Nuclear Experts Divided on Iran Bomb in Wake of Damning IAEA Report

How soon will the Islamic Republic be able to produce nuclear weapons?

In the wake of the International Atomic Energy Agency's damning report, most analysts agree that Iran has spent a decade ceaselessly striving to attain the capability of producing nuclear weapons. However, there is no consensus about how close Iran is to manufacturing its first nuclear bomb.

One of the foremost experts who could shed light on the matter is Dr. Olli Heinonen. The Finnish nuclear scientist spent 27 years at the IAEA and served as deputy director general of the agency before leaving for Harvard last year.

Iranian uranium conversion facility - AP - 10112011

He was in charge of inspecting Iran's nuclear facilities and met with the directors of Iran's nuclear program. The latest report hardly surprised him.

"There is not much new information," Heinonen wrote Haaretz in an email from Harvard, on Wednesday. By this he meant that the plethora of evidence in the report reached the IAEA years ago. What he does not say is that his boss at the IAEA, former director Mohamed ElBaradei, either did not publish the findings or softened the way in which they were presented. It may be that Dr. ElBaradei believed the evidence was not definitive, or that it was true and that he was protecting Iran so that Israel and the United States would not have an excuse to attack the Islamic Republic.

Either way, El Baradai's successor, Yukiya Amano of Japan, decided to divulge what the IAEA has long known. Heinonen wrote that he thought it was "good to have a comprehensive update on the military dimension."

He surmised that the IAEA secretariat was waiting for Iran "to come to substantial discussions," and that the agency has concluded that releasing the "information may serve that purpose."

While other experts point to testimony on advances Iran has made in attaining nuclear weapon production capability, Dr. Heinonen focuses on findings regarding the obstacles the regime faces.

The bottleneck is and remains in uranium enrichment," he wrote. "As the report shows, progress is still slow."

He stressed that the key would be the "success with the introduction of more advanced centrifuges." In this regard, it remains hard to make an educated guess about when Iran will be able to produce its first nuclear bomb.

The Iranians are still striving to test the hundreds of centrifuges which were not damaged by what foreign news sources call the sabotage campaign conducted by West's intelligence agencies including Israel.

Even if the new centrifuges turn out to be efficient, Iran still has a way to go. "Iran will not able to produce high enriched uranium in sufficient quantities before the end of 2012 unless it makes substantial progress with advanced centrifuges," says Heinonan. "Een if Iran succeeds in that, it still needs to bring them to a semi-industrial scale which will take until 2013. This means that they need to resolve any remaining design issues and have access, is spite of sanctions, to necessary raw materials, such as high quality maraging steel, high strength aluminum and carbon fiber." Therefore, Heinonen added, "the next year until the end of 2012 is crucial."

Israel's satellite battle

Just when ties with Turkey seem to be recovering, a new crisis is emerging on the horizon: Israel's repeated attempts to prevent Western companies from selling Turkey and other countries satellites that would provide high-resolution images.

The Turkish defense ministry signed a contract in 2009 with the joint Italian-French venture Telespazio to produce the Gokturk-1 satellite.

Construction is almost complete and with the launch scheduled for 2013. The military optical satellite has a resolution of 0.8 meters.

Jerusalem fears the satellite will be used to photograph military and strategic sites in Israel and that Turkey would pass on the high resolution photographs to Israel's enemies, including Iran and Syria (despite recent tension between Damascus and Ankara ), or even to Hamas - all of which still lack such capacity.

Despite tension between the two countries - which began with Operation Cast Lead at the end of 2008 and intensified after Israeli troops killed Turkish citizens on board the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish flotilla to Gaza, in 2010 - Israel is exploring whether Ankara would be ready to commit itself not to photograph Israeli territory.

It appears Ankara refused. The Turkish daily Zaman recently quoted local defense ministry officials as saying that for years Israel has photographed Turkish territory by its satellites, so why should Ankara accede to Israel's request now?

Undeterred, Israel, in its effort to prevent Turkey from being able to reveal some of its secrets, recently pressed France and Italy to use their influence on their companies. There is no word as to the results of these attempts, but perhaps past experience can point to what we may expect.

According to the French newsletter Intelligence Online, the government of Nicolas Sarkozy reached a secret understanding with Israel not to permit French companies to sell satellites or satellite images with a resolution of less than one meter.

As a result, Egypt tried but failed to obtain such a satellite from Astrium, a subsidiary of the European security consortium EADS. However, Cairo managed to acquire a similar satellite from Russia, which did not limit its use or resolution regarding Israel.

This understanding was also the basis for preventing Astrium from selling satellites to Saudi Arabia and to the United Arab Emirates.

The journal points out that Israel itself cynically permitted ImageSat, the subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries, to cooperate with the United Arab Emirates by providing them with images from its satellites.

Still, it should be noted that the quality of the images was limited to two meters. Either way, it looks like this could be Israel's last battle to deny the Arab world and of course Iran access to spy satellites and high-resolution images.

Even if Israel succeeds in convincing countries in the West to withhold this technology from Israel's enemies, there are always Russian or Chinese companies that will gladly agree to supply the goods.