Iran all bluff and bluster, but no
bomb - yet By Richard M
The West, despite the considerable
efforts of its intelligence services, largely
remains unsure of the exact nature of Tehran's
nuclear intentions. Despite the effectiveness of
modern electronic intelligence gathering, the lack
of enough human resources on the ground within the
Islamic government, the military, the Republican
Guards and the nuclear program has severely
hampered an accurate analysis of Iran's present
and future nuclear weapons intent or capability.
However, there are sufficient broadly
accepted "facts" to be able to draw a reasonable
picture of Tehran's current overall strategic
capability and the degree to
which it has succeeded in providing the military
with long-range missiles; a chemical and
biological weapons (CBW) arsenal and indeed the
present state of nuclear research.
to hide Many aspects of Iran's attempt -
if it is the case - to become the second Islamic
power to possess a nuclear weapon (after Pakistan)
require highly advanced technical and industrial
elements that are extremely hard to hide from
today's sophisticated satellite intelligence
For instance, the need for an
enormous number of critically important
centrifuges and state-of-the-art technical and
engineering facilities tends to leave a signature
on or below the ground that can be detected and
identified from above.
The acquisition of
such advanced equipment and in substantial numbers
leaves further traces in the closely monitored
field of international trade. Contacts with
research establishments, orders placed with
manufacturers of complete systems or the supply of
spare parts, or the transportation of vital
equipment by land, sea or air all draw the
attention of the intelligence community.
No matter how hard Iran may try or how
efficient their methods, someone, somewhere will
eventually notice and the secret will be out.
Even less easy to hide is the constant
drain on the national power grid that comes with a
fully developed and advanced nuclear weapons
program. The proliferation of power lines, buried
or not; switching centers; the large numbers of
staff and support facilities required in operating
extensive research and manufacturing facilities
are important pointers for Western intelligence,
which constantly monitors Iran for just such
The construction of these sites,
often buried underground in a network of tunnels
or hidden within mountains, requires the movement
of tens of thousands of tons of soil and rock; the
transportation of massive quantities of building
materials; construction of new roads; temporary or
permanent housing and the presence of large
numbers of skilled workers.
activities usually "post an alert" long before the
facility is operational. Of course, Western
intelligence will soon know the position of
so-called "secret sites", but not its true purpose
or capability. That crucially requires the often
missing element, HUMINT, an intelligence agent on
With a little help from
friends Iran has undoubtedly done a
remarkable job so far and now has a reasonably
advanced nuclear program in place, with a little
help from its friends.
The Islamic regime
in Tehran inherited a nuclear program initiated by
the Shah long before the revolution of 1979. The
close relationships with Russia, China and North
Korea; a considerable espionage campaign and its
links to Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan
have all played a part in helping Iran overcome
international sanctions. Indeed, Khan's
proliferation activities go some way to explaining
the marked similarity between Iran's nuclear
centrifuge technology and that of Pakistan.
It would appear that Pakistan and Iran
agreed around 1987 to a deal whereby a Pakistani
centrifuge design was provided to Iran to resolve
the latter's previous unsuccessful attempts to
master uranium-enrichment technology. The transfer
of Pakistan nuclear technology began in 1989 and
probably continued until at least 1996.
Bluff and bluster The fact that
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad felt it necessary to
claim during a visit to the underground Natanz
enrichment facility earlier this month that the
Islamic Republic is now capable of uranium
enrichment on an "industrial scale" and in direct
contravention of United Nations resolutions could
be taken as an attempt to bluff the West.
These claims must be treated as
suspicious, and indeed disarmament expert Dr Emily
Landau from the Institute for National Security
Studies is quoted as saying, "I don't think that
it is really [indicative] of Iran being at that
point of no return or a technical threshold where
it can go it alone and start industrial-scale
Landau added, "What we need
to take from this announcement is just a further
indication after the second round of sanctions
that the whole issue of continuing the program as
it is - enriching uranium - is still very much on
the agenda. Iran has no intention of complying
with the latest UN resolution."
non-proliferation expert, Mark Fitzpatrick from
the International Institute for Strategic Studies
in London, stated, "It was a political
announcement, devoid of any supporting evidence.
Iran is not at the industrial-scale of enrichment,
and will not be for some time." Fitzpatrick added,
"It showed that Iran has no intention of honoring
the UN mandate that it suspend all
probable that Iran has presently around 3,000 P1
& P2-type centrifuges necessary to produce
enriched weapon-grade material at Natanz. These
centrifuges spin at supersonic speed to produce
fuel for power plants or, if enriched to high
levels, warheads. A bare minimum is usually
considered to be around 30,000, and a figure of
50-60,000 a practical number for even a very
limited weapons program.
story However, this is not the whole
story. In April 2006, Ahmadinejad paid a
little-reported visit to Neyshabour in Khorassan.
