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How Close Is Iran to a Nuclear Bomb?

One of the biggest questions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program — which it claims is only for civilian nuclear power — is what it intends to do with an advanced enrichment system, called P2, which it purchased from the renegade Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.

Khan was released from house arrest by the Pakistan Government this year after being “punished” for selling the nuclear systems to Iran and to other countries, such as Libya.

To enrich uranium to bomb-grade level, the Iranians need to perfect a large-scale gas centrifuge system. Natanz — until now Iran's only oficially-declared nuclear facility — houses an older P1 series of centrifuges.

And although Tehran initially claimed that it had conducted only preliminary work on the P2, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has admitted that research is continuing. The P2 would be significantly more efficient than the P1.

Asked whether Iran might have been carrying out work on the P2 at the undeclared secret site southwest of Tehran, IAEA sources said: “It’s possible, although Natanz is a huge facility with plenty of spare capacity.”

The last IAEA report on Iran in August said that Tehran had set up more than 8,000 centrifuges to produce enriched uranium at Natanz, although it said that only about 4,600 were fully active.

The IAEA has not been given details of P2 research efforts. But sources said that if Iran were able to run two uranium-enrichment facilities in parallel, it would accelerate the whole program and make it more likely that Tehran would acquire a nuclear bomb at an earlier stage.

However, it seems unlikely that the undeclared site is operating yet because the alarm bells would have sounded in the West — and even more so in Israel — and Iran would have come under pressure some time ago to confess to the second facility. The U.S. believes that it could be in operation next year.

For more on this story, go to the Times of London.