IAEA says Iran designing nuke weapon

Ahmadinejad: Confrontation with U.S. does not need nuke bomb

U.S. considers Iran as top threat in region

Splits in Israel over Iran strike

Iran has sought to design a nuclear warhead and has continued to conduct research on an atomic weapons program as late as 2010, the United Nations nuclear watchdog stated on Tuesday, suggesting it had "credible" intelligence from more than 10 countries to back its claim.

Unveiling its most detailed dossier on the Iranian regime's nuclear program, the IAEA declared for the first time that "Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device."

The IAEA said that prior to 2003, Iran's work to design a nuclear warhead took place in what it called a "structured program". Although it judges that such an elaborate effort may no longer be in place, the IAEA declared in its 25-page report that "some activities may still be ongoing".

Iran has always insisted that its nuclear program has peaceful aims and is designed for electricity generation.

However, the IAEA's tough report will be used by the US, Britain and France to call for a new round of economic sanctions against the Islamic state.

The IAEA is an independent UN watchdog which is charged with containing the further development of nuclear weapons around the world.

Its statement that Iran has carried out work to construct a nuclear weapon will be seen as significant by western powers.

While the IAEA has published much evidence in the past that could point to such a conclusion, it has never delivered such an explicit judgment, only referring in the past to "possible weapons work".

The IAEA's judgment that some of its weaponization activities "may still be ongoing" is also significant. For the first time, the IAEA is directly contradicting a 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate which claimed with "high confidence" that in 2003 the Iranians halted efforts to turn nuclear material into a bomb.

Danielle Pletka, vice-president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said of the 2007 estimate: "I think it's been completely discredited. While it seems clear that the Iranians had a pause in their weapons program in 2003 - doubtless fearing they would be "next" after we invaded Iraq - they quickly resumed and have made substantial progress."

The Obama administration said that it could push for further sanctions on Iran if it failed to answer new questions raised by the IAEA report.

"The report is comprehensive, credible, quite damning, and alarming," a senior US official said. The renewed pressure on the Iranian government "could include additional sanctions by the United States. It could also include steps that we take together with other nations", the official said.

One of the most significant new details in the report relates to computer modeling work that Iran conducted as recently as 2008 and 2009 on the explosion of a nuclear device. "The application of such studies to anything other than a nuclear explosive is unclear to the Agency," the IAEA said.

Shortly after publication of the report, Russia issued strong criticism of the IAEA's decision to publish its dossier, saying it had scuttled the chances of a diplomatic solution to the standoff over the Iranian program.

The IAEA gave no indication of the date by which Iran might test a nuclear device. But a senior western diplomat familiar with the report said its significance lay in its comprehensiveness, reflecting that Iran had engaged in all aspects of development of a weapon. "The significance lies in the whole picture and the conclusions that the IAEA draws," said the diplomat. "It is the whole picture and the IAEA's conclusion."

In a further development that will alarm western powers, the IAEA revealed that Iran had for the first time transferred nuclear material to an underground uranium enrichment site near Qom. The development will be of concern because military analysts believe the site, which is within a mountain, would be difficult to attack from the air.

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tuesday that the Islamic republic did not need a nuclear bomb to confront the U.S., in comments made ahead of the release of a new report from the U.N. atomic watchdog.

"If America wants to confront the Iranian nation, it will certainly regret the Iranian nation's response," Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying by the IRNA news agency. "They are saying that Iran is seeking the atomic bomb. But they should know ... we do not need a bomb ... Rather we will act thoughtfully and with logic. History has shown that anyone acting against the Iranian nation regrets it."

Earlier Tuesday, Iran's foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi said during a visit to Armenia that the U.S. and other Western nations have no proof that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.

"There is no serious proof that Iran is going to create a nuclear warhead," Salehi was quoted as saying by AFP during a visit to Armenia. "The West and the United States are exerting pressure on Iran without serious arguments and proof. We have repeatedly stated that we are not going to create nuclear weapons."

The IAEA is set to release a report Wednesday detailing new evidence of Tehran's drive to make nuclear weapons. The report points to a former Soviet weapons scientist who allegedly tutored Iranians to overcome key technical hurdles, The Washington Post reported.

Iran also was helped over the threshold of nuclear capability via crucial technology linked to experts in Pakistan and North Korea.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters Tuesday that Tehran should "show flexibility and sincerity and engage in serious cooperation with the agency" while urging the IAEA to be "just and objective."

"China is against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and opposes the development of nuclear weapons by any country in the Middle East region. It is imperative to prevent new turbulence in the Middle East security situation," Hong said.

The upcoming IAEA report is likely to further stoke simmering global tensions over Iran, with Israel considering the possibility of a preemptive strike and the UK said to be making military preparations to support any U.S.-led action against the Islamic nation.

