ABC News: Iran has secretly tripled its enrichment capacity

Reuters put out a story earlier today in which they quoted Russia’s leading nuclear physicist laughing over the predictions about when Iran will have the bomb. He must already know, or else it’s a hell of a coincidence.

The timeframe here — a bomb by 2009 — isn’t the news here. A British think tank said that was theoretically possible earlier this year. The newsflash is that they’re on track right now to actually do it.

Iran has more than tripled its ability to produce enriched uranium in the last three months, adding some 1,000 centrifuges which are used to separate radioactive particles from the raw material…

The addition of 1,000 new centrifuges, which are not yet operational, means Iran is expanding its enrichment program at a pace much faster than U.S. intelligence experts had predicted

Previous predictions by U.S. intelligence had cited 2015 as the earliest date Iran could develop a weapon.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has publicly predicted his country would have 3,000 centrifuges installed by this May, but few in the West gave his claim much credence, until now.

“I think we have all been caught off guard. Ahmadinejad said they would have these 3,000 installed by the end of May, and it appears they may actually do it,” Albright said.

A few things. First, Ahmadinejad has been making noise lately about “good news” coming on the nuclear front. I guess we know now what the good news is. Second, the 2015 date is wrong. Follow the link to the USA Today piece above and you’ll see that John Negroponte thought they could have the bomb within four years. He still overshot, but not as badly as ABC makes it sound. Third and most importantly, note well that number 3,000. That’s how many centrifuges Iran said it was planning to install back on January 31, the same day they announced they were banning UN surveillance cameras from the area of the Natanz facility where the centrifuges would be located. It also happens to be a sort of magic number as far as bombmaking goes. Again, from the USA Today piece:

A diplomat knowledgeable about Iran’s enrichment program said last week that Tehran may not be technologically advanced enough to put together thousands of centrifuges in series — work that would take months even for more developed countries.

Chipman on Wednesday agreed. “Getting the centrifuge cascades to function properly is then another task of an entirely different order of magnitude” from installing the centrifuges, he said, adding that this process could take at least a year.

Once Iran’s planned 3,000-centrifuge cascade was operational, the institute predicted it would take another nine to 11 months to produce about 55 pounds of highly enriched uranium, enough for a single weapon, he said.

Another nuclear expert, Charles Ferguson of the Council on Foreign Relations, has corroborated that timetable, calling 3,000 centrifuges a “starter kit” that could produce enough material for a bomb within one year. If ABC’s right and Iran’s actually on track to make that happen by May, it’s going to escalate the crisis considerably. On the other hand, if they’re fast-tracking their nuke program to intimidate the west, why wouldn’t they want UN cameras in the centrifuge corridor recording it for propaganda purposes? One possibility is that it’s all a lie: according to diplomats interviewed by the Observer back in January, Iran’s program is actually a shambles and their announcements about centrifuge installations “will more probably be about propaganda than reality.”

Which brings us to our two exit questions. One: Is this just more Iranian bluster, part and parcel of the hostage crisis to distract the public from the fact that they’re actually rationing gas now? And two: given how nuke timelines tend to play out, when do you figure the Sunnis will have the bomb? 2012? 2011?