Iran nuclear program delayed, says Israeli minister

Contrasting with recent Israeli claims that the Iran nuclear threat was imminent, a top minister says that setbacks have put Iran three years away from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

By , Correspondent

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    A long-range, improved Sejil 2 missile is test-fired in the desert at an unknown location in Iran in 2009. Iran does not yet have nuclear weapons, and while they seek the technology, Israel's deputy prime minister and minister of strategic affairs Moshe Ya'alon says they are at least three years away.
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An Israeli minister estimates that Iran is three years away from developing a nuclear weapon, a more long-term estimate than recent Israeli claims that an Iranian bomb was imminent.

Agence France-Presse reports that Moshe Yaalon, Israel's strategic affairs minister, said on public radio Wednesday that "The Iranian nuclear programme has a number of technological challenges and difficulties," putting it up to three years away from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

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"These difficulties have postponed the timetable," said Yaalon. "So we can't talk about a point of no return. Iran does not have the ability to create nuclear weapons by itself at the moment." ...

"It is likely to happen in the next three years, if it is successful. And I hope it will not be successful at all and that the efforts of the West will prevent Iran from developing a nuclear capability," Yaalon said.

Although Mr. Yaalon did not name the "difficulties" that Iran has encountered, he was most likely referring to the Stuxnet worm, a computer virus that causes centrifuges used for uranium enrichment to self-destruct. The Stuxnet worm appears to have hit Iran's Natanz nuclear plant in 2009, hampering Iran's ability to create the enriched uranium needed for nuclear weapons. Although no one has claimed responsibility for the creation of Stuxnet, there are some indications within its code that it may have been created in Israel.

The Daily Telegraph notes that a report written for the Institute of Science and International Security (ISIS) and released last week says the Stuxnet worm likely damaged the program and forced the replacement of some 1,000 centrifuges in the Natanz plant.

In contrast, the Financial Times reports that the US government is concerned that Iran may acquire new technology that would accelerate its progress to acquiring a nuclear weapon. Iran is currently using centrifuges based on 1970s technology, but is experimenting with second-generation centrifuges which, according to an unnamed administration official, "could dramatically reduce" the time needed to create a nuclear weapon if employed in sufficient numbers.

However, David Albright, director of ISIS, told the Financial Times that Iran probably has not yet adopted such technology for fear of provoking a military strike.

Yaalon's estimate marks a significant rollback of the deadline Israel has claimed for stopping Iran's nuclear program. According to US diplomatic cables released in the WikiLeaks cache last month, Israel had claimed the threat to be more immediate.

In June 2009, as Stuxnet was spreading across industrial computer networks around the world, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak during a meeting with US congressional delegations "estimated a window between 6 and 18 months from now in which stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons might still be viable" – a period that just ended. And in the same meeting, Mossad estimated "that by 2010-2011, Iran will have the technological capability to build a nuclear weapon..."

Salon's Justin Elliott suggests that Israel's estimates should be taken with a grain of salt, as "Israeli predictions about Iran's nuclear program have been wildly inconsistent and inaccurate for many years."

Citing a timeline of Israeli claims about Iran's nuclear weapons capabilities that he wrote earlier this month, Mr. Elliott points out that Israel has been claiming Iran would have nuclear weapons "in a few years" for nearly two decades.

He argues that this shows a few things: "making accurate predictions about the future is difficult; the Israelis are almost certainly not always offering good-faith assessments of intelligence on Iran; and reporters and the public should demand evidence for assertions about an Iranian nuclear program, whomever the source."

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