Iran and North Korea have made significant progress in their nuclear programs despite U.S. diplomatic efforts with its Asian and European allies, according to U.S. intelligence officials and outside nuclear experts (see GSN, July 12).
While Iran seems to be keeping within the bounds of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, it probably has the ability to switch gears and begin nuclear weapons work at any time, said Robert Gates, the director of central intelligence under President George H.W. Bush.
“The evidence suggests that Iran is trying to keep all of its options open,” Gates said last week at a conference on nuclear terrorism and the spread of unconventional weapons. “They are trying to stay just within their treaty obligations” while producing highly enriched uranium, “and I think they can go with a weapon whenever they want to,” said Gates, now president of Texas A&M University.
Iran is assembling the necessary ingredients and might be using a Chinese- origin bomb design that the nuclear network operated by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan sold to Libya, intelligence experts said. They added that the Islamic republic might be just a few years away from developing a working nuclear device.
A cautiously worded U.S. intelligence report on North Korea asserts that Pyongyang now probably has enough weapon-grade plutonium to test a bomb in the future, which would allow it to demonstrate its capability, according to the New York Times.
A “whiff” of a nuclear byproduct detected by an American spy plane off the coast of North Korea last year is believed to be evidence that plutonium reprocessing was under way in the communist nation, said Gary Samore, who led nonproliferation work at the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton and has conducted a detailed assessment of North Korea for the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London (see GSN, July 21, 2003). However, some intelligence analysts say North Korea may have run into difficulty in the chemical process of converting spent fuel into bomb material (see GSN, Sept. 12, 2003).
“The conventional wisdom now is that they have completely reprocessed all of [the spent plutonium fuel],” Samore said. “They had a huge window of opportunity when we were invading Iraq, and they appear to have made maximum use of it,” he added (see GSN, April 28).
“It’s very frustrating,” said one former official who left the Bush administration recently and believes that the administration has failed to set “red lines” beyond which North Korea would not be allowed to expand its nuclear work.
The official noted that the Bush administration has been touting Libya as a disarmament model for North Korea and Iran, highlighting the North African nation’s re-establishment of political and economic ties with the West as its reward (see GSN, March 8). However, the official argued, such an offer was unlikely to tempt Iran because it does strong trade with Europe. Likewise, North Korea still receives considerable aid from China, the official added.
Bush administration and intelligence officials say they are exploring ways to use unspecified covert actions “to disrupt or delay as long as we can” Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons efforts, according to the Times.
However, former Clinton administration officials and other experts say such covert action would likely be less effective than in the past, as the Iranian program is increasingly self-sufficient.
“It’s a much harder thing to accomplish today than it would have been in the ‘90s,” said one senior U.S. intelligence official, citing assistance to Iran by the network built by Khan. The scientist’s sales have also complicated efforts to disarm North Korea, according to intelligence reports.
Meanwhile, Israel’s increasing concern over Iran’s nuclear program has made military action an option.
“They are doing what they can to delay the Iranian program and preparing military options,” said one official who has dealt with the Israeli government on the issue (David Sanger, New York Times, Aug. 8).