Target Iran: US hints at a new battlefront

Tensions are rising over Tehran's alleged nuclear weapons programme as the Pentagon considers its military options. Anne Penketh reports

They are the human shields. Every time there is the sound of sabre-rattling from the West over Iran's suspected nuclear weapons programme, the protesters are back in the picture.

Some have been deployed in a human chain outside sensitive sites in remote areas of Iran. Others rally outside the embassies of the United States and Britain in Tehran.

In the West, public opinion is hardening against the prospect of a nuclear-armed Islamic republic. Inside Iran, the public has been galvanised by its leaders into mobilising in support of the country's nuclear programme.

The Iranian demonstrators are likely to be needed again in the light of a shock report by the authoritative journalist Seymour Hersh that the Bush administration is considering possible strikes by tactical "bunker-buster'' nuclear missiles able to destroy facilities deep underground.

According to his article in The New Yorker, the plans aimed at engineering regime change in Tehran have split the Pentagon top brass to such an extent that some officers have threatened to resign their posts.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday dismissed the claim of a nuclear strike being used to prevent Iran from obtaining its own atomic weapon as "completely nuts". The Iranians described the article as the part of the "psychological war" launched by the US to frighten Tehran into abandoning what it believes is its treaty right to develop nuclear technology.

But President George Bush has been careful to keep the military option on the table throughout the stand-off with Iran over its nuclear programme, which intensified last June with the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mr Ahmadinejad, a former member of the fanatical Revolutionary Guards, set alarm bells ringing throughout the West - and even in his own country - by threatening to "wipe Israel off the map".

Even though it is the country's spiritual leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who calls the shots in Iran, according to The New Yorker, it is Mr Bush's deep distrust of Mr Ahmadinejad that has strengthened his determination to confront Iran.

But time is running out. Diplomatic moves are at a standstill because of the reluctance from Russia and China to impose sanctions against Iran, which has important support from developing countries where nuclear power is seen as a legitimate right.

In the West, arms control experts - as well as European governments - are convinced that Iran wants to pursue uranium enrichment at its underground facility at Natanz with the intention of keeping open the option of building a bomb. The difference between enriched uranium for a nuclear power plant and for a weapon lies in the level of enrichment. Fuel for a civilian reactor requires 2 to 3 per cent uranium-235, while a nuclear bomb needs 90 per cent or more, a range known as highly enriched uranium.

The Iranians will have mastered the technology that can allow its centrifuges to enrich uranium without exploding or breaking down in a matter of months, according to Western experts. When that happens, the world will be hurtling towards a nuclear nightmare. Israel's arch foe will have obtained a powerful tool with which to threaten its neighbours.

Estimates vary as to how long it would take Iran to reach the break-out capability. The generally cautious director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, who is to visit Iran this week, believes that it could take up to two years for Natanz to be up and running. At that point, he says, an Iranian nuclear bomb could be "a few months away".

The estimate of the Egyptian IAEA chief echoes Israeli thinking. United States estimates range from five to 10 years for weapons-grade fuel to be successfully manufactured.

According to a study by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, with 1,000 working centrifuges at Natanz, it would take just over two years to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb - without the IAEA safeguards which are currently in place. With 3,000 centrifuges, the number Iran has told the Europeans it wants to install at Natanz, it would take 271 days to produce the same amount of weapons-grade fuel. According to one expert, such a fuel cycle would be a clear indication that the Iranians are bent on building a bomb.

There are two ways of making a nuclear bomb: a relatively simple way which results in a plutonium bomb and a harder way using enriched uranium. But whichever route is followed, step one in making the fuel for a nuclear bomb - or a civilian reactor - is to mine uranium.

In step two, the uranium ore is ground into a powder and reconstituted into a solid known as yellowcake, which is radioactive. Step three involves the conversion of yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride gas.

In step four, the gas is fed into centrifuges, measuring one and a half metres tall, where the uranium enrichment takes place. This process increases the percentage of uranium-235 to the levels needed to be used as fuel in a civilian reactor, or a weapon, by separating the uranium isotopes in the rapidly spinning rotor tubes.

