LONDON – Iran is on track to produce nuclear weapons within about five years, according to a detailed study published Tuesday by an influential London think tank.

The study, by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, comes two weeks before a critical meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’s nuclear watchdog, that will decide whether to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.

The Iranian government provoked the crisis last month when it broke the IAEA’s monitoring seals on the fuel-conversion line at its Isfahan plant, thus breaking its deal with Britain, France and Germany not to make nuclear fuel – seen by experts as the crucial step in the weaponization process.

Some nuclear non-proliferation advocacy groups have warned that Iran could produce a weapon in as little as 24 months. Recent news reports based on leaked information from U.S. intelligence estimates have suggested a timeframe of 6 to 10 years.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimate, the most detailed in the public realm, is based on reports from IAEA inspectors and conversations with Iranian political leaders and technical experts.

“If Iran threw caution to the wind and sought a nuclear weapon capability as quickly as possible without regard for international reaction, it might be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a single nuclear weapon by the end of the decade,” said John Chipman, the IISS’s director.

A more likely scenario is that Iran will wait until it completes its industrial-scale centrifuge plant at Nantaz, a process that is expected to take a least 10 years. But once completed, Iran could then turn out enough highly enriched uranium for several weapons within a few weeks, giving the international community little time to react, Chipman said.

President Bush has warned repeatedly that a nuclear Iran is “unacceptable.” He has included Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, in his “axis of evil” and last month told an Israeli publication that he had not ruled out the use of force to prevent Iran from building a bomb.

The problem, according to Gary Samore, editor of the IISS study, is that “Iran already has the basic technical skills … and no amount of military force against its nuclear installations is going to change that.”

Iran insists its nuclear intentions are peaceful, but Western diplomats are skeptical.

“Even when you talk to Iranians, they don’t pretend for very long that the purpose of their program is peaceful,” said Samore, a former National Security Council adviser who recently became vice president of the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation.

Samore said Iran’s desire for nuclear weapons was driven mainly by security concerns and national pride.

Last week, IAEA Director General Mohammed ElBaradei, confirmed that Iran had resumed questionable nuclear activities and that he was “still not in a position to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran.”

That sets the stage for a Sept. 19 meeting of the IAEA’s board of governors, which has repeatedly warned Iran to cease its nuclear activities until all doubts about its 18 years of clandestine nuclear activities are resolved. EU diplomats have said that if Iran refuses, the board would have little choice but to refer the matter to the Security Council.

The key questions, according to Samore, are whether the Security Council will be able to act quickly and decisively, and how Iran weighs the risks and benefits of continuing its nuclear program.

“Iran’s calculations of the dangers it faces has shifted over the last two years,” he said. “Iran is much less worried about a U.S. attack because of the mess in Iraq.”

He also noted that record high oil prices have strengthened the Iranians’ hand.

(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-09-06-05 1902EDT

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