A London-based think-tank which has become a leading authority on the unconventional weapons capabilities of so-called "rogue states" has estimated that Iran could develop enough weapons-grade uranium to develop a nuclear weapon within five years.
But in a 128-page dossier on Iran Tuesday, the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) also said Iran was more likely to build up a production capability over more than a decade and then decide whether to acquire atomic weapons, Financial Times reports.
The five-year estimate is more aggressive than reported projections of US intelligence agencies, which are believed to have determined Iran is six to 10 years away from such a breakthrough. But in spiteof a capability to develop weapons-grade uranium by the end of the decade, John Chipman, the IISS director, said that would require Iran to "throw caution to the wind" and ignore the threat of international sanctions, a move Tehran has been reluctant to pursue.
He noted that a more cautious approach - which would involve building a more sophisticated "industrial-scale" centrifuge plant at Natanz - would allow Iran to have a much greater capability to produce the higher enriched uranium needed for weapons in the long-term. Building such a plant would take more than a decade.
The IISS assessment comes as the 35-member governing board of the Inter-national Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) prepares for a crucial meeting on September 19 to decide whether the Iran case should be reported to the UN Security Council for reprimand.
"The logical next step is for this to be reported to the Security Council," a senior EU diplomat said Tuesday. The US and Europe face resistance from Russia and China, which argue that Iran has not breached its obligations under the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows it to build a civilian nuclear programme.
The IISS also found that in spite of progress on a centrifuge enrichment programme, it is unclear whether Iran has the capability to actually design and fabricate nuclear weapons from any fissile material it produces.
Moreover, after two years of inspections by the IAEA "Iran does not have any significant stocks of undeclared nuclear weapons-usable fissile materials or is hiding facilities capable of producing such material," said the report.
On the photo: John Chipman, the IISS director.