Experts at three well-known think tanks believe 2009 will be a pivotal year in the controversy over Iran's nuclear program, and their reports have been forwarded to President-elect Barack Obama's transition team.
The New York City-based Council on Foreign Relations; the Washington, D.C.-based Saban Center, which is part of the Brookings Institution; and the Institute for Science and International Security report that Tehran is likely to achieve key nuclear milestones in the coming months.
Iran is preparing to activate the first of two Russian-built nuclear power reactors at its new complex in the Persian Gulf port of Bushehr. When Bushehr-1 comes on-line (expected in the first quarter of 2009), Iran will have activated the first-half in what will eventually become one of the world's largest nuclear power plants.
First begun under the Shah with German assistance in 1977, Bushehr was mothballed until 1996 when Moscow reached a deal with the Islamic government to finish the project. More than 2-years late and almost $1 bil over budget, the Bushehr Nuclear Power Station will catapult Iran's atomic program into the 21st century.
Though its 2 light-water reactors are under close international supervision, the White House fears that any nuclear activity within Iran could eventually benefit a secret military program.
Administration efforts to shut down or slow down Bushehr's completion have had mixed results and the White House is now resigned to the complex's activation, though it is hoped that it occurs after President Bush leaves office.
Bushehr could be Barak Obama's first international "test" once he assumes office in January.
The Bushehr activation is also likely to challenge a new Israeli prime minister. Elections in the Jewish state are scheduled for February.
Meanwhile, Iran continues to defy U.N. Security Council demands to suspend its controversial uranium enrichment program, which is key to fashioning fuel for an atomic weapon. Despite repeated warnings and a set of economic sanctions, Iran has continued to snub the Security Council. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Zalmay Khalilzad's efforts to increase pressure on Tehran has been stymied by both Russia and China.
In a new report, ISIS says that Iran has not yet achieved "breakout" status on its nuclear weapons research, but could do so soon. The term "breakout" refers to the amount of enriched uranium one would need to build a small crude nuclear weapon. Assuming a "best case" scenario, ISIS estimates that Tehran could have enough bomb-grade uranium to build a small bomb by the end of the first quarter of 2009.
The scenario does not leave the Obama administration with many alternatives.
Short of a concerted military attack to destroy key atomic-related installations, ISIS says increased economic sanctions and US-led negotiations with Iran may be the only alternatives. ISIS estimates have in the past proven to be accurate, especially regarding North Korea and its nuclear program.
The think-tank's conclusions dovetail to a degree with a report by the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution and the Council of Foreign Relations. Dubbed "Restoring The Balance - A Middle East Strategy For The Next President," the 18-month study calls on the new White House to "immediately" begin low-level contacts with the Iranians even before Tehran's general elections in June 2009.
Unlike ISIS, the Saban report believes that Iran is more likely "two to three years" away from perfecting a nuclear weapon.
Both however conclude that at this stage, a military option for either Washington or Jerusalem is not viable.
President Bush is expected to address the reports and other topics at the 2008 Saban Forum in Washington on Friday.
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