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The New York Times December 05, 2004

When a Virtual Bomb May Be Better Than the Real Thing

By David E. Sanger

AT first glance, the current struggle to force Iran and North Korea to give up their suspected nuclear weapons programs has disturbing echoes of the American fiasco in searching for Iraq's weapons. There are murky intelligence reports. There is strong rhetoric from the Bush administration. There is a mix of threats and denials from paranoid regimes that sound as if they have something to hide. And there are no smoking guns.

But in Iraq's case, the critical question -- the one on which American intelligence agencies failed so spectacularly -- was whether Saddam Hussein had reconstituted his chemical, biological and nuclear programs, elevating the threat he posed to one that justified urgent military action.

For Iran and North Korea, that is not the right question. Instead, the issue is whether they figured out a way to successfully game the system and build a ''virtual bomb.''

In this era, a nation doesn't have to parade its nukes in the capital on May Day. In fact, it's probably against its interest to do so. All it has to do is create convincing ambiguity -- to leave the world wondering whether, if push came to shove and shove led to talk of a pre-emptive strike, in a few short weeks the country could screw together a workable, deliverable nuclear weapon. In an age when centrifuge components and bomb designs are on the black market, and when technology has made bomb-building much less expensive and time-consuming, it doesn't take much for the world to take you seriously.

''I call them 'latent weapons states,' said Mohamed El Baradei, the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in an interview last week. ''It's a description that fits a lot of countries that have the know-how. The only key is the fissile material. If you are really smart, you don't need to develop a weapon, you just develop a capability. And that is the best deterrence.''

Of course, a nuclear weapon, real or virtual, is more than a deterrent. It has the power to shape events in a region. Nuclear ambiguity is all it takes to change the strategic balance. Saddam Hussein lost the chance to do that after the 1991 gulf war, when American and United Nations officials were shocked to discover how much progress he had made on a bomb. They destroyed that capability, and as it turned out Iraq was never able to reconstitute its program.

American intelligence believes that North Korea and Iran have taken this lesson to heart. ''Both regimes view this as Saddam Hussein's biggest mistake,'' a former senior American intelligence official said recently, insisting on anonymity because he was citing conclusions from classified assessments. ''If Saddam had been able to make a convincing case that he could put a weapon together quickly, they think that no American president would have dared to risk an invasion.''

In this analysis, Mr. Hussein's big mistake was that he jumped the gun in invading Kuwait 14 years ago, before convincing the world that he was on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons. Then he lost all the equipment that could have created that aura -- centrifuges to enrich uranium, high-explosive testing areas and intermediate missiles that could have carried warheads. When Mr. Hussein kept insisting in 2002 and 2003 that he had no program anymore, Mr. Bush and the intelligence agencies could argue that he was probably just too wily for them, once again -- and that it was time to stop him, before a hidden program turned into a hidden weapon. North Korea and Iran are pursuing a different strategy, flaunting their capability. North Korea has an easy case to make. Before it threw inspectors out nearly two years ago, it had a stockpile of 8,000 spent rods of nuclear fuel that could be converted to weapons-grade plutonium with relative ease. When a small group of American experts was invited into the country early this year, the North proudly showed that the rods had been removed from their cooling ponds, and said the conversion to plutonium was nearly complete. By now everyone figures they are probably right.

Did they turn the rods into five or six weapons? Or just into weapons-ready fuel?

''What's the difference?'' Mr. El Baradei asks.

The Iranians are being a little more subtle. They have shown off their centrifuges, and confessed to hiding elements of their program for 18 years, but Mr. El Baradei says he has seen no evidence that they have a dedicated nuclear arms program. The Iranians insist they are enriching uranium only for generating nuclear power, and that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty allows them to do so. After all, they point out, nations like Japan do the same thing. Last week, Iran agreed to suspend production while it takes part in negotiations that could bring investment and technology into the country. But it made it clear it did not intend to give the technology up.

THE Islamic republic has not renounced the nuclear fuel cycle, will never renounce it and will use it,'' its top nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, said. Noting that Iran had again sidestepped Washington's efforts to ask the United Nations Security Council to consider sanctions because of the program, he added: ''We have proved that, in an international institution, we are capable of isolating the United States. And that is a great victory.''

But even while Iran repeated the mantra about its peaceful intentions, the International Atomic Energy Agency was demanding access to military sites where it suspects that a secret, parallel enrichment program may be under way. The Iranians don't have to let them in, unless there is already reasonable evidence of nuclear material on the site. So far, the evidence is scant.

Meanwhile, the Iranians make no secret of their efforts to develop new missiles that could carry nuclear warheads. If they can keep up the shell game -- with a ''peaceful'' nuclear program that could become military within weeks after renouncing the nonproliferation treaty (as North Korea's did last year) -- the Iranians may have figured out how to build the perfect virtual weapon.

URL: http://www.nytimes.com

GRAPHIC: Photos (satellite images from DigitalGlobe)Chart/Map: ''In Iran, Factories Are There, but What Are They For?''It's difficult to compare the claims in 2003 about nuclear weapons development in Iraq to the evidence of nuclear power sites in Iran. In Iraq, experts were uncertain about the existence of a program, and the Bush administration's physical evidence of its presence included a trove of Iraqi aluminum tubes supposedly meant for centrifuges. They turned out to be rocket tubes. Iran had some visible facilities but hid others for as long as 18 years. When they were discovered, Iran claimed their purpose was to produce civilian nuclear power. So the challenge for the international community is to determine Iran's real intentions. Is the effort peaceful? Or is it meant to churn out weapons? The potential for both uses is summarized below.ArakPlans at this site call for construction of a 40-megawatt heavy-water reactor, which nonproliferation experts say is geared more for the production bomb fuel than for electricity.IsfahanThe uranium conversion facility here can be used to produce uranium hexafluoride, a gas whose production is a crucial step in making fuel for both civilian nuclear reactors and atom bombs.NatanzCentrifuges at the enrichment plant could be used not only to enrich uranium to the level needed to fuel nuclear reactors, but also to the level for nuclear weapons.Map of Iran highlighting Arak, Isfahan, Natanz, and Tehran.(Sources by Institute for Science and International Security Globalsecurity.org)

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