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News Analysis

British Intelligence: Iran Will Have Bomb by 2014

Tue, December 4, 2012

Ryan Mauro

The chief of British MI6 intelligence says Iran is set to have a nuclear bomb by 2014, but that is dependent upon British intelligence being accurate and complete. Iran has admitted that it lies about its nuclear program, and the record of Western assessments of Weapons of Mass Destruction programs is spotty, to say the least.

Western projections may be too optimistic if reports by Iranian opposition sources on secret nuclear sites are accurate. One such source, Reza Kahlili, will be doing a webinar for ClarionProject.org on December 10.

The U.S. expresses confidence that it knows right where the Iranian nuclear program is at, with White House Press Secretary Jay Carney saying “We have eyes, we have visibility into the program.” This means that the U.S. believes it will detect any move by Iran to produce weapons-grade uranium and will be able to act before an actual bomb is assembled.

Intelligence estimates on Iran have turned out to be too comforting in the past. Look no further than the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that famously claimed that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons-related work in 2003. This was partially based on communications intercepted in 2006 from Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, believed to be the overseer of Iran’s weapons-related work, complaining about the freezing of his activities.

The conclusion is somewhat a matter of semantics. The declared “nuclear energy” program was treated as a separate matter, even though it would serve as the foundation of any bomb project. The NIE is probably right that weapons-specific work paused in 2003. After all, two secret nuclear sites had recently been exposed by an opposition group, and U.S.-led forces had just swiftly deposed Saddam Hussein next door. In this situation, it would have been wise for Iran to focus on its “energy program” instead of its incriminating bomb-related work, especially since the former is a perquisite for completing the latter.

Nonetheless, the NIE was incorrect even under its narrow and misleading definition of nuclear weapons-related work.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report released in November 2011, described as its “most damning report ever published,” documented that at least one test of high explosives for use in a nuclear weapon was carried out at the Parchin military base in 2003. The Iranian regime is cleansing the site right now and blocking access. In 2006, it was studying how to make a neutron initiator, a device with no civilian application. In 2008 and 2009, computer modeling of nuclear detonations took place. A 2008 document even indicated that Iran had picked a spot for a potential nuclear test. That’s a lot of work for a nuclear weapons program that supposedly ended in 2003.

Iranian opposition sources are providing specific intelligence about secret sites and activity that may not have been accounted for in current assessments. The National Council of Resistance in Iran claims that a new body was established in 2011 called National Defense Research (NDR) to work on technology related to nuclear warheads, detonators and missiles. It is based in Mojdeh in the Lavizan region. The group says it provided details about the site’s 60 nuclear scientists and 11 institutions and companies that are tied to it.

Reza Kahlili, a former member of the Revolutionary Guards turned spy for the CIA, reports that there is another secret site in Isfahan Province on the outskirts of Najafabad hidden under a medicine factory called Abu Reyhan. His sources, including at least one person who has been inside, say it can hold 800 centrifuges, The site has already been used to test a neutron initiator and nuclear implosion system, and the development of a warhead for a Shahab-3 missile is nearly complete. The site is run by NDR and Fakhrizadeh and 10 other scientists work there, he says.

Kahlili identifies a second site is in Kerman Province on the outskirts of Shahrokhabad under the official name of the Martyred Bahonar Training Center. The site is designed to process uranium ore into yellowcake. He is unsure if the yellowcake is converted at this site into gas form for insertion into centrifuges or if that is done at the declared Isfahan site.

At the same time, the declared nuclear sites are moving forward. Iran says it has completed installing 2,800 centrifuges at the underground Fordo site located near Qom. This site, exposed in 2009, is built to withstand aerial strikes and is uniquely designed for making bomb-grade uranium. It is simply unfit for a domestic energy program. If Iran increases the number of operating centrifuges from 700 to almost 1,400 as is expected, the Fordo site’s enrichment output will double.

Once Iran gets the necessary bomb-grade fuel for a weapon, it still must assemble a nuclear-armed missile. The U.S. believes there is enough of a time gap for serious action to be taken. Plus, it is believed that Iran has not yet mastered the nuclear triggering mechanisms. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu argues that this hope is based in overconfidence. A detonator could be constructed in less than a year in a “small workshop the size of a classroom” and a warhead could be assembled in a similarly small facility.

A former German Defense Ministry official wrote on November 26 that Iran could be on the “verge of producing weapon-quality plutonium.” Iran’s plutonium track towards nuclear weapons receives much less attention. He notes that Iran removed the spent fuel rods from its light water reactor at Bushehr on October 22. There may be a technical reason for this, he says, or it could be a move to create bomb fuel. It could take as little as three or four months to convert the plutonium from the rods into fissile material. Kahlili says the site he exposed is tied to the plutonium program as well.

Hopefully, economic stress, internal unrest and sabotage are enough to significantly delay Iran’s nuclear program. The MI6 chief said that if it weren’t for covert British operations, Iran would have had the bomb in 2008. The tempo of obvious sabotage operations declined in February but discreet sabotage operations may be underway that are just as effective.

The Iranian regime said in August that small explosions had cut the power to the Natanz and Fordo sites. An exploding rock severed a power line to the Fordo site one day before a scheduled visit by the IAEA. A sudden power outage could damage the quickly-spinning centrifuges. Iran predictably claimed no damage was done, a claim supported by the IAEA that said it didn’t detect any damage. It has been reported that the rock was actually an intelligence-gathering device that self-destructed upon human contact.

The U.S. intelligence community is full of heroes, but they aren’t perfect. Look at Iraq, Benghazi and the failures to stop the 2009 Fort Hood shooting and the 2010 underwear bomb plot. The price of being wrong on Iran is too high for the world to take chances.

To sign up for RadicalIslam.org’s webinar with Reza Kahlili, click here.

Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org's National Security Analyst and a fellow with the Clarion Fund. He is the founder of WorldThreats.com and is frequently interviewed on Fox News.