Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Iranian threat - How much time is left?

Analysis: The Iranian threat - How much time is left?

http://www.jpost.com/servlet/

Last Sunday, it was chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen who announced during an interview on CNN that Iran had enriched sufficient uranium to create a nuclear weapon.

This Sunday, it was OC Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin's turn to jolt the country when he told the cabinet that Iran had crossed the technological threshold, obtained the necessary uranium and mastered the technology needed to manufacture a nuclear device.

While Yadlin and Mullen appear to see eye-to-eye on the Iranian technological developments, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates voiced a different assessment last week, according to which Iran is not yet close to a nuclear weapon and there is still time to try and persuade Teheran to abandon the program.

The difference between Mullen and Gates is understood in the Israeli defense establishment to be political. Mullen, a military officer, provided an assessment based on intelligence; Gates, a politician, supports US President Barack Obama's desire to engage Iran in dialogue. That is why it's important for Gates to stress that there is still time for such a dialogue to be effective.

It's no secret that Israel is concerned with the outcome of a dialogue between the US and Iran. Last week, during her visit to Jerusalem, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heard these concerns from the top Israeli leadership, including Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu.

Israel is aware it cannot stop the dialogue, but would like to ensure it is limited in time. Congressman Robert Berman, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said at a conference in Tel Aviv earlier this year that the dialogue would likely be limited to 12 weeks.

While Israel is concerned with the dialogue and the possibility that Iran will misuse it to race forward with its nuclear program, the Israeli defense establishment understands that its hands are tied operationally until the talks between Washington and Teheran are completed.

At the same time, Israel would like to see the US set some preconditions for its talks with Iran - such as a suspension of uranium enrichment for the duration of the talks - or at least declare at their outset that "all options" were still on the table, including the military option.

According to the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports, Iran is known to have around 1,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium (LEU), which is enriched to a level of 4 percent and is required for the operation of nuclear reactors. One ton of LEU is enough to extract 25 kg. of highly enriched uranium (HEU) - called a Significant Quantity (SQ) - which if enriched to a 90% level is enough to produce a nuclear weapon.

According to Ephraim Asculi, a 40-year veteran of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission and a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, it will take Iran several months to change the LEU into HEU. Even if Iran decides to do so, it will likely be detected by IAEA inspectors who are supervising the Natanz enrichment facility.

"The IAEA will know about the decision either [because] the enrichment will take place at Natanz, or the LEU material will be transferred to another facility and the IAEA will see this happen," Asculi said.

Once Iran obtains an SQ, it will still take some time to assemble the weapon. According to Asculi, 18 months is a logical timeline.

The question that remains, though, is at what point it will no longer be possible to stop Iran. Once it starts enriching its HEU? Once it has an SQ? Once it starts the weaponization program? Or once it has a nuclear weapon? There is no clear answer.

North Korea and South Africa agreed to abandon their nuclear programs after they had already obtained nuclear weapons. The new Israeli government will have to decide if it can wait that long.

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