will make the political decision to enrich uranium to military-grade levels once it has accumulated enough fissionable material for a small arsenal of three to four nuclear devices, according to latest intelligence assessments.
Iran, according to the recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report, has already accumulated 1.8 tons of uranium enriched to four percent.
Iran has announced plans to begin enriching uranium to 20% levels for use as fuel in a research reactor it has in Teheran, which is expected to exhaust its present stock within the year.
Although material for the fissile core of a nuclear warhead must be enriched to a level of 90% or more, just getting its stockpile to the 20% mark would be a major step for the country’s nuclear program.
According to intelligence assessments, enriching uranium to 20% – expected to take about a year – would put the Iranians just a leap away from enriching to military-grade levels.
While Iran already has mastered all of the technology needed to create a nuclear device, it is still working to accumulate several more tons of enriched uranium before it decides to begin what is called the “breakout stage.”
For this to happen, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would need to give the order, from when it will take approximately a year for the Iranians to produce their first testable nuclear device, like the one tested by North Korea in 2006.
On Monday, Iranian envoy to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh said that UN inspectors would be able to stay on site to fully monitor the enrichment process. He also blamed world powers for Iran’s decision, asserting that it was their fault that a plan that foresaw Russian and French involvement in supplying the research reactor had failed.
“Until now, we have not received any response to our positive logical and technical proposal,” he said. “We cannot leave hospitals and patients desperately waiting for radioisotopes” being produced at the Teheran reactor and used in cancer treatment, he added.
At a news conference with French Defense Minister Herve Morin, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates praised President Barack Obama’s attempts to engage the Islamic Republic diplomatically and chided Teheran for not reciprocating.
“No US president has reached out more sincerely, and frankly taken more political risk, in an effort to try to create an opening for engagement for Iran,” he said. “All these initiatives have been rejected.”
Defense Minister Ehud Barak called on the world to impose tough sanctions on Iran in response to its decision to upgrade its uranium enrichment to 20%.
“The right response is to impose decisive and permanent sanctions on Iran,” Barak told a meeting of Labor’s Knesset faction.
He responded to Khamenei’s recent statements that Israel would soon disappear, saying while Israel would not disappear, Khamenei’s regime might.
“Israel is here forever and will continue to bloom and strengthen,” Barak said. “A regime that tramples its citizens will ultimately be trampled by them.”
Soltanieh declined to say how much of Iran’s 1.8-ton stockpile would be enriched to 20 percent. Nor did he say when the process would begin.
Meanwhile Monday, Iranian Defense Minister Gen. Ahmad Vahidi announced that Iran had launched two production lines to build unmanned aircraft with surveillance and attack capabilities.
The two types of drones are named Ra’d (thunder) and Nazir (herald), with the former possessing offensive capabilities.
A senior air force commander, Gen. Heshmatollah Kasiri, told the official IRNA news agency Monday that Iran would “soon” deploy an air defense system with capabilities matching, or superior to, those of the Russian S-300 system.
He did not elaborate, but the S-300 missiles are capable of shooting down aircraft, cruise missiles and ballistic missile warheads at ranges of over 145 kilometers and at altitudes of about 90,000 feet.
Gen. Kasiri said Iran produces its entire air
defense needs domestically, but still criticized Russia for not delivering the S-300 missiles, for “unacceptable reasons.”
Russia signed a 2007 contract to sell the S-300
missile system to Iran, but they have not been delivered yet due to stiff Israeli and US objection. The potential delivery will come up in talks Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will hold next week in Moscow.
There are two schools of thought within Israel regarding the S-300. One school believes that Israel needs to do everything possible to prevent Iran from obtaining the system, which is seen as capable of forcing Israel to call off a strike against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities. Other officials believe that the S-300 is not a “deal-breaker” and that Israel would be able to develop an electronic warfare system that could neutralize it.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki told Al Jazeera in an interview Monday that Israel is “a crazy nation led by crazy people.”
Mottaki said Iran did not take seriously Israel’s threats to attack its nuclear installations, but added that Teheran must be prepared for an Israeli onslaught.
He said “the Zionist regime is at its weakest point and holds the
weakest positions for the past three years. This is the first time we
see this regime facing two separate and important defeats and the
seventh time Israeli forces tried to enter Lebanon and force war upon
Mottaki said the recently published Goldstone Report, which alleges
Israel may have committed war crimes during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza
last winter, means Israel “cannot start with more aggressive behavior.”
Gil Hoffman, Jerusalem Post staff and AP contributed to this report.