Tehran 'has cracked nuclear puzzle'

Crucial technology linked to experts in Pakistan and North Korea helped propel Iran to the threshold of weapons capability, the Washington Post reports.

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The United Nations nuclear watchdog says Iran has mastered the critical steps needed to build a nuclear weapon after receiving help from foreign scientists, The Washington Post reported yesterday.

A former Soviet weapons expert allegedly tutored Iranian scientists on building high-precision nuclear detonators.

And crucial technology linked to experts in Pakistan and North Korea also helped propel Iran to the threshold of weapons capability, the Post said, quoting unnamed western diplomats and nuclear experts briefed on the update on Iran's nuclear programme due to be released within days.

Western nations will use the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report to press for tighter international sanctions against Iran, a drive sharpened by feverish Israeli media speculation Israel will take military action if Tehran's atomic ambitions are not curbed soon.

The document is expected to contain compelling new evidence of clandestine research and other activities that make little sense if not weapons-related, although it is unlikely to reveal "smoking gun" proof of intent to weaponise.

Iran's leaders have not decided whether to build nuclear weapons but are determined to have the components and skills at hand to quickly assemble a bomb if they choose to, many western analysts say.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's hawkish prime minister, was reported last week to be trying to rally support in his cabinet for a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, even over the objections of the United States.

The Obama administration is said for now to be adamantly opposed to military action while it ratchets up economic and political pressure on Tehran.

But Shimon Peres, Israel's president who enjoys a reputation as a dove, warned at the weekend an attack on Iran was becoming "more and more likely".

Given the potentially catastrophic fallout from such action, some analysts suspect Israel is bluffing, as it has several times before, to pressure Washington and Europe to adopt tougher sanctions, which Russia and China oppose.

Even so Israel, the region's sole nuclear-armed power, has destroyed nuclear plants on foreign soil twice before.

In 1981, its warplanes bombed a French-built reactor at Osirak in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Four years ago, another surprise Israeli air raid demolished a suspected North Korean-built reactor in Syria.

Both countries absorbed the humiliation without retaliating.

Iran will be a different matter entirely. The Islamic republic has repeatedly warned it will retaliate immediately if Israel dares similar action against its cherished nuclear programme, which Tehran insists is solely for the peaceful generation of electricity.

Few believe Tehran is bluffing. Questionable only is the nature and scope of Iran's response, which will depend on the extent and effectiveness of any Israeli strike.

Iran has said if its nuclear facilities are attacked, it would go for the West's economic jugular by blocking the

Strait of Hormuz, the choke-point at the mouth of the Gulf.

This would cut off the export route for 40 per cent of global oil supplies.

Tehran has also said it would retaliate against Israel and target US interests in Gulf, even if Washington was not involved.

"The Iranians have a security doctrine in which they say that the Gulf is secure for everyone or for no one," Trita Parsi, author of Treacherous Alliance - The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel

and the United States' said in an interview.

Iran would not even have to target foreign tankers in the Strait: it could blow up one of its own.

Western navies could soon clear any blockage to the Strait, but not before Iran caused a "massive short-term spike in oil prices",

said Richard Dalton, Britain's former ambassador to Iran.

"An Israeli attack on Iran would be terrible for the world economy," he added in an interview.

Shrugging off Israel's bellicose rhetoric, Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, said on Thursday: "We have been hearing such threats from Israel for eight years ... We can defend our nation." A commentator

on Iran's state-funded Press TV, Ismail Salami, said any "imbecilic" Israeli strike would be "tantamount to a final nail in the coffin of Zionism".

The possible repercussions of an Israeli attack conducted without an American green light were outlined in a December 2009 war games simulation by the Saban Centre for Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution, a leading Washington-based think tank.

In retaliation, the Iranian team, represented by American experts on Iran, fired small volleys of ballistic missiles at Israel, including its nuclear weapons complex at Dimona, then at Israeli airbases.

The team in the simulation also encouraged Iran's proxies, Hizbollah and Hamas, to fire rockets at Israeli population centres.

Tehran, mistakenly believing Saudi Arabia allowed Israeli warplanes to traverse its air space, fired missiles at the Kingdom's main oil handling centre at Abqaiq, and attempted to incite Shiite Muslims in eastern Saudi Arabia to attack the regime.

Israel finally won American permission to hit back at Hizbollah and launched a 48-hour air campaign against Lebanon while preparing for a much larger air and ground operation.

But the US forbade any further offensive Israeli military action against Iran while Washington attempted to clear up the mess.

Under the simulation, Iran's divided leadership decided against directly attacking any American targets to avoid all-out US retaliation. But Tehran immediately withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and opted to carry out militant attacks against European targets, hoping governments there would turn on Israel and the US.

Nor would a risky Israeli mission deliver lasting damage to Iran's nuclear programme, many analysts say. Unlike Iraq and Syria, which each had only one nuclear facility, the Islamic republic has several dispersed over a vast territory.

One key uranium enrichment site is buried deep underground.

The US former vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General James Cartwright, said during an April 2010 Senate hearing the only way to end Iran's nuclear programme would be through invasion and occupation - a virtually unthinkable scenario.