Associated Press: It’s a nightmare scenario for the West - a hostile Muslim state develops nuclear weapons, throwing the Middle East and the world into turmoil. American officials warn that fear could soon turn into reality with Iran.
In Teheran, government authorities deride such concerns and threats as US propaganda. Associated Press

VIENNA, Austria - It’s a nightmare scenario for the West - a hostile Muslim state develops nuclear weapons, throwing the Middle East and the world into turmoil. American officials warn that fear could soon turn into reality with Iran.

In Teheran, government authorities deride such concerns and threats as US propaganda. Pointing to faulty US intelligence that prompted the invasion of Iraq to save the world from apparently nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, Iran insists it doesn’t want nuclear arms - and doesn’t have the means to make them.

It’s difficult to measure Iran’s intentions and test its assertions that it is only interested in the atom to generate electricity. But weapons experts agree that nearly two decades of covert activities have given the Islamic Republic the knowledge and technology to make nuclear bombs, activities that have mostly come to light in the past two years.

If Iran translates those skills into action, the Middle East could become the stage for a nuclear confrontation. After running its own secret program for decades, Israel - Iran’s declared mortal enemy - is thought to have as many as 100 nuclear warheads.

Sounding the latest alarm, US Secretary of State Colin Powell urged Iran on Tuesday to renounce uranium enrichment, which he said “in our judgment, leads to a nuclear weapons,” or face moves to have it hauled before the U.N. Security Council. Britain delivered the same message, while German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called Iran’s activities “highly alarming.”

Ahead of an International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors meeting opening Monday on Iran, the view that Teheran can make nuclear arms - including mastering complex tasks like warhead designs - is shared even by those willing to give Teheran the benefit of the doubt about its intentions.

Austrian physics professor Friedrich Steinhaeusler, a former U.N. nuclear safety expert, criticized the “distrust and discrediting of Iran.” But he acknowledged, “there is no lack of knowledge” or resources that would prevent Teheran from making nuclear weapons.

Estimates vary on a time frame.

US officials have cited intelligence reports as estimating the first Iranian nuclear weapon could be ready by the end of the decade. Former U.N nuclear inspector David Albright says it could be three or four years, or even sooner “if they are pressed.”

Alireza Jafarzadeh, a former spokesman for the exiled opposition National Council of Resistance, says Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered Iran’s nuclear establishment this June to put finishing touches on a weapons program by mid 2005.

Jafarzadeh’s exile organization played a major role two years ago in revealing to the world what the IAEA had just learned - that Iran was running a secret uranium enrichment program. He said his latest information came from the same sources that leaked the news on Iran’s enrichment activities.

Among concerns are plans for a heavy water reactor at the central city of Arak that will produce plutonium, which can be used for nuclear fuel - but more commonly is used for nuclear weapons.

Even before Iran revealed its plans for Arak, an IAEA report last year, one of six to date on the status of an agency probe into Iran’s nuclear activities, said Iran had extracted small amounts of plutonium in the laboratory as part of its covert activities. While finding “no evidence” that Teheran tried to make atomic arms, it said such efforts couldn’t be ruled out.

The agency has revealed a series of other experiments that could be linked to attempts to make nuclear weapons. But most worrying is Iran’s advanced state of efforts to enrich uranium - a process that also can be used to generate low-grade fuel for power or material enriched to 90 percent or above for nuclear warheads.

Enrichment does not violate the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which Iran has accepted. But - with world suspicions high in the wake of 18 years of nuclear secrecy on the part of Teheran - the IAEA and most of its member nations want Iran to scrap enrichment plans as a confidence building measure, something Teheran says it is not prepared to do.

Teheran plans to run 50,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium in the central city of Natanz. Iran says the Natanz facility is meant to meet the fuel requirements of a nuclear reactor being built with Russian help that is expected to be finished next year.

For now, it is far short of that goal, possessing less than 1,000 centrifuges, most of them bought secretly through the black market network of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Kahn, the rest made domestically.

But Albright says Iran is not far away from being able to make the 20 kilograms (nearly 45 pounds) of highly enriched uranium needed for one crude weapon.

“If you have 1,500 centrifuges ... they can make enough highly enriched uranium for about a bomb a year,” says Albright, now the head of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. He described any weapon Iran would be able to produce as packing about one-fifth of the punch that hit the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Feed stock for the centrifuges is not a problem. Iran has huge reserves of raw uranium and last week announced plans to extract more than 40 tons a year.

Converted to uranium hexafluoride and repeatedly spun in centrifuges, that amount could theoretically yield about 100 kilograms (more than 200 pounds) of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium - “hypothetically enough to make five crude nuclear weapons,” says Albright.

But making enough weapons-grade uranium is only part of the equation. The bomb - or warhead - must also be fabricated using detailed blueprints.

Plans for such devices are available on the black market. Libya bought engineers’ drawings of a Chinese-made bomb through the Khan network as part of its covert nuclear program that it renounced last year.

Iran says it does not have such drawings, and no evidence has been found to dispute that claim. Still, Albright says that it is possible that Iran already possesses a copy. And while having such blueprints would be “immensely helpful” to Iranian scientists, they are expert enough to draw them themselves, if necessary, says Albright.

He described the Chinese design Libya owed up to having as something “that would not take a lot of modifying” to fit it on Iran’s successfully tested Shahab-3 ballistic missile.

Equipped with a nuclear warhead, such a missile could add a huge dose of volatility in the Middle East. It has a range of 1,296 kilometers (about 810 miles) - enough to reach Israel, which is likely to respond in kind.