The chief of research for Israeli military intelligence estimates that Iran is "halfway" to obtaining its first nuclear bomb.
According to the Jerusalem Post, Brigadier General Yossi Baidatz offered that assessment Sunday, during a briefing to the Israeli cabinet. General Baidatz also reported that Israel's terrorist foes, Hizballah and Hamas, are using the current period of "relative calm" to significantly rearm.
In his presentation, Baidatz noted the "gap" between Iran's progress on the nuclear front, and the west's determination to stop it. Tehran has moved to exploit that gap, as the intelligence officer told cabinet members:
"Iran is concentrating on uranium enrichment, and is making progress," he said, noting that they have improved the function of their 4,000 centrifuges.
According to Baidatz, the Iranian centrifuges have so far produced between one-third to one-half of the enriched material needed to build a bomb.
"The time when they will have crossed the nuclear point-of-no-return is fast approaching," he said, though he stopped short of giving a firm deadline. Last week in the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, however, he put the date at 2011.
The Iranians are pleased that the gap is widening," Baidatz said. "Their confidence is growing with the thought that the international community is not strong enough to stop them," he added.
Baidatz said the Iranians were playing for time, and that time was working in their favor since the longer the process dragged on, the wider the rifts appearing among the countries in the West become. "Iran is in control of the technology and is moving with determination toward a nuclear bomb," he said.
General Baidatz's comments are noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, his estimate provides one of the few (public) assessments of where Iran stands on its drive for nuclear weapons. If Baidatz's analysis is correct, then Tehran has made significant progress in its uranium enrichment efforts.
Noting that Iran has produced "one-third to one-half" of the enriched material for a bomb, the general suggests that Tehran is now producing weapons-quality. enriched uranium. That would be a significant leap from the reactor-quality material (roughly 5-10% purity) produced by Iran just a few months ago. And, with 4,000 centrifuges in operation, the Iranians could produce the required amount of enriched uranium in another year--at the outside.
Additionally, Baidatz failed to affirm his earlier estimate on when Tehran would pass the nuclear point-of-no-return. In testimony last week before the Knesset, the intelligence research director put that date at 2011. During yesterday's cabinet briefing, he declined to provide a firm timeline. General Baidatz clearly understands that spooks wade into a quagmire when they provide deadlines for politicians. But his statement may also reflect recent changes in the Israeli assessment.
Indeed, if Iranian scientists have increased production of enriched uranium--and attained required purity levels--the timetable for Tehran's first nuke would be accelerated. However, Iran still faces significant hurdles in obtaining an operational nuclear capability.
For example, it was reported last week that Tehran is redesigning its medium-range Shahab-3 missiles to carry a nuclear warhead. That would suggest problems with Iran's recently-acquired intermediate-range missile, the BM-25 (Shahab-4). But the design effort is also evidence of an advanced nuclear program, one on track to yield a bomb in relatively short order.
In any case, General Baidatz's briefing merely affirms that Iran is sprinting towards the nuclear finish line, and the west is doing almost nothing about it.
ADDENDUM: On a related note, four members of Bill Clinton's national security team penned an op-ed for today's Wall Street Journal, entitled "Everyone Needs to Worry About Iran." We certainly can't disagree with their characterization of the current Tehran government, and what a nuclear-armed Iran would mean:
Iran is a deadly and irresponsible world actor, employing terrorist organizations including Hezbollah and Hamas to undermine existing regimes and to foment conflict. Emboldened by the bomb, Iran will become more inclined to sponsor terror, threaten our allies, and support the most deadly elements of the Iraqi insurgency.
Tehran's development of a nuclear bomb could serve as the "starter's gun" in a new and potentially deadly arms race in the most volatile region of the world. Many believe that Iran's neighbors would feel forced to pursue the bomb if it goes nuclear.
At the same time, Iranian leaders declare that Israel is illegitimate and should not exist. President Ahmadinejad specifically calls for Israel to be "wiped off from the map," while seeking the weapons to do so. Such behavior casts Iran as an international outlier. No one can reasonably suggest that a nuclear-armed Iran will suddenly honor international treaty obligations, acknowledge Israel's right to exist, or cease efforts to undermine the Arab-Israeli peace process.
The article's authors--Richard Holbrooke, James Woolsey, Dennis Ross and Mark Wallace--are part of a new, non-partisan group called United Against Nuclear Iran. Their organization is calling for a multi-faceted approach in dealing with Tehran:
We do not aim to beat the drums of war. On the contrary, we hope to lay the groundwork for effective U.S. policies in coordination with our allies, the U.N. and others by a strong showing of unified support from the American people to alter the Iranian regime's current course. The American people must have a voice in this great foreign-policy challenge, and we can make a real difference through national and international, social, economic, political and diplomatic measures.
Unfortunately, those measures take resolve, courage, unity and time--commodities that are preciously lacking in our standoff with Iran. As we've noted previously, any real decision on Tehran's nuclear program will be made by the next U.S. administration and Israel's new Prime Minister. And, given the failure of past diplomatic and economic steps, they may discover that the military option has become their only option.
Finally, the "experts" at the International Atomic Energy Agency are concerned that Iran might be hiding some of its nuclear activities. Duh. We've been warning about a covert Iranian program for the past three years, and that ominous possibility has been a long-standing concern for western intelligence agencies. Glad to see the IAEA has reached a similar conclusion. Better late than never.
We'll skip the usual blind hog/acorns analogy. Suffice it to say that Inspector Clouseau would be a valued employee at the U.N. agency.