On Monday, Ahmadinejad said the U.S. and Israel feared Tehran's atomic program but insisted that it was for peaceful purposes only.

Meanwhile, a senior U.S. military official said that Iran is the biggest threat to the United States and its allies in the Middle East, surpassing al-Qaeda, which is down but not out.

"The biggest threat to the United States and to our interests and to our friends, I might add, has come into focus and it's Iran," said the official, addressing a forum in Washington.

Next week, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog, is expected to release a report that includes evidence of Iranian nuclear research which makes little sense if not weapons related, Western diplomats said.

However, the official said he did not believe Iran wanted to provoke a conflict and added he did not know if the Islamic state had decided to build a nuclear weapon.

Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful and that it is enriching uranium to power reactors for electricity generation.

"I don't know that the Iranians have made the decision to make a nuclear weapon," the official said.

Reporters were allowed to cover the event on condition that the senior military official not be identified.

"Al Qaeda is not out, but it's down," the official said. He added that al Qaeda had also been largely marginalized by Arab Spring uprisings that have shown change is possible without resorting to the group's "medieval practices."

The United States, the European Union and others have imposed numerous rounds of economic sanctions on Tehran for refusing to halt its uranium enrichment program.

U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday said he agreed on the need to keep "unprecedented pressure" on Iran. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Friday stricter sanctions were the key to reining in Iran's nuclear program.

But it is far from clear whether China and Russia, members of the U.N. Security Council, would agree to significantly tighten trade and financial sanctions on Tehran.

At the Pentagon, spokesman George Little said the United States remained focused on leveraging diplomatic and economic pressure against Iran.

"We remain very concerned about their intentions with respect to their nuclear program," Little told reporters.

"But in terms of the instruments of national power that we're currently employing, the focus is on diplomatic and economic," Little said.

Last month the United States accused Iran of plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington, an allegation Tehran denied.

There has been a surge of speculation in Israeli media this week that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is working to secure Cabinet consensus for an attack on Iranian nuclear installations.

Israel bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981 and launched a similar sortie against Syria in 2007, precedents lending weight to its veiled threats to take similar action on Iran if foreign pressure fails to curb its nuclear program.

Iran has warned that it will respond to any attacks by hitting Israel and U.S. interests in the Gulf. Analysts say Tehran could retaliate by closing the Strait of Hormuz, the waterway where about 40 percent of all traded oil passes.

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly continues to press senior ministers to support an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, the government, and the Israeli people, remain deeply divided on the issue.

At the same time, Israel's test launch of a ballistic missile system at Palmahim Air Force Base, in an apparent show of military strength, has ensured the threat of Iran's nuclear capabilities remained firmly on the public agenda.

International sources quoted in the Israeli media said the test appeared to have been conducted with a ''surface-to-surface'' missile known as the Jericho 3, which has a range of between 3000 and 7000 kilometers and can carry a nuclear warhead.

They noted that Israel had never officially admitted to having missiles with these capabilities.

As public debate grows in Israel over a possible strike on Iran - an opinion poll in Haaretz newspaper puts support for an attack at 41 per cent, with 39 per cent against and 20 per cent undecided - a respected former Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, again urged against unilateral action.

In a speech in Tel Aviv reported in Israeli media, Dagan described a military strike on Iran as a ''foolish idea'' and blamed Netanyahu and his Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, for fuelling the debate on Iran.

A spokesman for Netanyahu would not comment on the nuclear issue, referring instead to the Prime Minister's remarks to the Knesset earlier in the week, in which he said: ''A nuclear Iran would pose a dire threat on the Middle East and on the entire world. And of course, it poses a grave, direct threat on us too.''

The expected release next week of the International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran's uranium enrichment program is also fuelling speculation of military action against Tehran.

This report is expected to provide new evidence of the development of Iran's nuclear program and the speed with which it could create weapons, but stop short of explicitly saying that Tehran is actually building such weapons.

There are also reports that Britain has begun planning a response to any potential military action against Tehran, with Defense Ministry officials indicating they believe the US could speed up missile strikes on nuclear facilities, The Guardian reported.

In response to media reports, an Iranian spokesman warned Israel against an attack.

''We would make them regret such a mistake and would severely punish them,'' General Hassan Firouzabadi told reporters.

He said that in the case of ''an attack by the Zionist regime'', the United States would suffer retaliation.

In addition to the missile test, the Israeli army conducted an extensive drill over the Italian island of Sardinia, using F-16 fighter jets to simulate striking targets as the Israeli army announced a major drill in the Tel Aviv area, which would simulate an attack with rockets and chemical agents.