When is a nuclear bomb a nuclear bomb? Military experts, politicians and intelligence analysts may disagree about what actually consitutes the so-called "point of no return," for a country such as Iran, when its alleged nuclear weapons program cannot be stopped. But they are unanimous about one thing: The ability to carry out an atomic explosion is not the same thing as the capacity to deploy a nuclear weapon.
As far as Iran is concerned, it is closer to being able to carry out a nuclear explosion than was previously thought. That is the opinion of Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the BND. It's a view shared by the relevant Israeli intelligence agencies -- the Mossad and Israel's military intelligence agency. According to their estimates, Iran could be in a position to carry out a nuclear bomb test -- similar to those that North Korea recently carried out -- within a period of approximately one year.
"According to the current assessment of the Mossad and Israeli military intelligence, Iran has solved all the technical problems associated with the assembly and operation of the centrifuges," Israeli intelligence expert Ronen Bergman told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It can produce low-enriched uranium and is theoretically capable of producing highly enriched uranium." Highly enriched uranium is required to build a nuclear bomb.
If Iran continues at the current pace, "it could have enough highly enriched uranium for a test bomb by mid-2010," says Bergman, the author of the 2008 book "The Secret War with Iran."
The BND, whose information is likely to have come in part from the Israelis, takes a similar view of the situation. "The BND estimates that Iran, under ideal conditions, would be in the position to produce a nuclear test bomb under laboratory conditions within a period of less than five years," a BND spokesman told SPIEGEL ONLINE. But the BND makes an important caveat: "That would still be a long way from a nuclear bomb or a weapons system."
Best Source in Iran
Admittedly the BND has difficulties in gaining insider knowledge about Iran's uranium program, but it does have a fairly accurate picture of the Iranians' attempts to develop a launch system. For more than 10 years, until the summer of 2008, a spy with the codename "Sindbad" delivered secret information to the German intelligence agency. The businessman, who has both Iranian and Canadian citizenship, ran an import-export company in the German town of Giessen and had access to high-level officials in several Tehran ministries. Among the information he gave the BND were pictures of tunnel drilling machines, details of secret deposits, and new documents about progress in developing delivery systems technology for nuclear warheads. Within the BND, Sindbad was regarded as their best source on Iran.
Because of "Sindbad's" information the BND knows how long the mullahs have been trying to reduce a nuclear bomb down to a size that one of their Shahab rockets could carry. Only then would a nuclear bomb become a strategic weapon for them, equally able to intimidate and deter. And thanks to "Sindbad's" insights, the BND are convinced that this is exactly what Tehran means to achieve.
The BND cannot say with any certainty how far along they are with that. "Sindbad" left the country last year. He was caught exporting prohibited goods into Tehran in October 2008, sentenced early this year and then deported to Canada. But Bergman says that Israeli intelligence assumes the Iranians won't succeed before 2014.
Additional enquiries into customs duties at the time of the investigation that led to the capture of the spy had some further, spectacular consequences; the Federal Prosecutor's Office claimed that German lead trader, Hans-Josef H., had delivered certain special materials to Tehran. A BND expert was called in during the court case, which ended in a confession.
The Point of No Return
According to a report in Stern magazine, the BND operative also talked about Said Mohammed Hosseinian, who is alleged to be Iran's chief purchaser. He is "one of the most world's most wanted men" who, "for years, has been trying to procure materials for Iran that cannot be got through legal means." Hosseinian, who, according to Stern, is married with children and in his late 50s, runs a tight network of cover companies for this purpose.
The direction that Iran is heading is becoming clearer. They apparently at least want the capacity to develop a nuclear weapon. The International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) is of the opinion that, in terms of nuclear production capability, there are at least 4,920 working centrifuges in Natanz and over a ton of uranium has been produced. Theoretically that's enough for at least two explosive devices.
But, at least under current conditions, the possible test devices would be the size of shipping containers and thus not deployable as weapons.
However, the discussion about "the point of no return" does not have a lot to do with these technology questions. It falls into the realm of politics. On top of that is the fact that the calculations and decisions made by the leadership in Tehran are not always transparent, even to intelligence agencies.
And in the end there is also a point of no return for Iran. If they test a nuclear device in full view of the rest of the world, then the political landscape will alter in an instant. Whether Tehran considers that to be a negative or a positive thing, no one can tell.