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IRAN: Nuclear program no easy target

August 9, 2008 | 12:45 pm


The devil is in the details of Iran's nuclear program.

That’s the message of a new report published by the Institute for Science and International Security, a respected Washington think-tank which has for years monitored Iran’s efforts to unlock the secrets of the atom.

The study, co-authored by former nuclear inspector David Albright, bears close reading.

It argues that while bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities may sound like a plausible solution to slowing or halting Iran’s drive toward mastering technology that could be used to create atomic weapons, it likely won't work, and might instead backfire badly.

Iran says its nuclear program is aimed at producing energy for its growing population. Israel and the U.S. doubt that, and they've led the charge to force or convince Iran to stop sensitive parts of its nuclear program, refusing to take the military option off the table.

The problem, write Albright and his colleagues David Brannan and Jacqueline Shire, is in the nature of Iran’s nuclear program.

Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak plutonium reactor in 1981 and Syria’s alleged reactor in 2007, delivering possible setbacks to those country’s alleged nuclear programs.

But comparing those strikes to any assault on Iran “neglects the important differences between a gas centrifuge uranium enrichment program and a reactor-based program,” the report says.

Iran’s program is geographically diverse, relatively advanced and hardened against a military strike.

The multiple strikes required to destroy the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz or the reprocessing facilities in Isfahan would require “far more military ordinance than that used on either reactor attacked by Israel,” the report said.

What's more, Iran's program is likely easy to reassemble even after an airstrike.

Iran has also had years to “acquire centrifuge items abroad, often illicitly, allowing it to create reserve stocks of critical equipment and raw materials,” the report says.

Iran has already stockpiled enough uranium gas to produce 30 nuclear bombs if it wanted to or could enrich it to weapons-grade levels.

“Destroying the facility would not eliminate this stockpile,” the report says, noting that the material has likely already been moved.

In addition, Iran's homegrown nuclear industry now has the capacity to produce its own components. Even if the U.S. and Israel bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities to smithereens, Iran can quickly “replicate” enriched-uranium producing machines. The next time around, they may kick out the inspectors.

Foreign intelligence agencies lack precise details about Iran’s nuclear facilities. Though the International Atomic Energy Association, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, has fairly thorough understanding of the Natanz and Isfahan facilities, it lacks information about where the components for those facilities are being made.

Unlike the North Korean and Iraqi plutonium reactors, the gas centrifuge plants Iran is relying on to produce enriched uranium are tough to pinpoint on satellite photos.

“Intelligence agencies simply lack reliable information on the full-scope of Iran’s centrifuge facilities and activities,” the reports says.

Iranians are clever at disguising their nuclear facilities. Up until 2003, Iran used to produce parts for its nuclear industry at a former clock factory, a former automobile spare parts factory, a cutting tools workshop and other factories dispersed in discrete locations all around the country.

“Considering the modular, replicable nature of centrifuge plants, we conclude that an attack on Iran’s nuclear program is unlikely to significantly degrade Iran’s ability to reconstitute its gas centrifuge program,” the report says. “It is time to set aside the military option and concentrate instead on credible diplomatic approaches to end Iran’s growing nuclear weapons capabilities.”

— Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photo: Satellite photo shows general area of alleged nuclear component manufacturing site called Sanam Electronic Industries. It was allegedly somewhere within a densely packed residential section of northeastern Tehran. Credit: Insitute for Science and International Security