VIENNA - Expanding uranium enrichment, a new atomic energy chief said to have military expertise, missile tests -- Western analysts see fresh signs that Iran may be seeking to develop the means to build nuclear warheads.
RELATED:Britain: Iran testing missiles with nuclear capabilityYadlin: The only existential threat to Israel is Iran
Iran's determination to press ahead with a nuclear program it says is for purely peaceful purposes suggests that tougher Western sanctions are so far failing to force the Islamic state to back down in the long-running dispute over its atomic aims.
"Although developments elsewhere in the Middle East have dominated media attention, Iran has been working hard in several ways to advance a nuclear weapons capability," London-based proliferation expert Mark Fitzpatrick said.
"It needs fissile material, weaponization expertise and a delivery vehicle. On each of these, it has been making progress," Fitzpatrick, a director at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank, said.
But even if Tehran decided to make such weapons it could still be years
away from having nuclear-armed missiles, possibly giving diplomacy more
opportunities to resolve a row which has the potential to spark a Middle
World powers failed to make any progress in two rounds of talks with
Iran half a year ago and no new meetings have been announced, leaving
the diplomatic track apparently deadlocked.
"While difficult, Western capitals need to redouble their diplomatic
effort to dissuade Iran from taking the nuclear weapons path," Daryl
Kimball, director of the Washington-based research and advocacy group
Arms Control Association, said.
Kimball said Iran was closer to a capability to make atomic weapons but
it "apparently has not yet made a strategic decision to do so and is
still years, not months, away from building a deliverable nuclear
Britain last week said Iran had carried out covert tests of a missile
that could carry a nuclear warhead, an allegation which Tehran swiftly
During a military exercise last week, Iran test-fired 14 missiles on one
day alone, including some it says are capable of hitting its arch foe
Israel and US bases in the Middle East.'Iran years, not months from nuclear weapon'
Defense analyst Paul Beaver said he thought Iran aimed to have a
"nuclear-capable weapons delivery system and then to be able to use that
in its diplomatic and political posturing."
He added: "How close are they? They are within years, rather than within months, I believe."
Tehran says its missiles cannot carry nuclear payloads and insists it is
enriching uranium for electricity production and medical purposes.
Making atomic bombs would be a "strategic mistake" and would also not be
allowed under Islam, it adds.
But in a defiant move that further fueled Western unease about its
intentions, Iran announced last month it would shift its production of
higher-grade uranium to an underground bunker and triple output
It says it needs 20 percent refined uranium to make fuel for a medical
research reactor after talks on a swap -- under which other countries
would have supplied the material -- broke down.
Nuclear experts argue the step would bring it significantly closer to
the 90 percent purity needed for nuclear weapons, compared with a level
of around 3-5 percent usually required to power atomic energy plants.
Olli Heinonen, a former chief UN nuclear inspector, said he saw Iran
"moving in the direction" of becoming a state that has the ability to
make atomic weapons.
"In spite of economical, technological and political difficulties faced,
it appears that Iran is determined to, at the very least, achieve a
'virtual nuclear weapon state' capability," he told a US Congress
foreign affairs committee.
But former UN nuclear watchdog head Mohamed ElBaradei, Heinonen's old
boss who stepped down in 2009, criticized what he called the "hype"
about the threat posed by Iran.
"During my time at the agency we haven't seen a shred of evidence that
Iran has been weaponizing, in terms of building nuclear-weapons
facilities and using enriched materials," he was quoted as saying in The New Yorker
magazine last month.Iran's new atomic energy chief suspected of involvement in weapons research
The decision to boost 20 percent uranium output was announced by Iran's
new atomic energy chief, who has been subjected to UN sanctions because
of what Western officials said was his involvement in suspected atomic
A nuclear scientist, Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani was named head of Iran's
Atomic Energy Organization in February, after he was wounded in a 2010
bomb attack which Tehran blamed on Israel.
The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a US-based
think tank, said Abbasi-Davani's extensive scientific background was
"more suited to researching nuclear weapons" than building nuclear power
"Abbasi-Davani has regularly been linked to Iran's efforts to make the nuclear weapon itself," ISIS said.
Iran's mission to the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was
not available for comment, but Abbasi-Davani pledged last month to work
with the agency and invited its head to tour Iran's nuclear facilities.
The IAEA, the Vienna-based UN nuclear watchdog, is also voicing growing
concern about possible military links to Iran's nuclear activities and
Western diplomats expect it to firm up its suspicions in reports due
later this year.
For several years, the IAEA has been investigating Western intelligence
reports indicating Iran has coordinated efforts to process uranium, test
explosives at high altitude and revamp a ballistic missile cone so it
could take a nuclear warhead.
Iran says the allegations are forged and baseless.
But its refusal to halt enrichment has led to four rounds of UN
sanctions on the major oil producer, as well as tighter US and European
"Iran has developed an ambitious nuclear program that is diffused in the
nature of its distribution of sites and coordinated in its approach to
achieve the capacity to field a nuclear arsenal," Heinonen said.
"Its actions bear witness to a regime that intends to stay on this
path," said Heinonen, who is now a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer
Center for Science and International Affairs.