At a remote site 200 miles south of Tehran, Iranian scientists
are learning more about the basic means to build a nuclear weapon
The facility - named Natanz, after the nearest town - is where
Iran has begun the process of producing fissile material. Thousands
of thin, vertical tubes spin at outrageous speeds, atom by atom
enriching raw uranium gas into more useful material.
Iranian officials say Natanz will make low-enriched uranium to
use in civil power plants. And the just-released assessment by US
intelligence agencies concludes that Iran has indeed put its covert
weapons program on hold.
But developing the technology to enrich uranium is perhaps the
most difficult step in a nuclear weapons - or civilian power -
program. According to administration officials and outside experts,
it is possible that Tehran has simply decided it does not need to
proceed with actual bomb work, at least for now.
"Iranian leaders appear to have recognized that by staying within
the rules they can acquire capabilities sufficient to impress their
own people and intimidate their neighbors, without inviting tough
international sanctions or military attack," concludes George
Perkovich, director of the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace, in an assessment of the US
National Intelligence Estimate's (NIE) revelations.
As of now the US intelligence has high confidence that Iran has
not produced enough highly enriched fissile material for a nuclear
weapon. The earliest it would be able to do so is probably within
the 2010 to 2015 time frame, according to the new NIE.
And if Iran does decide to develop nuclear weapons, scientists
would most likely use centrifuge technology, which they are
currently working on at Natanz.
"Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical
capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons,"
says the NIE.
Iran has long claimed that its enrichment program is intended for
civilian purposes. Iranian officials say they only want to learn how
to produce fissionable fuel for power plants, as they are allowed to
do under terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
But in the past, Iranian officials have engaged in what UN
weapons inspectors consider to be suspicious behavior in regard to
their enrichment effort. For instance, Tehran has built and secretly
operated centrifuges, the spinning tubes which are the heart of the
enrichment technology Iran has chosen.
For this and other reasons the International Atomic Energy Agency
in 2003 declared Iran in violation of its UN nuclear safeguards
The Bush administration has vowed to continue to press for
further UN sanctions designed to pressure Iran into abandoning
"Iran's uranium and plutonium programs are still a concern for US
security and are still operating in violation of binding UN Security
Council resolutions," write Jon Wolfsthal and Jon Alterman, senior
fellows at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in an
analysis published in December. …