Governments and experts have been warning since the 1980s that Iran is on the verge of building a nuclear weapon, but still there is no Iranian bomb.
More predictions have arisen this week as the U.N. atomic watchdog meets here amid deadlocked efforts to find a solution to the confrontation. Iran says no bomb will ever be built, insisting that it has no intention of doing so and that even if it wanted to, it couldn't with the U.N.'s existing monitoring of its program. But during the past week of meetings of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. watchdog agency's chief Mohamed ElBaradei has been increasingly blunt that Iran has not allayed suspicion. He said Monday said the watchdog could not guarantee Tehran is not running a clandestine program.
"(Iran should) implement all transparency measures ... required to build confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of
its nuclear program," ElBaradei said. "This will be good for Iran, good for the Middle East region and good for the world." The result has been a deadlock. Iran insists it is cooperating with the U.N., but that the United States has politicized the body and pushes it to make unfair demands of Tehran. At the same time, Iran is pushing ahead with its uranium enrichment program, saying it has a right to develop enrichment to fuel a nuclear energy program. But the United States and its allies fear the enrichment program could be used to produce a nuclear bomb, and the U.N. has demanded Iran
suspend the program.
In enrichment, uranium purified to a low level can be used as fuel for a reactor, while a much higher level of enrichment can be used to arm a warhead.
To date, Iran has produced nearly 1,000 pounds (480 kilograms) of low-enriched uranium, according to the latest IAEA report released last month.
Physicist and former U.N. nuclear inspector David Albright says 1,500 pounds (700 kilograms) of low-enriched uranium is the minimum required to produce the 45-60 pounds (20 kilograms) of highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium needed for a simple nuclear bomb under optimal conditions.
Iran could reach the 1,500-pound minimum in six months to two years, said Albright, who heads the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. It would then take several months more to enrich that material to the higher, weapons-grade level _ assuming Iran can master the complicated processes needed to do so.
Iranian nuclear scientist Rasul Sediqi Bonabi says it would be impossible for Iran to carry out high-level enrichment without being seen by the IAEA, which has cameras monitoring the country's enrichment facility at Natanz.
To carry out high-level enrichment "you have to change the arrangement of cascades and the equipment," Bonabi told AP.
"Such a development can't be hidden from the world."
Iranians point to the long history of predictions that a nuclear weapon is imminent as proof the West is drumming up the threat for no reason.
In 1984, the Reagan administration warned that Tehran would have the capability to build a weapon within two to three years. Eight years later, in 1992, the CIA predicted nuclear weapons in Iranian hands by 2000. Gregory L. Schulte, U.S.
ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency said in late 2006 that the soonest Iran could produce a weapon is 2010 to 2015. Last year, ElBaradei said Tehran was "three to eight years away even if Iran wants to have a weapon."
What the West fears is that once Iran masters enrichment it could at any time shift it to a weapons program. The United States says it has evidence of a past weapons program, since abandoned. Iran denies having any past hidden program.
But Iran points to its right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to develop peaceful nuclear technology, including enrichment. Iranian leaders repeatedly say they have made a political decision not to build a bomb and are morally opposed to weapons of mass destruction. Iran's top leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters, issued a religious decree in 2005 declaring nuclear weapons as "haram" or forbidden. "We don't understand why should we deny ourselves of a modern technology," said lawmaker Hamid Reza Hajbabaei.