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    Middle East
     Apr 21, 2007
Iran all bluff and bluster, but no bomb - yet
By Richard M Bennett

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.

Hard 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 platforms.

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 signs.

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.

These 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 the ground.

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 production."

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."

Another 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 enrichment-related activity."

It is 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.

A different 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.

Once 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 weapon.

Important 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.

Important 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".

Chemical 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 systems.

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 at Damghan.

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.

The mobile 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.

Informed 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.

Conflict 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.

Ahmadinejad 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.

Richard M Bennett is an intelligence and security analyst.

AFI Research provides expert information on the world's intelligence services, armed forces and conflicts. Contact rbmedia@supanet.com.

(Copyright 2007 AFI Research. Used with permission.)

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