September 26, 2011 12:00AM
IRAN may be just six months away from developing a nuclear bomb, despite international attempts to thwart the program through sanctions and cyber attacks.
Two years after an underground installation in the city of Qmo was revealed in a joint press conference by US President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and former British prime minister Gordon Brown, Iran has significantly advanced its uranium enrichment program at the site.
The latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency concludes that Iran has not only boosted production but upgraded the level of enrichment from 3.5 per cent to almost 20 per cent and has installed more sophisticated centrifuges, which it is moving to the bunker in Qom, apparently to protect them from airstrikes.
Low-enriched uranium is used for nuclear power, which Iran insists is the purpose of its program. Weapons-grade uranium is about 90 per cent enriched.
"We believe if Iran broke out now they could have a bomb in six months," said David Albright, a former weapons inspector who runs the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. "They’ve done this right in front of our faces."
Iran has ignored four sets of UN Security Council resolutions since 2006 calling on it to cease enriching uranium. With the world’s attention diverted by the Arab Spring, Tehran has pressed ahead, overcoming delays caused by Stuxnet, a mysterious computer worm that made centrifuges malfunction.
Greg Jones, a defence analyst at the Nonproliferation Policy Education Centre, calculates that Iran could now produce a bomb within 62 days.
"The assumption has always been that Iran would never actually get a nuclear weapon, because the West would have enough advance warning to prevent it either by diplomacy or force, but they’ve kept on pushing the envelope and getting away with it," he said.
A new report by the Bipartisan Policy Centre, a think tank set up by US senators, warns: "The Islamic Republic of Iran could be a de facto nuclear power before 2011 is over."
IAEA inspectors reported last weekend that Iran had installed its new centrifuges after evading Western attempts to block supplies of the special steel required.
These IR-2 centrifuges have replaced unreliable and antiquated machines.
The new ones, which Iran claims to have developed in its own laboratories, are more reliable, speeding up production.
"I’m very alarmed," said Nicholas Burns, the US former chief negotiator on Iran. "I’ve read many IAEA reports over the years and they are very carefully written by civil servants. This time they are clearly ringing the alarm bells."
The IAEA had previously reported that Iran had assembled the know-how to fashion a crude nuclear weapon or underground test device, but lacked a supply of weapons-grade uranium for such a device. The fear was that, at some point, Iran would break out and use a clandestine enrichment plant to make weapons-grade uranium.
Iran had got away with moving from 3.5 per cent to 20 per cent enrichment by saying it was to produce medical isotopes at the Tehran Research Centre, Mr Albright said. "We’re worried they now say they need to go to 60 per cent, or even 90 per cent … saying it’s all civilian for the Tehran Research Centre."
Tommy Vietor, a National Security Council spokesman, said: "The IAEA and broader international community have fundamental concerns with the nature and intent of Iran’s nuclear program, and with (Qom) in particular, that Iran has to put right after years of violations."
The Sunday Times