Iran on way to atomic bomb capability: ElBaradei
MUNICH (Reuters) - Iran is on its way to mastering technology that would enable it to build atomic bombs, if it so chose, International Atomic Energy Agency director Mohamed ElBaradei said in remarks published on Friday.
Iran says its uranium-enrichment program is only for civilian purposes -- electricity generation -- but is under IAEA investigation and U.N. sanctions over past undeclared activity and failure to prove its intentions are wholly peaceful.
ElBaradei said having nuclear arms unfortunately still symbolized prestige and power, tempting nations with security worries to at least develop the potential for a bomb through the "dual use" enrichment process.
Beyond seven confirmed nuclear weapons powers, there is a wide range of countries with access to components -- fissile material or the equipment to produce it -- that could give them an atomic bomb "in a matter of months or a year," he said.
Asked by the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily if Iran was also on its way to "virtual" nuclear-weapons power status, he said: "That is correct." But he added Tehran could not "break out" to a bomb as long IAEA monitors remained at its nuclear sites.
Iran has pledged to maintain regular IAEA inspections, but these are limited to a few declared facilities.
"They have the cookbook ... (But) right now they don't yet have the ingredients -- enough nuclear material to make a bomb overnight," ElBaradei said. He did not spell out how long Iran might need to reach that threshold, if indeed that was its goal. Some Western analysts say this could come within two years.
"The hope is that as long as (such countries) remain in the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) with IAEA inspectors keeping watch, the likelihood is slim (they) would risk international isolation if they quit the treaty," ElBaradei said.
There has been talk in the United States and Israel, Iran's arch-enemies, of last resort military action against Iranian nuclear sites although each remains formally committed to a diplomatic solution.
ElBaradei said the military option would be disastrous. The Iranian issue could not be resolved unless Washington dropped its refusal to negotiate with Tehran directly and without preconditions.
"The Iranian issue at its heart is really a question of security...The nuclear (part) is a symptom of an underlying sense of insecurity or a desire to be recognized as a major, regional power," ElBaradei told Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
"Europe is not really in the front seat (here). It is the U.S. who is in the front seat. The earlier that you have a direct negotiation between the U.S. and Iran, the earlier the prospect that we will have a solution," he said.
A settlement would have to address security issues across the region including the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and "the elephant in the room" -- Israel's undeclared nuclear arsenal, said ElBaradei.
"A military solution ... will give (Iran's) regime the full (domestic) support, the full justification to go for a crash course to develop nuclear weapons. The know-how is there, you cannot take it out of their minds.
"They will simply, in my view, go underground. The region is already in an unsustainable situation and adding an attack will simply create a ball of fire which will ricochet everywhere, in every part of the world," he said.
(Reporting by Mark Heinrich, Editing by Ralph Boulton)
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