Does anyone else find it wierd that this article states that Iran's nuclear capabilities are limited, but then freely admits we really have no idea what their capabilities might be.
Iran Nuclear Abilities Limited
Tehran’s Aug. 1 announcement of its decision to restart its uranium-conversion facility near Isfahan has raised concerns that Tehran intends to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons. But three recent U.S. intelligence assessments suggest that Iran’s limited technical capabilities mean that it would take Tehran between six and 10 years to be able to produce nuclear weapons even if it committed to that course and it were allowed to operate its nuclear facilities freely.
For example, in an Aug. 23 interview with Arms Control Today, a Department of State official confirmed that a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) predicts that Iran will not be able to acquire fissile material for a weapon before “early to mid-next decade.” The NIE, which represents the consensus view of the intelligence community, was first reported Aug. 2 in The Washington Post. The official agreed that this figure was, in practical terms, the same as a February Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) estimate that “ Tehran probably will have the ability to produce nuclear weapons early in the next decade,” unless constrained by a nuclear nonproliferation agreement.
These estimates also jibed with an early 2004 intelligence briefing given to congressional staff members, which indicated that Iran would not be able to produce a nuclear weapon until after 2010 because Iran’s program was beset by technical delays and shortfalls.
Intelligence officials caution, however, that there is a great deal of uncertainty in estimating how long it might take any particular country to acquire nuclear weapons.
Iran appears to face difficulties in operating both its uranium-conversion and centrifuge facilities. Uranium-conversion facilities convert lightly processed uranium ore into several compounds, including uranium hexafluoride. Gas centrifuges enrich uranium hexafluoride gas by spinning it at very high speeds. Low-enriched uranium is used to fuel power reactors; HEU can be used to make nuclear weapons. Iran currently has a pilot centrifuge facility and has said it plans to build a much larger commercial facility.
According to the State Department official, Iran had “major problems” with the conversion facility in 2004 when it produced uranium hexafluoride that was unsuitable for enrichment. Tehran also may be having trouble obtaining the proper materials to handle and properly store uranium hexafluoride and other uranium compounds, the official added.
The same State Department official said, however, that Iran may now have overcome at least some of its technical problems. Additionally, a Western diplomat told Arms Control Today Aug. 26 that the facility’s problems could well be overcome in the short term, and pointing out that other countries may be willing to provide Iran with relevant assistance.
Iran also is having trouble with its pilot centrifuge facility, the State Department official said, because it is unable to keep the machines running for a sufficient length of time at the required speeds.
The U.S. Evidence
The same official described Washington’s case for an ongoing Iranian nuclear weapons program as built on a “body of convincing but circumstantial evidence.”
Bush administration officials argue that several factors support the U.S. case. These include Tehran’s past efforts to conceal its nuclear activities, unresolved questions with regard to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation of Iran’s nuclear program, and Iran’s large fossil fuel supplies, which render unnecessary its nuclear power program.
The State Department official also confirmed a July 27 Wall Street Journal article that reported that the United States has what it believes to be documentary evidence suggesting that Iran is attempting to develop a nuclear-weapon payload for its medium-range Shahab-3 ballistic missile. A source in Vienna close to the IAEA said that U.S. officials shared with the agency a picture of a re-entry vehicle “purported to be” the Shahab-3, as well as information on the possible payload dimensions.
Additionally, a recent State Department study indicates that another Iranian claim does not ring true, the official said. Iran has said it wants to build uranium-enrichment facilities to ensure its energy independence, but the country lacks sufficient indigenous uranium to supply a civilian nuclear power program. According to the study, Iran’s known uranium reserves are sufficient to produce 250-300 nuclear weapons but can only provide enough fuel to run a single 1,000-megawatt reactor for six or seven years. Russia has nearly completed constructing such a reactor near the Iranian city of Bushehr and has agreed to supply fresh fuel for the reactor, as well as remove spent fuel. Iran has stated that it wants to build at least several more such reactors.
Washington believes that Tehran has a secret military effort to acquire its own fissile-material production capabilities, but the extent of this activity is unclear. The Washington Post article reported “a fading of suspicions that Iran’s military has been running its own separate and covert enrichment effort.” But the claim that Iran had a parallel, military nuclear program was advanced as a serious theory at the 2004 briefing.
The United States has publicly expressed concern about such a military effort, raising questions, for example, that Iran’s military or an affiliated organization may have begun working at the country’s Gchine mine in an effort to obtain an independent uranium source. The IAEA is investigating the matter. (See ACT, July/August 2005.)
The State Department official added that Iran’s military is involved in the government’s nuclear weapons program in several other ways but did not elaborate. However, the official said that the military appears to be focused on activities such as organization, procurement, and funding. The United States does not know whether the military has been constructing nuclear facilities the official said, but added that there is no evidence of a “brick and mortar building” producing fissile material.
The current U.S. policy to oppose any Iranian conversion or enrichment facilities reflects a long-standing U.S. concern that Iran could use civilian nuclear facilities to obtain nuclear training and technology for use in a covert nuclear weapons program. A November 2004 CIA report stated that IAEA “inspections and safeguards will most likely prevent Tehran from using facilities declared to the IAEA directly for its weapons program as long as Tehran remains a party to the [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty]. However, Iran could use the same technology at other, covert locations for military applications.”
Both national security adviser Stephen Hadley and the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction have acknowledged that U.S. intelligence about Iran has considerable limitations. Illustrating this point, a former intelligence official told Arms Control Today Aug. 24 that the United States “knew a hell of a lot more” about Iraq’s suspected weapons of mass destruction programs, which were later found to be nonexistent, than it currently does about Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
In due time...