Iran is attempting to engineer and test nuclear weapons at a series of banned production sites in defiance of United Nations sanctions, according to a report to be released next week.
By Damien McElroy, Adrian Blomfield in Jerusalem, Duncan Gardham and Alex Spillius
10:24PM GMT 02 Nov 2011
The research by the UN’s watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, will add a substantial layer to seven years of investigations that is likely to inflame tensions in the Middle East.
Yukiya Amano, the organisation’s director-general, is unlikely to draw a definitive conclusion that Iran is making nuclear weapons, but according to Western diplomats the facts will make any other conclusion implausible.
They believe the IAEA has substantiated evidence from intelligence reports, interviews with Iranian scientists and on-the-ground inspections that Iran is carrying out a nuclear weapons programme in parallel to its civilian energy goals.
The agency will sound the alarm over Iranian scientists’ work to develop a ballistic missile warhead capable of carrying a nuclear device. It has already uncovered evidence that Iran has been carrying out research into triggers for nuclear weapons.
Inspectors have also questioned Iranian scientists on simulation programmes that they believe are designed to design and test a potential weapon.
“This is the product of a vast amount of work by the IAEA which will show the level of evidence they’ve accumulated and make clear a number of supplementary indications they have uncovered,” said a Western diplomat. “It makes an inescapable case that Iran has ambitions to militarise the uranium it has been enriching at its production facilities.”
Another official said: “The Iranians have been very evasive, and quite clever about it at times. It’s been difficult to discover the smoking gun. But this will be more detailed than before. The director-general will point to black holes in the Iranians’ explanations. It will undoubtedly increase the pressure.”
The Armed forces are conducting contingency planning for a potential attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities amid concerns of a resurgent nuclear programme, sources have said.
Any such attack would be planned as a back-up to US action, providing air support, reconnaissance, and submarine missile strikes.
Ministry of Defence planners say there is a “shortening window of opportunity” as the Iranians re-enforce their nuclear production facilities which are dug into mountaintops.
However America has been reluctant to take action to end the resurgent Iranian nuclear programme and the plans may well stay on the shelf.
“We have contingency plans on everything,” a senior military source said.
“It doesn’t mean anything will come of it but at least someone is thinking about this sort of thing.
The source added: “You have got to get there early enough – once they are dig into the ground, it gets much more difficult.”
Last month, the Obama administration began pressing the UN inspectorate to release more of its classified information on Iran. It was moved to act by the revelation of an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington, while diplomatic attention generally was able to return its focus to Iran with the conclusion of Nato’s involvement in Libya.
The Iranians, despite a fourth round of UN sanctions last year and further punitive measures from the European Union and the US, have remained defiant.
Hopes that the Stuxnet computer virus attack by Western powers on Iran’s nuclear technology would prove crippling have faded. The virus succeeded in crippling a number of Iranian centrifuges but analysts now think the effects have worn off and production of highly enriched uranium has accelerated again.
The IAEA will provide indications that enriched uranium production is moving from the long-established Natanz facility to Fordow, an underground plant that is regarded by Iran as bomb-proof near the holy city of Qom. Iran has produced more than 70kg of 20 per cent enriched uranium and would easily increase its output if production shifts to the mountain plant. Scientists say that 20 per cent enriched uranium can be refined to the 90 per cent weapons grade level without design changes in the production lines.
The report is likely to provide further ammunition to the case of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, for pre-emptive military action.
The risks are huge, and have so far deterred even some of the most conservative members of his coalition, as well as military and intelligence chiefs.
It would probably prompt retaliation by Iranian-sponsored groups Hezbollah and Hamas, oil prices could soar, Jews across the world could face terrorist attacks and the clerical regime in Tehran could be emboldened.
But the fear of allowing a country whose president repeatedly has called for Israel’s annihilation to build a nuclear bomb yesterday led Israel to test a long-range ballistic missile easily capable of reaching Iran. The test came just hours after Mr Netanyahu was reported to have stepped up pressure on his cabinet to back military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Indicating that a rapid reassessment of policy was under way, Israeli newspapers suggested that an attack could take place either before the onset of winter or in the summer of next year.
The dramatic disclosures came as the Israeli defence ministry confirmed that it had fired “a rocket propulsion system” from its Palmach airbase after a white streak was spotted in the skies above the centre of the country early yesterday.
The ministry, which insisted that the launch had been long planned, censored further details. But Western experts concluded that Israel had fired a Jericho-3 ballistic missile, which is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and could form a component of any attack on Iran.
It also emerged that Israel’s air force simulated a long-range attack at a Nato base in Sardinia last week.
The exercise, which was not initially disclosed in Israel, included an air-to-air refuelling component. Potential targets in Iran lie between 950 and 1,400 miles from Israel’s borders. Any mission to destroy them would would require aerial refuelling.