(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In a chilling indication that Iran's arms program is advancing steadily, Israel acknowledged for the first time that Teheran had mastered the technology to make a nuclear bomb on the same day that the Iranians announced they had successfully tested a new air-to-surface missile.
Iran has "crossed the technological threshold," and its attainment of nuclear military capability is now a matter of "incorporating the goal of producing an atomic bomb into its strategy," OC Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin told the cabinet on Sunday.
"Iran is continuing to amass hundreds of kilograms of low-enriched uranium, and it hopes to exploit the dialogue with the West and Washington to advance toward the production of an atomic bomb," he said.
Yadlin said the Islamic republic hoped to use the expected dialogue with the Obama administration to buy time to procure the amount of high-enriched uranium needed to build a bomb.
"Iran's plan for the continuation of its nuclear program while simultaneously holding talks with the new administration in Washington is being received with caution in the Middle East," the intelligence chief said. "The moderates are worried that this approach will come at their expense and will be used by the radical axis to continue to carry out terror activities and rearm. In contrast, those in the radical axis are saying that despite the change in the Americans' stance, they will continue to act against them."
Yadlin's assessment brought him into line with a similar assessment made last week by Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said Teheran had enough fissile material to build a bomb now.
But in an indication of just how subjective the question of Iran's progress toward a bomb has become, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates took issue with Mullen, saying the Iranians were not "close to a weapon at this point."
The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency also said last week that it had been mistaken in earlier reports and now had evidence that Iran had enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon.
Yadlin's rather dramatic statement was not made in public, but was part of the security briefing he gave at Sunday's cabinet meeting. One government official said that the point of releasing the information now seemed to be to impress upon the international community the urgency of the matter.
"He wanted to ring the alarm bells, to make it clear that everyone understood that Iran was continuing with its enrichment," the official said.
The official pointed out that Yadlin had used the phrase "mastered the technology" in regards to Iran, not that it had reached a "point of no return."
Israel made a decision a few years ago not to talk anymore about a "point of no return," since that implied that Iran could not be stopped - an impression the Iranians were keen on making, but which Israel did not want to play into, the official said.
Even though the Iranians have apparently mastered the technology for creating a nuclear weapon, it has still not done so and is probably still a couple of years away from that, he said. Consequently, Teheran could still be stopped.
The Iranians were clearly overcoming certain technological issues, and it was a matter of time before they would be able to enrich the uranium needed for a weapon, the official said.
"The idea behind Yadlin's statement was to shake people up, to show that the Iranians were still making progress," the official speculated.
Two weeks ago, Iran's nuclear chief, Vice President Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, announced that 6,000 centrifuges were now operating at the enrichment facility in Natanz. He said Teheran hoped to install more than 50,000 centrifuges there over the next five years.
With the amount of centrifuges it is using in the enrichment process, Iran could add about 100 kg. of uranium to its stockpile each month, or even more, considering that it is setting up additional ready-to-go centrifuges every day.
Even 100 kg. would give it an estimated low-enriched uranium stockpile of just over 1,100 kg. - the minimum experts believe is required to yield the 25 kg. of highly enriched weapons-grade uranium needed to build a bomb. But unless the Iranians have a nuclear facility that is completely hidden from the world's view, the international community would know when Teheran began to create the high-grade uranium needed for a nuclear weapon, because it would have to kick the IAEA inspectors out of the country to do so.
Reuters, meanwhile, quoted Iran's Fars News Agency on Sunday as saying the Islamic republic had test-fired a new air-to-surface missile, in the country's latest display of military power. According to the report, the missile - produced domestically and with a range of 110 km. - was designed for use by military aircraft against naval targets.
"Now these jet fighters have acquired a new capability in confronting threats," Reuters quoted the semi-official news agency as saying.
The missile has a far shorter range than the surface-to-surface Shihab and is believed to be meant to disrupt sea traffic in the strategic Straits of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of the world's oil must travel.
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