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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

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Intel Source Speaks on Iranian Nukes

April 18, 2010 - 7:06 AM | by: Mike Tobin

I was recently given a private intelligence briefing about the Iranian nuclear program, on the condition that I would refer to the source only as a “Western source.” The briefing presented three conclusions very relevant to concerns about nuclear threats in the world.

1) The Iranian Nuclear program is not a civilian program with a military potential. It is a pure military program thinly cloaked as a civilian one for the purpose of delaying international pressure.

2) Iran already has the capability to make a bomb. When they will do it is, “mainly a political question.”

3) The nuclear program is vulnerable to air strikes.

Addressing the first point, the source pointed to the number of centrifuges Iran is operating: roughly 5000. To produce fuel for one power plant, “They need to have 50,000 centrifuges of the type they have at Natanz.” However, they have more than enough operating centrifuges to enrich enough uranium for a bomb. “If they want to produce one bomb a year, they need 2500 or 3000 centrifuges.”

The discovery of the mountainside enrichment facility at Qom showed that Iran is having trouble with its technology because the enrichment there didn’t work. Also, according to the source, it showed the intent of the Shiite regime. “It is way too small to serve civilian interest…You would need Qom to work 20 years to produce one year of nuclear fuel. But it is exactly what you need for a military program.”

He also pointed to the fact that Iran’s Defense Minister has been operating a shadow nuclear program, paralleling the steps of the Atomic Energy Agency.

On the second point, the source says Iran had perfected most of the technology for a nuclear bomb in 2003. “We know that the Iranians don’t only have documents but produced the components, fabricated some components of nuclear weapons and tested them…They were good enough to prove that their design works.” Only one problem kept Iran from taking the final step. “There was one thing missing in 2003 which kept them from building a bomb, the ability to enrich uranium,” said the source.

Then, press reports leaked details of Iran’s nuclear ambition and the US toppled the neighboring regime in Iraq citing the threat of weapons of mass destruction.  Iran put the brakes on its nuclear program.

When the Shiite regime eventually resumed the quest for nuclear capability, the emphasis was on its weakness: the ability to enrich uranium. Some effort was paid to the development and improvement of ‘dual use’ components. Which means components that could be explained away to the international community as having a different purpose, but could be used in a nuclear bomb.  There is also a top-secret effort to develop and test components specific to a nuclear bomb. He singled out the ‘neutron initiator’ as an example. This acts like a spark plug to begin a nuclear reaction.

The source believes Iran is trying to minimize its “breakout time” before making a sprint toward a nuclear weapon. There will come a point when Iran takes a step, which removes any doubt in the international community that the ambition is indeed a weapon.  That step will shock the international community into action and bring a great deal of pressure on Iran.  Leaders of that country want that pressure to be on them for as short a time as possible until they can announce they have the bomb.

The source predicts the breakout will occur when Iran makes the move toward highly enriched or weapons grade uranium. Uranium sits in the ground at .7% purity. To fuel a nuclear power plant you only need to get the uranium to 3.5% purity. Weapons grade uranium is 93.5% pure. But 3.5% purity does not mean the uranium is only a fraction of the way toward weapons grade. The source says once the uranium is at fuel grade 60% of the work has already been done.  If the uranium is brought up to 20% purity, only a short step remains to arrive at weapons grade.  Iran has already enriched a small amount to 20% purity saying it was for the research reactor in Tehran.

So, the source believes Iran is buying time, preparing and testing components for a weapon. But the focus is on building better confidence with their centrifuges and stockpiling fuel grade uranium.  That way, when the regime decides, Iran can make a bold move and the mad dash to get a weapon before the world can stop it. However, no one knows when the starter gun will fire for that sprint to start. “The answer is that we don’t know when they will have a bomb. They don’t know.”

Iran’s glaring vulnerability is still enrichment. “The centrifuges are Pakistani by design. They are not good centrifuges.” I mentioned earlier that the enrichment facility at Qom wasn’t working. Other centrifuges also crash frequently. Although Iran possesses a vast underground network of tunnels, the intelligence community believes the only working centrifuges are in Natanz. “We do not know of another enrichment facility,” Said the source.

Iran does have more than a dozen nuclear facilities spread out around the country. However, because all of the effective centrifuges are in one location, there exists a target for air strikes, which could effectively set back Iran’s nuclear program. “If Natanz is hit or severely damaged in terms of capacity…the Iranian program will be compromised, damaged. They will not have the capability to enrich,” said the source.

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