But there are well known problems with gas centrifuges. If they do not operate in a vacuum, rust and corrosion sets in. The spinning at enormous speeds can cause uncontrollable vibrations which can send shrapnel flying and cause explosions. The Iranians lost one third of their centrifuges when they agreed to halt uranium enrichment in November 2003 under an agreement with the European Union. That agreement was shattered last January when Iran reopened Natanz, where it tested an array of 20 centrifuges in vacuum conditions.

The method involving plutonium has a clear advantage because it needs much smaller quantities - 4kg rather than the 25kg of enriched uranium required to produce a bomb. Plutonium does not exist in a natural state, and is the product of reprocessed spent reactor fuel, after yellowcake has been reduced to uranium metal.

The extraction of plutonium is a serious engineering challenge as spent fuel is highly radioactive and toxic, and a very dangerous process.

The main worry for the West is that Iran has dabbled in all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, on both the enriched uranium route and the plutonium route.

It has a uranium mine, it has a conversion facility just outside the city of Isfahan, which was reopened last summer in violation of its agreement with the European Union, and it has the Natanz enrichment plant.

Although work has been suspended at Arak, 150 miles south of Tehran, Iran is in the early stages of constructing a heavy water plant that is to supply a research reactor which could eventually produce enough weapons-grade plutonium for one or two weapons per year.

Although nuclear experts say that the international community has been distracted by the crisis triggered over Iran's uranium enrichment programme, the plutonium experiments have the potential for creating a far more worrying situation. "With uranium, it's much easier to put in safeguards to monitor the atmosphere and instruments," said Paul Ingram, a senior analyst with the British American Security Information Council, which specialises in nuclear issues.

Nuclear reprocessing is more difficult for inspectors to verify, in terms of possible diversion for military purposes. And reprocessing can take place in a very small area. "It could be done in a plant the size of a house, in the middle of a mountain," if Iran decided to carry on with a clandestine programme, Mr Ingram said. "If the Iranians succeed in producing a heavy-water plant plus a reactor at Arak, then we are in a very difficult situation."

The Russians are helping Iran build a "safe" light-water reactor at Bushehr in the south of the country. Under an agreement with the Russians, the fuel rods for the reactor, which has not yet come on stream, are to come from Russia and will be sent back there for reprocessing to avoid any possible diversion.

The main nuclear powers, including Britain, followed the reprocessing route to build their modern arsenal. The US, in the early days, experimented with the fuel cycle of both enriched uranium and plutonium: the bomb that flattened Hiroshima in August 1945 was a uranium bomb, while the bomb that blasted Nagasaki three days later was plutonium.

Iraq went down the centrifuge route, although after 10 years of efforts, Saddam Hussein had still not produced a weapon when the UN inspectors belatedly discovered, and dismantled, its clandestine programme in the 1990s.

Pakistan also took the enrichment route, most probably because the father of the Muslim world's atom bomb, AQ Khan, worked in the 1970s for a Dutch uranium enrichment plant, Urenco, which supplied European reactors. He used a centrifuge design stolen from Urenco to build facilities in Pakistan for weapons-grade uranium.

So why did Iran decide to put its major effort into travelling along the bumpy road towards uranium enrichment?

In fact the Iranians were following both routes from the beginning. They bought their first nuclear reactor from the US, during the rule of the Shah. But the breakthrough came in the 1980s when Iran bought a blueprint for a P1 centrifuge from the AQ Khan network, which operated like a nuclear supermarket.

United Nations inspectors with the IAEA are still trying to unravel the history of Iran's nuclear know-how and have not proved without a doubt that the Iranians are working on a bomb.

Iran is meanwhile being asked by the UN Security Council to suspend all uranium enrichment work. Tehran has refused.

In the next few weeks, the West will have to decide what carrot, or what stick, to use next.

"In terms of strategy, the West needs to think more clearly about the need to work with the Iranians and the IAEA to keep the inspectors inside Iran. The key to all this is to ensure the IAEA is on the ground and with the Iranians co-operating," said Mr Ingram.

