News / Middle East

Iran Encounters Nuclear Problems

Gary Thomas

New reports by Western experts say Iran’s nuclear program is faltering because of poorly functioning equipment.  But they say Iran has the capability to build at least one atomic weapon  in about six months’ time, if it chose to do so.  But, it is believed that Iran’s leadership has not yet decided to take that final step.

The new studies say the centrifuges Iran uses to produce enriched uranium are performing poorly.   The nongovernmental Institute for Science and International Security says many of the machines at the Natanz enrichment facility are old or are breaking down repeatedly.

ISIS President David Albright, the lead author of the reports, says the mechanical problems show that international sanctions have delayed Iran’s nuclear progress.

“It can’t stop them from building a bomb or making a decision [to do so]," said Albright. "But it can slow it down, it can create inhibitions against moving in that direction, and it can just generally make it difficult for Iran to get the raw materials it needs to build large numbers of centrifuges.”

But Albright adds that Iran has enough working centrifuges to turn out sufficiently pure uranium to build a nuclear bomb.

“Iran does have enough centrifuges if it wanted to go ahead and make weapon-grade uranium for a bomb," he said. "Any centrifuge can be used to make low-enriched uranium or high-enriched uranium.  So Iran has a capability to make nuclear weapons now.”

But has it decided to do so?

U.S. intelligence estimates say Iran might have technical capability to produce a nuclear bomb, although not a system to deliver one, and that Tehran has not decided to cross that line.

David Albright says the United States and its allies agree that is still the case, although there different assessments of the progress of Iran’s nuclear weapons research.

“But they all agree that no decision has been made by Iran to build weapons, that there is ambivalence about the situation because I think Iran, the Iranian regime, knows full well that if it can’t get the bomb quickly, and maybe have a plan to get more than one, that it could suffer horrible consequences that threaten the existence of the regime," said Albright.

Olli Heinonen, former deputy director-general of the U.N. monitoring agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, says there is increased concern that Iran has been stockpiling low-grade enriched uranium with the intent of turning into weapons-grade uranium.  

“With time there will be enough material for nuclear bombs if Iran does that decision, and I would say that by the end of next year there starts to be a sizeable amount of low-enriched uranium, which I think is a matter of concern to quite a few parties," said Heinonen.

But Heinonen agrees there is no clear signal that Iran has decided to build atomic weapons.

"I don’t think anyone has seen real evidence that Iran has done a firm decision to build a nuclear weapon," he said. "On the other hand, when such a decision is done, it may not be a big group of people who decide on that, and it may be very difficult to find it out until it is perhaps too late."

The IAEA is scheduled to give its new quarterly inspection report on Iran next month.   

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