A new spike in anti-Iran rhetoric and military threats by Western powers is being fueled by fears that Iran is edging closer to the nuclear “breakout” point, when it acquires all the skills and parts needed to quickly build an atomic bomb if it chooses to, Western diplomats and nuclear experts said Friday.
The United States, backed by key European and Middle Eastern allies, is increasing the pressure on Tehran ahead of next week’s anticipated release of a U.N. report on Iran’s nuclear activities. The U.N. nuclear watchdog is expected to reveal new details about Iran’s past research into the physics of a nuclear detonation. Iran has long denied any intention to build a nuclear weapon.
A Western diplomat who has seen drafts of the report said it will elaborate on secret intelligence collected since 2004 showing Iranian scientists struggling to overcome technical hurdles in designing and building nuclear warheads. The scientists’ studies include computer modeling of warhead design and field-testing the kinds of high-precision conventional explosives used to trigger a nuclear chain-reaction, said the diplomat, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the board’s internal deliberations. Some of the work continued after 2003, when Iran is believed to have halted its nuclear weapons research in response to international and domestic pressures, the official said.
The Associated Press reported that U.N. officials have acquired satellite photos of a bus-size steel container used by Iran for some of the explosives testing. The wire service said the U.N. findings were contained in a 12-page annex to the report that is being circulated this week to the 35-nation governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
But apart from the report’s findings are deepening concerns that Iran is preparing to cross a threshold that will bring the country’s ruling clerics within easy grasp of nuclear arms, diplomats and weapons experts say. Western governments are particularly alarmed by Iran’s recent efforts to boost the purity level of its enriched uranium while moving key parts of its nuclear program into underground bunkers, they say.
“We’re moving into very stormy seas,” said Olli Heinonen, who retired last year as chief inspector for the IAEA, the Vienna-based U.N. watchdog that conducts regular inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Although Iran’s nuclear program has weathered a damaging cyberattack and numerous other setbacks since 2009, its apparently successful deployment of advanced centrifuges in recent months could lead to a dramatic rise in the production of enriched uranium, Heinonen said.
Iran’s first-generation centrifuges “were not good enough for most reasonable breakout scenarios,” Heinonen said. “But the concern now is over whether it’s possible for them to ramp up production with these more advanced centrifuges,” which are estimated to be up to six times more efficient.
He noted that Iran’s atomic energy chief recently announced he would soon have “good news” about the country’s nuclear program. Similar pronouncements in the past have been followed by the unveiling of new nuclear technology or results of successful tests.