Arts & Entertainment
William Shakespeare's influence on English culture is still strongly felt today, from his plays on stage to words we use everyday
voicesMoyes' tragedy is one the Deputy PM understands all too well, says Matthew Norman
Matthew Mcnulty and Jessica Brown Findlay in 'Jamaica Inn'
mediaHundreds complain over dialogue levels in period drama
Arts & Entertainment
Rocker of ages: Chuck Berry
musicWhy do musicians play into old age?
Arts & Entertainment
With Jo Joyner in 'Trying Again'
tvHe talks to Alice Jones on swapping politics for pillow talk
Jilly's jewels: gardener Alan Titchmarsh
peopleCountry Life magazine's list of 'gallant' public figures throws light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
John Terry goes down injured in the 70th minute
sportAtletico Madrid 0 Chelsea 0: Blues can finish the job at Stamford Bridge, but injuries to Terry and Cech are a concern for Mourinho
<b>Rebecca Adlington</b>
<br />This, the first British swimmer to win two
Olympic gold medals in 100 years, is the eversmiling
face of the athletes who will, we're
confident, make us all proud at London 2012
peopleRebecca Adlington on 'nose surgery'
Arts & Entertainment
tvJudge for yourself
Life & Style
Tough call: is the psychological distress Trott is suffering an illness? (Getty)
healthJonathan Trott and the problems of describing mental illness
Life & Style
23 April 2014: Google marks St George's Day with a drawing depicting England's patron saint slaying a fire-breathing dragon
Life & Style
On the dogwalk: a poodle on the runway during a Mulberry show in London
fashionThe duo behind Asos and Achica have launched a new venture offering haute couture to help make furry companions fashionable
peopleEmma Appleton says photographer said he would shoot her for magazine if she slept with him
peopleRevealed:'s losses - and the pay rises
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Projects Financial Analyst - Global Technology firm

£55000 - £62000 per annum + outstanding benefits and bonus: Pro-Recruitment Gr...

Reception Teacher

£120 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Reception teacher required for an Outs...

Commercial B2B Pricing Specialist - Global Bids and Tenders

£35000 - £45000 per annum + excellent company benefits : Pro-Recruitment Group...

DT Teacher - Food Technology

£90 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Preston: The Job We are currently recr...

Day In a Page

Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home

It's not always fun in the sun: Moving abroad does not guarantee happiness

Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home
Migrants in Britain a decade on: They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire

Migrants in Britain a decade on

They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire
Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?
Why musicians play into their old age

Why musicians play into their old age

Nick Hasted looks at how they are driven by a burning desire to keep on entertaining fans despite risking ridicule
How can you tell a gentleman?

How can you tell a gentleman?

A list of public figures with gallant attributes by Country Life magazine throws a fascinating light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

The duo behind Asos and Achica have launched a new venture offering haute couture to help make furry companions fashionable
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire
Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

Celebrate St George’s Day with a nice cup of tea. Now you just need to get the water boiled
Sam Wallace: Why Giggs is perfect fit as Manchester United boss... in the longer term

Sam Wallace

Why Ryan Giggs is perfect fit as Manchester United boss... in the longer term
Renaud Lavillenie: The sky's the limit for this pole vaulter's ambitions

Renaud Lavillenie: The sky's the limit for this pole vaulter's ambitions

Having smashed Sergei Bubka's 21-year-old record, the French phenomenon tells Simon Turnbull he can go higher
Through the screen: British Pathé opens its archives

Through the screen

British Pathé opens its archives
The man behind the papier mâché mask

Frank Sidebottom

The man behind the papier mâché mask
Chris Marker: Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

Chris Marker retrospective is a revelation
Boston runs again: Thousands take to the streets for marathon as city honours dead and injured of last year's bombing

Boston runs again

Thousands of runners take to the streets as city honours dead of last year
40 years of fostering and still holding the babies (and with no plans to retire)

40 years of fostering and holding the babies

In their seventies and still working as specialist foster parents