Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Iran’s resumption of uranium enrichment yesterday will move Tehran closer to full-scale nuclear weapons production, according to U.S. and Western officials and specialists.

U.S. government officials said the move will likely lead to U.N. Security Council action, including sanctions against Iran.

Defense officials said the resumption of nuclear-fuel work also has raised new worries that Israel will take military action in the coming months to destroy 10 to 15 Iranian nuclear sites before the uranium-enrichment process is perfected.

“There is no doubt that the Iranians are walking on the edge,” Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the chief of the Israeli military’s general staff, told reporters Monday. “And there is no doubt that when you walk on the edge, [treading on] the smallest stone can drop you in the abyss.”

Intelligence officials and private analysts disagree over when Iran will have everything needed for a bomb. A recent U.S. intelligence estimate is that it will take Tehran until at least 2010 to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb.

However, private specialists think the resumption of Iran’s uranium-enrichment program will let the Islamic republic speed up its program and possibly produce enough material for a nuclear bomb within months.

Henry Sokolski, director of the private Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, said Iran is from several months to two years away from mastering the nuclear fuel cycle, the key element for building nuclear weapons.

“Weapons design is not a major issue. It’s the fuel,” he said.

Unless action is taken by the international community to reverse the enrichment activities, Iran will move quickly toward making bombs, he said.

“This is not the worst, it is the beginning of the worst,” Mr. Sokolski said, noting that if it is left unchecked, Iran’s nuclear weapons program will trigger a Middle East nuclear arms race involving Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

A Western official said Iran has converted about 80 tons of uranium ore into uranium hexafluoride, the gas that is spun inside special centrifuges to produce highly enriched uranium for weapons.

That is enough for Iran’s first bomb, the official said.

The next step is enrichment, and Iran is working to perfect the operation of groups of 164 centrifuges that will be the first step in crating a cascade of 2,000 centrifuges, the amount needed to produce highly enriched uranium.

“This is why there is a tremendous sense of urgency to deal with this problem,” the official said, noting that Iranians are stalling on negotiations to buy time for enrichment.

Unlike some European governments, the Bush administration is convinced that Iran is working to have a nuclear weapons in five to 10 years and also is working to produce small enough nuclear devices to fit on its medium-range Shahab-3 missiles and future long-range missiles.

A report in November by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) showed that Tehran obtained data on casting and machining hemispheres of enriched uranium that are “characteristic of weapons components,” Gregory Shulte, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, said Nov. 21.

Earlier intelligence included data obtained from an Iranian laptop computer that showed computer simulations on producing a nuclear warhead for a missile.

Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, said the Iranians’ decision means “they are going forward with enrichment.”

“They are walking through a door we hoped was closed for them,” he said.

• David R. Sands contributed to this report.

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