Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Iran Watch

Amid reports that Iran is building a tunnel complex at its Natanz nuclear site--suggesting a further hardening and possible expansion of that facility--the Israeli press has additional updates on Tehran's nuclear intentions.

In today's Jerusalem Post, a former Israeli defense official warns (once again) that the window for military action against Iran is rapidly closing.

Predicting that sanctions will ultimately fail to stop Teheran's nuclear program, Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of Military Intelligence's Research Division, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that time to launch an effective military strike against Iran's nuclear installations was running out.

According to Kuperwasser, who stepped down from his post last year, Iran is "very close" to the point that it will cross the technological threshold and have the capability to enrich uranium at an industrial level. Once they master the technology, the Iranians will have the ability to manufacture a nuclear device within two to three years, he added.

"The program's vulnerability to a military operation is diminishing as time passes," Kuperwasser said, "and they are very close to the point that they will be able to enrich uranium at an industrial level."

General Kuperwasser's time line seems consistent with other assessments of the Iranian nuclear program, which postulate that Tehran could have its first nuclear device within 3 years, assuming that it overcomes the remaining technical hurdles. Publicly, the U.S. intelligence community believes that Iran won't produce its first nuclear weapon until sometime in the next decade, but that scenario represents a "worst case" for the Iranians, and the most favorable time line for the west.

Kuperwasser, who is now affiliated with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, believes that "a real threat of military action - backed up by credible threats by world leaders as well as the deployment of a large military force to the region - could have the right effect in deterring Iranian leaders from continuing with their nuclear program." The "large military force" he refers to would be led--obviously--by the United States, and consist of several carrier battle groups, and multiple Air Expeditionary Forces (AEFs), comprised of Air Force combat units.

General Kuperwassser notes that the existing "sanctions" strategy will not work, as long as Russia is not aligned with the U.S. on the Iranian issue. And, of course, that begs an obvious question: if Moscow and Washington can't agree on relatively mild sanctions, there's no way that Mr. Putin and President Bush will issue a unified "credible" threat against Iran.

The former Israeli intelligence official and his colleagues certainly understand that. That's why they engage the Post--and other media outlets in Israel-- reminding Prime Minister Olmert and Mr. Bush that there are few viable alternatives for dealing with Iran's nuclear program, and opportunities for employing the military option are diminishing rapidly.


Meanwhile, we're supposedly gaining additional insight about Tehran's nuclear ambitions, thanks to that Iranian general who defected to the west about six months ago. Details on his debriefing emerged in Israel's Yediot Aharonot over the weekend, and were reprinted in Monday's edition of the Post.

According to those reports, the defection of retired General Ali-Reza Asghari was engineered by the CIA, which is housing him at a secure facility, most likely in the United States. Questioning of Asghari has reportedly generated new information on Iranian leadership and the country's nuclear program, according to media accounts.

Asghari has since revealed new and relevant information about Iran's nuclear progress, saying that in addition to reactors and uranium enrichment facility centrifuges being built in the country, Iran has also developed the technology to enrich uranium with lasers.

Laser enrichment is a relatively old technique, but Iran has evidently added chemical enhancements that make the technology more advanced, the report said.

IranWatch.org has an excellent summary of Iran's past efforts at laser enrichment, which date back more than 20 years. Authors Charles D. Ferguson and Jack Boureston note that Iran has apparently been unable to enrich uranium on a large scale using lasers, but the enhancements General Asghari spoke of may increase production rates. They also observe that laser isotope separation (LIS)--the technique used by Iran--requires very little space in comparison to centrifuge operations, like the one at Natanz.

That would make LIS an ideal candidate for a covert enrichment effort, housed in facilities outside known nuclear complexes. However, LIS facilities would still be required to produce enriched uranium in kilograms--not milligrams--a capability that Iran has not demonstrated. Still, given our knowledge "gaps" about Tehran's nucler programs--and General Asghari's recent claims--the possibility of LIS enrichment on a much larger scale cannot be dismissed.

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