- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Iran is poised to begin producing nuclear weapons after its uranium program expansion in 2009, even though it has had problems with thousands of its centrifuges, according to a newly released CIA report.

“Iran continues to develop a range of capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so,” the annual report to Congress states.

A U.S. official involved in countering weapons proliferation said the Iranians are “keeping the door open to the possibility of building a nuclear weapon.”

“That’s in spite of strong international pressure not to do so, and some difficulties they themselves seem to be having with their nuclear program,” the official said. “There are powerful incentives for them to close the door completely, but they are either purposefully ignoring them or are tone deaf. You almost want to shout, ‘Tune in Tehran.’”

The CIA report is the latest official study expressing concern over Iran’s continuing nuclear activities. The International Atomic Energy Agency on March 3 issued a report warning that continuing nuclear activities in violation of U.N. resolutions raise “concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.”

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The U.S. report was produced by the CIA Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Center, known as WINPAC. It is called the 721 report for the section of a 1997 intelligence authorization law requiring it.

The report also says that North Korea, based on a nuclear test in May 2009, now “has the capability to produce nuclear weapons with a yield of roughly a couple of kilotons TNT equivalent.” A kiloton is a measure of a nuclear bomb’s power and is equal to 1,000 tons of TNT.

On Iran, the report says that it is “keeping open” its options for building nuclear arms, “though we do not know whether Tehran eventually will decide to produce nuclear weapons.”

The report reflects the published conclusion of a controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that stated Iran had halted work on nuclear weapons in 2003. The report, posted on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence Web site, was written before a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program, which is nearing completion and is expected to revise the earlier estimate, although details have not been disclosed.

According to the report, Iran expanded nuclear infrastructure and uranium enrichment in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions that since 2006 have called on Tehran to halt the enrichment.

During the first 11 months of last year, the main uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz produced about 1.8 tons of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride, compared with about half a ton the previous year.

The number of centrifuges at Natanz increased from about 5,000 to 8,700 last year, although the number reported to be working is about 3,900, indicating the Iranians are having problems with the machines. The centrifuges enrich uranium gas by spinning it at high speeds.

Last year, Iran disclosed it is building a second gas-centrifuge plant near the city of Qom that will house an estimated 3,000 machines. U.S. officials have said the Qom facility, which was discovered in 2007, is a clear sign Iran’s nuclear program is geared toward producing weapons, because the facility is too small for nonmilitary uranium enrichment.

Iran also continued work last year on a heavy water research reactor.

On missiles, the report said Iran is building more short- and medium-range ballistic missiles and stated that “producing more capable medium-range ballistic missiles remains one of its highest priorities.”

Three test flights of a new 1,240-mile-range Sejil missile were conducted in 2009, the report said, noting that assistance from China, North Korea and Russia “helped move Iran toward self-sufficiency in the production of ballistic missiles.”

The report also said that Iran has the capability of producing both chemical and biological weapons, and Tehran continued to seek dual-use technology for its bioweapons program.