Iran weapon 'is five years away'
Financial Times | September 7, 2005
By Peter Spiegel
A London-based think-tank which has become a leading authority on the unconventional weapons capabilities of so-called "rogue states" has estimated that Iran could develop enough weapons-grade uranium to develop a nuclear weapon within five years.
But in a 128-page dossier on Iran yesterday, the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) also said Iran was more likely to build up a production capability over more than a decade and then decide whether to acquire atomic weapons.
The five-year estimate is more aggressive than reported projections of US intelligence agencies, which are believed to have determined Iran is six to 10 years away from such a breakthrough. But in spiteof a capability to develop weapons-grade uranium by the end of the decade, John Chipman, the IISS director, said that would require Iran to "throw caution to the wind" and ignore the threat of international sanctions, a move Tehran has been reluctant to pursue.
He noted that a more cautious approach - which would involve building a more sophisticated "industrial-scale" centrifuge plant at Natanz - would allow Iran to have a much greater capability to produce the higher enriched uranium needed for weapons in the long-term. Building such a plant would take more than a decade.
The IISS assessment comes as the 35-member governing board of the Inter-national Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) prepares for a crucial meeting on September 19 to decide whether the Iran case should be reported to the UN Security Council for reprimand.
"The logical next step is for this to be reported to the security council," a senior EU diplomat said yesterday. The US and Europe face resistance from Russia and China, which argue that Iran has not breached its obligations under the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows it to build a civilian nuclear programme.
The IISS also found that in spite of progress on a centrifuge enrichment programme, it is unclear whether Iran has the capability to actually design and fabricate nuclear weapons from any fissile material it produces.
Moreover, after two years of inspections by the IAEA "Iran does not have any significant stocks of undeclared nuclear weapons-usable fissile materials or is hiding facilities capable of producing such material," said the report.
Although there has been speculation that Iran may have acquired a nuclear design from the network of disgraced Pakistani physicist AQ Kahn, John Chipman, IISS's director, said there was no publicly available evidence of such a link.
Gary Samore, the former US administration counter-proliferation official who authored the report, declined to comment on any discrepancies between the IISS assessment and official US findings, noting that American intelligence estimates remain classified and reporting on the Bush administration's assessment has been conflicting.
Mr Samore added, however, that almost all analysts, including those in the US intelligence community, were relying on a "very similar database" from inspections by the IAEA. Any differences in estimates, he said, were different interpretations of the same data.
"No one can estimate with any precision how long this will take," Mr Samore said, noting there was a long list of hurdles in developing a centrifuge plant that can produce enough "clean" fissile material for a weapon. "Nobody can actually know, including the Iranians themselves, how long it willtake to work out thoseproblems."
Additional reporting by Roula Khalaf in London and Daniel Dombey in Brussels