'Iran could have nuclear bomb means by 2009'
Vienna, Jun 29: Iran could be able to build an atom bomb by 2009 if it laid groundwork this year for producing highly enriched uranium, a former UN arms inspector said in a report.
Writing in the July-August edition of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, American physicist David Albright based his 'worst case scenario' on scientific and diplomatic assessments of Iran's recent progress with centrifuge enrichment machines.
''Looking at a timeline of at least three years..., there is still time to pursue aggressive diplomatic options (against an Iranian enrichment drive) and for measures such as sanctions to have an effect, if they become necessary,'' Albright wrote.
''Otherwise, we risk a seismic shift in the balance of power in the region,'' he said of Iran, which has been an arch-foe of the United States since 1979.
US intelligence chief John Negroponte said on June 2 that Iran could have an atomic bomb by 2010 and seemed determined to get one, ''although we don't have clearcut knowledge''.
Other estimates have ranged as long as a decade.
Iran says it wants nuclear fuel for electricity, not arms as the West suspects. But UN probes have been unable to verify Tehran has no secret, parallel bomb project and they have been crippled since Iran halted short-notice inspections in February.
The Islamic Republic enriched uranium to the low level needed to run nuclear power plants for the first time in April with a pilot cascade (network) of 164 centrifuges.
It is building two more 164-centrifuge cascades and has told the watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it will begin installing 3,000 more centrifuges by the end of 2006.
To produce enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for one atom bomb by 2009, Iran would have needed to start building this year a clandestine plant with 1,500-1,800 centrifuges, Albright said.
Diplomats say that would not be too hard to do given weak Western intelligence and curbs on IAEA inspections in Iran.
Albright said Iran was thought to have enough good-quality components for 1,500-2,000 centrifuges, on top of the roughly 800 earmarked for its Natanz pilot plant monitored by the IAEA.
Iran could probably commission a secret plant by end 2007.
It would take another year to make enough HEU for a bomb, and several months to mould the HEU for use in a weapon, he said.
Albright said Iran has yet to prove it can keep large numbers of centrifuges spinning non-stop for long periods, the key to yielding usable volumes of low- or high-enriched uranium.
''It can be expected to face serious technical hurdles before it can reliably make large quantities of enriched uranium,'' the director of a Washington security and science think-tank said.
But he said Iran was ''on the verge of mastering a critical step in building and operating a gas centrifuge plant able to (enrich) uranium for either peaceful or military purposes''.
Six world powers have offered Iran economic incentives to suspend enrichment activity. Iran has hesitated to respond and insisted anew on a right to its own civilian nuclear industry.