This top-secret and heavily protected facility,
like other such sites in Iran ringed by air
defense missiles and artillery, is designed to
eventually run as many as 155,000 centrifuges,
enough to enrich uranium for three to five nuclear
bombs a year.
This does not, however, mean
that an Iranian nuclear bomb is likely to be
developed and tested, let alone deployed in
significant numbers, any time in the near future -
even if that is the intent.
Neyshabour is operational, then without
significant outside help from Russia or China,
Iran would still be two to three years away from
becoming a genuine nuclear power and perhaps five
years from the operational deployment of a nuclear
facilities Bushehr - Nuclear power station.
Esfahan/Isfahan - The Nuclear Technology
Center is Iran's largest research facility and
believed to have a staff of some 3,000 scientists.
Also a uranium conversion facility. Natanz -
Uranium enrichment facility. Neyshabour - Top
secret uranium enrichment facility Arak -
Heavy water plant. Iran does not have the type of
reactor that needs heavy water to moderate the
nuclear fission chain reaction. Its only other use
is to produce plutonium for use in a nuclear bomb.
Parchin - Defense Industry Organization
Department 140/31 (CBW center) as well as home to
a laser uranium-enrichment research facility in a
major complex of tunnels. Damghan - Chemical
warfare production facility with a biological
warfare laboratory nearby. Esfahan and Qazin -
additional CBW facilities.
missile facilities KARAJ - missile reseach
and development Shahroud - Missile test
facility and production facility for Chinese
Silkworm missiles. Semnan - Chinese-built
missile production plant. Esfahan/Isfahan -
Major North Korean-built missile production plant.
Khojeer - Ballistic missile assembly area in a
massive tunnel system. Sirjan - Major North
Korean-built liquid fuel production plant and
storage area for missiles. Kukh-e-Barjamali -
Shamid Hemat Industrial Group research facility
developing new liquid propellants.
Significantly the Iranian Revolutionary
Guards plays a leading role in Iran's WMD and
missile program, much of which is directly
controlled by a Guard section known as the
"Pasdaran Construction Jihad".
and biological warfare Iran does in fact
already possess some WMD capability in the form of
a sizeable, though aging chemical warfare stock.
Some observers have estimated Iran's current
stockpile of various agents at between several
hundred and 2,000 tons. Iran manufactures mustard,
phosgene and cyanide agents; it is also believed
to be conducting research on the highly persistent
nerve agent known as VX. Along with shell and bomb
delivery systems, Iran may also be producing
chemical weapon warheads for its scud missile
Iran also has a biological
warfare program which benefits from the
availability of significant numbers of qualified,
highly trained scientists and a considerable
expertise with pharmaceuticals. It also possesses
the commercial and military infrastructure needed
to produce a variety of biological warfare agents
and has reportedly been involved in researching
both toxins and live organisms as bacterial
weapons agents at a high security laboratory near
the large chemical warfare production facilities
It is considered possible by
some observers that Iran has already managed to
weaponize some biological agents for delivery by a
variety of battlefield systems and as warheads on
longer-range missile systems.
Successful missile program What
is quite definitely a success story for Iran is
the development, production and deployment of
large numbers of increasingly sophisticated
long-range ballistic missile systems. Using
elderly Russian designs and North Korean improved
versions, allied to imported Western
high-technology, Iran now has a genuine offensive
missile capability. Iran is also on the verge of
deploying a genuine strategic missile capable of
hitting targets throughout the Middle East, Israel
and parts of southern Europe.
or silo-deployed Shahab-3 (North Korean No-Dong)
ballistic missile is believed to have a range of
some 1,300 kilometers carrying a warhead of up to
700kg. While providing a credible threat, it still
requires a noticeable logistic support
infrastructure, making it rather more vulnerable
to identification and attack.
observers also believe that Iran's use of the
"building block approach" to develop a space
launch vehicle, in common with North Korea, will
allow these "boosters" to be quickly redeployed as
a limited-range inter-continental ballistic
missile capable of carrying a warhead.
Iran has the makings of a genuine
strategic force, capable of delivering WMD across
a sizeable slice of Asia, Africa and Europe within
the next few years.
inevitable? The question that must arise
is what Iran will do with such military power.
Will it be used as a simple deterrent or will it
be used to threaten Israel, its moderate oil-rich
Arab neighbors or strategic Western interests in
the region? Washington, London and a growing
number of European and Middle Eastern capitals
appear to think the latter.
has not so far seen fit to allay such fears.
Indeed, it can be argued that at times his
intemperate use of language and what has been
widely taken as threats to destroy Israel have
only confirmed Western suspicions and further
heightened tensions in an already volatile region.
While Iran is perhaps not a clear and
present danger right now, this situation may not
survive for much longer.
Bennett is an intelligence and security