value for the regime. The Iranian leadership is not going to be constrained by moral scruples or international disapproval from wiping out Israel.

Moreover, in the 1930s, Hitler at least talked of peace and brotherhood even if was as it turned out later, all a sham. Iran on the other hand talks of mass murder, genocide and the annhilation of sovereign state. That is already a major difference.


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