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Diplomats: Iran not yet capable of building nuke bomb
Updated: 2005-03-01 23:51

VIENNA - U.N. inspectors believe Iran would need at least a year to make enough bomb-grade uranium for a single weapon and another year to turn it into a bomb, if it wanted a nuclear arsenal, Western diplomats said Tuesday.

Washington says Iran's nuclear program is a front to develop arms. Iran denies this, saying its atomic ambitions have always been limited to the peaceful generation of electricity.

A 2-year investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, has found no clear proof the U.S. accusations are true.

But diplomats familiar with confidential IAEA estimates of Iran's nuclear capabilities -- which the agency has never published -- said U.N. experts believe Iran could be as little as two years away from a bomb if that is what it wants.

Speaking purely hypothetically, a diplomat familiar with the IAEA's probe told Reuters on condition of anonymity: "Iran could have a significant quantity of uranium in a year at the earliest, if it could get a cascade of centrifuges spinning."

It would then take at least another year to put that "significant quantity" of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) -- the amount needed for one weapon -- into a bomb, he said.

Iran already has the know-how to make uranium metal for a bomb core and missiles capable of delivering it, he added.

Israel believes Iran would not be in a position to build a weapon until 2007.

If it wanted a bomb, diplomats close to the IAEA say Iran would need to improve its work with centrifuges, machines that enrich uranium gas by spinning at supersonic speeds.

In order to get enough HEU for a bomb, a diplomat close to the IAEA said: "Iran would have to master the process of running centrifuges in cascades, which they probably haven't, (and to) have built enough of them, which they probably haven't. Of the more than 1000 they have made, the IAEA assumes ... as many as 50 percent will not work."

In keeping with a promise it made to France, Britain and Germany last year, Iran has suspended its uranium enrichment program and has halted almost all work with centrifuges, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei told reporters Monday.

In order to progress in its work with centrifuges, Iran would need to end the freeze and would then lose out on economic and political incentives promised by the EU's "big three."

"Or they would have to have a secret cascade somewhere," diplomat said, adding there was no evidence this was the case.


The IAEA, which is meeting this week to discuss Iran's nuclear program and other issues, began investigating the Islamic republic in 2002 after an Iranian exile group revealed Iran was hiding a massive uranium enrichment plant from the U.N.

Washington has temporarily stopped its drive to refer Iran's case to the U.N. Security Council for sanctions while it mulls whether to join the EU's strategy in pressuring Iran.

This is one reason the IAEA board is not expected to adopt any resolutions on Iran this week.

The IAEA said Iran had recently admitted that in 1987 Iranian officials met in Dubai with people linked to the father of Pakistan's atom bomb program, Abdul Qadeer Khan. They later gave Iran an extensive written offer for centrifuge technology, including a centrifuge "starter kit."

Some diplomats close to the agency say the timeline itself for Iran's enrichment program, which was conceived during the bloody 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, indicates it had an arms aspect.

However, Pavel Baev, an analyst at the Oslo-based International Peace Research Institute said Iran's energy supplies were severely curtailed during the long war with Iraq and the idea of a nuclear energy plan then "is credible."

Valerie Lincy of the U.S.-based Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control think-tank disagreed. "I think the timing of Iran's 1987 meeting with Khan network associates points to weapon intentions, given that at the time Iran's primary concern was fighting Saddam Hussein's Iraq and not developing an expensive domestic nuclear energy industry."

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