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Iran may be able to build A-bomb

UN analysis calls other estimates into question

By William J. Broad and David E. Sanger
New York Times / October 4, 2009

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NEW YORK - Senior staff members of the UN nuclear agency have concluded in a confidential analysis that Iran has acquired “sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable’’ atom bomb.

The report by experts in the International Atomic Energy Agency stresses in its introduction that its conclusions are tentative and subject to further confirmation of the evidence, which it says came from intelligence agencies and its own investigations.

But the report’s conclusions, described by senior European officials, go well beyond the public positions taken by several governments, including the United States.

Two years ago, American intelligence agencies published a detailed report concluding that Tehran halted its efforts to design a nuclear weapon in 2003. But in recent months, Britain has joined France, Germany, and Israel in disputing that conclusion, saying the work has been resumed.

A senior American official said last week that the United States was now reevaluating its 2007 conclusions.

The atomic agency’s report also presents evidence that beyond improving upon bomb-making information gathered from rogue nuclear specialists around the world, Iran has done extensive research and testing on how to fashion the components of a weapon. It does not say how far that work has progressed.

The report draws a picture of a complex program, run by Iran’s Ministry of Defense, “aimed at the development of a nuclear payload to be delivered using the Shahab 3 missile system,’’ Iran’s medium-range missile, which can strike the Middle East and parts of Europe.

If Iran is designing a warhead, that would represent only part of the complex process of making nuclear arms. Engineering studies would have to turn ideas into hardware.

Finally, the hardest part would be enriching the uranium that could be used as nuclear fuel - though experts say Iran has already mastered that task.

While the analysis represents the judgment of the nuclear agency’s senior staff, a struggle has erupted in recent months over whether to make it public.

The dispute pits the agency’s departing director, Mohamed ElBaradei, against his own staff and against foreign governments eager to intensify pressure on Iran.

ElBaradei has long been reluctant to adopt a confrontational strategy with Iran, which an approach he considers counterproductive. Responding to calls for the report’s release, he has raised doubts about its completeness and reliability.

Even so, the emerging sense in the intelligence world that Iran has solved the major nuclear design problems poses a new diplomatic challenge for President Obama and his allies as they confront Iran.

American officials say that in the direct negotiations with Iran that began last week, it will be vital to get the country to open all of its suspected sites to international inspectors. That is a long list, topped by the underground nuclear enrichment center under construction near Qom, that was revealed 10 days ago.

Iran has acknowledged that the underground facility is intended as a nuclear enrichment center, but says the fuel it makes will be used solely to produce nuclear power and medical isotopes. It was kept heavily protected, Iranian officials said, to ward off potential attacks.