LONDON - Iran worked on testing a key component of a nuclear bomb as recently as 2007, a British newspaper said on Monday, a finding which if proven would be at odds with Iran's assertion its nuclear work is for civilian use.
Citing a confidential Iranian technical document, The Times described a four-year plan to test a neutron initiator, the part of an atomic bomb that sets off an explosion. The Times said the device had no civilian use.
Iran, the world's fifth-largest crude oil exporter, says its nuclear programme is aimed at generating electricity so that it can export more of its gas and oil.
Mark Fitzpatrick, chief proliferation analyst at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, told Reuters that, as described, the documents sound very much like the elements of a nuclear weapons design.
I think it's on the money, he said of the report. The implications are very serious because it means that Iran is marching closer to producing a nuclear weapon. And I don't think Israel will let that happen.
Israel, assumed to have the Middle East's only atomic arsenal, says a nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat to its existence and points to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's calls for the Jewish state to be wiped off the map.
That has raised concerns that Israel could ultimately carry out a military strike against Iranian nuclear sites.
Tehran is determined to press ahead with a uranium enrichment programme the West suspects is aimed at making bombs.
Amid heightened tension with major powers involved in efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the row, the 35-nation board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last month voted to rebuke Iran for building a second enrichment plant in secret, near the holy city of Qom.
The country already had a larger underground enrichment facility at Natanz, declared to the IAEA in 2003 after Iranian opposition exiles blew the whistle on the facility.
The Times said intelligence on the alleged neutron initiator work had been passed on to the U.N. nuclear watchdog, which has been investigating suspicions of Iranian attempts to weaponise the uranium enrichment process for five years.
International Atomic Energy Agency officials declined comment. But the information would fall into the category of what senior IAEA officials have told Reuters are frequent intelligence updates on Iran they receive from certain member states, mainly the United States, Britain, France and Israel.
The IAEA maintains a running internal analysis of the intelligence, which suggests Iran has coordinated efforts to process uranium, test explosives at high altitude and revamp a ballistic missile cone in a way suitable for a nuclear warhead.
Neutron initiator development has been part of such activity, according to some of the intelligence leaked earlier to news media, but covering a previous period up to 2003.
The last U.S. intelligence estimate on Iran, released two years ago, assessed that Tehran stopped nuclear weapons research in 2003 and Washington was fairly confident it had not resumed.
But this assessment has never been accepted by Britain, France, Germany and Israel, who believe Iran continued bomb research beyond 2003, or resumed it after an interruption.
An updated U.S. intelligence estimate on Iran is being worked on and due for completion soon, diplomats say.
Refined uranium can be used to fuel nuclear power plants or, if enriched much further, provide material for bombs.
Fitzpatrick said that if Iran's nuclear programme could all be plausibly justified on the basis of it being for civilian nuclear energy purposes, it would be hard to justify military action in the minds of Western public opinion.
But if evidence clearly shows unmistakable signs of ongoing weapons development work, then it's a new situation, he said.
(Writing by William Maclean, Editing by Mark Heinrich)