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Iran Continues Its ‘Drive to Enrich Uranium,’ DIA Chief Says

DIA Director Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess
Defense Intelligence Agency director Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess. Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Iran has produced “more than enough” low-enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon if it were to further enrich and process the material for bomb use, according to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.

United Nations sanctions “are not stopping Iran’s drive to enrich uranium” for potential nuclear weapons, Army Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, director of the DIA, told the Senate Armed Services Committee today.

Sanctions haven’t slowed operation of Iran’s heavy water nuclear reactor or the installation at its Natanz facility of more centrifuges that could enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels, Burgess said in a statement prepared for the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“Iran has installed nearly 9,000 centrifuges at Natanz and accumulated more than enough” 3.5 percent enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon, if it further enriches and processes the material to higher levels, Burgess said.

Fissile material for nuclear warheads requires 90 percent enriched uranium.

The number of centrifuges is up from 3,000 in late 2007, according to U.S. intelligence estimates. Centrifuges are machines that can enrich uranium for use in nuclear power plants or to fuel nuclear weapons.

World Threats

Burgess spoke before the armed services panel to deliver a 34-page statement on world threats facing the U.S. His remarks on Iran comprise the latest public U.S. government assessment on the effectiveness of Iranian sanctions.

Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who is the committee’s chairman, said in an opening statement that he wanted insight into an update of the intelligence community’s 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program.

James Clapper, President Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence, at the same hearing, declined to update or discuss the 2007 national intelligence estimate. Today he repeated an assessment delivered last month that, while the U.S. doesn’t know whether Iran will ultimately build nuclear weapons, its programs “position it” to do so.

Clapper said the intelligence community has “high confidence” in its judgment that Iran hasn’t decided to proceed with a nuclear weapon.

“Iran’s nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran,” Clapper said.

Attack ‘Unlikely’

The DIA assessment is that Iran is “unlikely to initiate or intentionally provoke” a conflict or make a preemptive attack, Burgess said.

Overall, Iran increased its supply of 20 percent enriched uranium to 43.6 kilograms (96.1 pounds), compared with 33 kilograms in November, at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant in Natanz, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said Feb. 25.

Iran in mid-2010 came under a fourth set of United Nations sanctions, which were supported by Russia, as well as tougher U.S. and European Union measures.

Burgess said Iran is following the lead of China and Russia in protecting its Natanz and Qom nuclear installations underground.

“Buried, hardened facilities and improved air defenses are key elements of Iran’s extensive program to protect its nuclear infrastructure from destruction,” Burgess said.

Underground Operations

Iran’s construction is in keeping with a transnational tunneling trend where potential adversaries “conceal and protect their most vital national security activities,” Burgess said.

“The spread of western tunneling technology and equipment is contributing to a rise in construction by countries and organizations that have not previously used modern techniques,” he said.

The U.S. Air Force is developing a 30,000-pound satellite-guided bomb that would be able to penetrate hardened bunkers. The Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency last year completed development and passed the bomb to the Air Force. The weapon, for the B-2 stealth bomber, would be the largest conventional weapon in the U.S. inventory.

Iran’s plans to defend its facilities was dealt a setback when Russian officials in September prohibited delivery of advanced surface-to-air missiles that Iran seeks “to protect senior leaders, industrial facilities, in addition to its nuclear facilities,” Burgess said.

Air Defense

Iran’s air-defense capability would have been “significantly” improved if Russia had delivered advanced anti-aircraft missiles, Army General David Petraeus, who then led U.S. Central Command, told the Senate armed services panel in March 2010.

Separately, the DIA assessment says that Iran “funds, instigates and coordinates most anti-Israel activity in the region,’” Burgess said. “Israel is concerned that Iran is giving increasingly sophisticated weapons to its enemies, including Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” he said. “These actions could offset its traditional military superiority, erode its deterrent and lead to war.”

Iran is “making progress in developing ballistic missiles that can strike regional adversaries and Central Europe” and its Simorgh satellite launch vehicle “shows the country’s progress toward developing an intercontinental ballistic missiles,” Burgess said.

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