Iran’s Gamble – The Proliferation Sprint (INN) ISRAEL NATIONAL NEWS) By Gavriel Queenann 02/26/12)
INN} ISRAEL NATIONAL NEWS
INN} ISRAEL NATIONAL NEWS Articles-Index-Top
Iran stands at the threshold of a nuclear weapons capability as the
world watches in indecision.
Sanctions, covert action, and diplomacy have failed to alter Iran’s
nuclear policy. Nor have they had a visible effect Iran´s the
enrichment program – including Tehran´s growing stockpile of 19.75%
low-enriched uranium (LEU).
Obtaining weapons-grade high-enriched uranium (HEU) is the most
difficult and technically challenging obstacle to acquiring a nuclear
Assessing the “breakout” time – the time required to convert LEU to
weapons-grade HEU – is therefore a critical component of determining
progress toward a nuclear weapons capability.
Iran’s bank of rapidly spinning centrifuges has produced a growing
stockpile of low-enriched uranium, able to fuel nuclear reactors, but
able also to fuel nuclear weapons if further enriched. Enrichment
raises the concentration of the uranium isotope U-235, which fissions
in first-generation nuclear weapons.
As Iran increases its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, and its
stockpile of uranium is enriched to 20 percent U-235, it will
consolidate its status as a "virtual" nuclear weapon state.
Iran´s enrichment activities occur at its facilities in Natanz and
Fordow. The Natanz facility is above ground and – despite Iran´s
attempts to protect it with anti-aircraft defenses and a fighter
screen – remains vulnerable to attack.
As a result, Iran has accelerated its uranium enrichment activities
at the Fordow facility. The site – once covert and grossly
mischaracterized by US officials as a façade – is buried in the side
of a small mountain outside Qom.
Considered a "hard target" by military analysts, Fordow is the focus
of intense scrutiny by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
and the subject of the nuclear watchdog’s detailed analysis of
Tehran´s weaponization work.
According the IAEA, Fordow began producing uranium enriched to 20
percent earlier this year and has recently seen an expansion of its
advanced centrifuges – the key and difficult-to-obtain component in
These developments reduce the time Iran needs to produce fuel for a
nuclear weapon and accelerate the stockpiling of weapons grade
uranium. Should Iran choose to make a dash for a nuclear weapon, the
world will be faced with a narrow window in which both to discover
the move and take action to stop it.
The most recent IAEA report published earlier this month predicts
Iran will possess enough 19.75% LEU for a 15 kiloton nuclear bomb –
sufficiently large to be strategically useful – by 1 June 2012.
The worst case scenario is that Iran could reach the 90% HEU
threshold for weapons grade uranium within one month of beginning its
proliferation sprint. However, this scenario is considered highly
unlikely and relies on contested technical assumptions about Iran´s
Proliferation experts say the most likely scenario would be Iran´s
reaching 90% HEU within 2.5 to 3 months of beginning its break-out.
A second concern is Iran´s attempts to render its critical centrifuge
operations both more diffuse and impenetrable, which would take Iran
into Defense Minister Ehud Barak´s "immunity zone."
At present the destruction of the Fordow and Natanz sites could set
Tehran´s enrichment program back years, giving sanctions time to have
their desired effect. While the Natanz site is vulnerable to attack,
US officials have recently said neither Washington nor Jerusalem have
the ability to penetrate the Fordow facility.
Simply destroying the Natanz facility while Fordow remains
operational would only extend the window for an Iranian nuclear break
out – to perhaps one year – rather than stopping it. According to Air
Force officials, its current 20.5 foot-long Massive Ordnance
Penetrator (MOP) carries over 5,300 pounds of explosive material and
is designed to penetrate up to 200 feet underground before exploding.
The mountain above the Iranian enrichment site at Fordow is estimated
to be at least 200 feet tall, which has raised doubts about the MOPs
ability to effectively destroy Fordow. Those doubts have prompted
Pentagon officials this month to secretly submit a request to
Congress for funding to enhance the bomb´s ability to penetrate
deeper into rock, concrete and steel before exploding.
The push to boost the power of the MOP is part of stepped-up
contingency planning for a possible strike against Iran´s nuclear
program, say U.S. officials. US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has
said the current generation of MOPs could cause "a lot of damage" to
the Fordow facility, but wouldn´t necessarily destroy it outright.
"We´re developing it. I think we´re pretty close, let´s put it that
way. But we´re still working at it because these things are not easy
to be able to make sure that they will do what we want them to." he
said. Panetta added: "But I´m confident, frankly, that we´re going to
have that capability and have it soon."
As a result, Tehran finds itself facing a ticking clock of its own
and will have to time its nuclear sprint – should it choose to make
one – to beat Washington´s own rush for a bigger and better bunker-
buster. The Air Force has so far contracted to buy 20 of the new
bombs and more deliveries are expected in early 2013.
Israel has large bunker-buster bombs, but the US hasn´t provided the
MOP to Jerusalem. Nor is Washington likely to provide Israel with its
replacement in 2013. Analysts believe it is highly unlikely repeated
strikes with Israel´s current bunker-busters would prove effective in
destroying Fordow. Those doubts render an Israeli strike on Iran
fraught with difficulty and potential failure.
This stark reality that Israel´s leaders must confront is rendered
even more complicated and dangerous by the Obama administration´s
diffident posture vis-a-vis taking direct military action against
Iran. Washington has declared an Iranian nuclear bomb
is "unacceptable," but refuses to commit to a strike on Natanz and
Fordow should Iran choose to make a nuclear sprint.
That leaves leaders in all three capitals – Jerusalem, Tehran, and
Washington – watching the clock and waiting for the starter´s gun to
fire. (IsraelNationalNews © 2012 02/26/12)
Return to Top
MATERIAL REPRODUCED FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY