Iran’s “workshops” for making nuclear centrifuges and components for the devices are widely dispersed and hidden, adding to the difficulties of a potential military strike by Israel, according to a new report by U.S. congressional researchers.
Neither Israel nor the U.S. is certain of the locations of all such facilities, analysts at the Congressional Research Service wrote in the report obtained today. The analysts cited interviews with current and former U.S. government officials familiar with the issue who weren’t identified.
Israel’s capability to halt or set back Iran’s nuclear program through a military strike has been central to the debate over whether Israel should undertake such a mission alone. While President Barack Obama has urged more time for economic sanctions to work, Israeli officials led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak say it may soon be too late to prevent Iran from developing the capability to produce a nuclear weapon.
The possibility of dispersed facilities complicates any assessment of a potential raid’s success, making it “unclear what the ultimate effect of a strike would be on the likelihood of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons,” the report found.
A U.S. official said in April 2011 that there “could be lots of workshops’ in Iran,” the authors said. Last month, a former U.S. government official with “direct experience” in the issue told the researchers that “Iran’s centrifuge production is widely distributed and that the number of workshops has probably multiplied ‘many times’ since 2005 because of an increase in Iranian contractors and subcontractors working on the program.”
“An attack that left Iran’s conversion and centrifuge production facilities intact would considerably reduce” the time Iran would need to resume its nuclear work, said the congressional researchers led by Jim Zanotti, a Middle Eastern affairs specialist. He wrote the report with analysts Kenneth Katzman, Jeremiah Gertler and Steven Hildreth.
Israel, the U.S. and European allies say they are concerned that Iran may begin trying to produce the highly enriched uranium needed for a nuclear weapon. Iran says its nuclear program is intended solely to generate power and for medical research. Centrifuges spin at high speeds to separate uranium isotopes.
Michael Hayden, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said in January “that neither the U.S. nor Israel knows the location of all key Iranian nuclear-related facilities,” according to the congressional researchers.
Assessments vary on how much impact a military attack would have on Iran’s centrifuge facilities. An executive branch official who wasn’t named told the research service last month that Iran doesn’t have enough spare centrifuges or components to install new devices immediately, the authors wrote. A former official said the same day that Iran probably could rebuild or replicate most centrifuge workshops within six months, the researchers said.
Nuclear inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency have sought for years to regain access to centrifuge workshops.
“The agency’s knowledge of Iran’s workshops has deteriorated since Iran ended this access in early 2006,” the researchers wrote.
The IAEA wrote in a November 2007 report that the agency’s knowledge of Iran’s program was “diminishing” because of restricted access to centrifuge workshops, even though Iranian answers about its past centrifuge programs were “consistent” with inspectors’ findings.
The Congressional Research Service report outlined some of the challenges Israel would confront in planning an attack.
Iran’s above-ground facilities at Esfahan and Arak could be hit using a variety of weapons, the researchers said.
The commercial enrichment facility at Natanz, said to be buried 26 feet (8 meters) underground, could be attacked with U.S.-supplied bunker-buster bombs. The laser-guided, 2,000-pound GBU-27 can penetrate as much as six feet of reinforced concrete and the 5,000-pound GBU-28 is capable of piercing 20 feet of concrete, the CRS researchers said.
Israel doesn’t have the largest U.S. bunker-buster bomb, the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator, which can be carried only on the B-2 stealth bomber.
The deeply buried site at Fordo “offers a unique challenge,” according to the report. “Israel’s current earth- penetrating munitions may be ineffective,” it said. Analysts have said Fordo, built into a mountain, is 295 feet underground.
It may not be necessary to destroy a facility to disrupt its operations, the researchers said.
Centrifuges require an “enormous degree of precision to work and even a relatively minor shock or other event can destroy a centrifiuge’s utility,” according to the report.
At Fordo, “assuming that munitions would not be able to penetrate the mountainous terrain over the facility, the question would be how well the centrifuges have been isolated from shock and the possible blast effects of an attack on the facility’s entrance,” the report found.
Centrifuge production facilities are important “because that’s where the reconstitution of the program begins” after an attack, said Peter Crail, a specialist in the spread of nuclear- weapons technology at the Arms Control Association policy group in Washington.
Iran probably would kick out United Nations inspectors after a strike and may move directly to enriching uranium to weapons-grade, a step the Iranians have avoided thus far, Crail said today in an interview.
That would let Iran’s scientists build a few thousand centrifuges rather than the tens of thousands it’s producing now, and set up a new enrichment facility dedicated to weapons- grade uranium rather than trying to rebuild an existing plant such as the one at Natanz should it be destroyed, he said.
“At some point they are going to reconstitute the program,” Crail said. “It’s really just a question of can they do it within a year or two or is it going to take them a little bit longer.”
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