Iran announced over the weekend that it was launching a bomb-scale uranium enrichment program, despite a U.N. Security Council demand that it freeze its nuclear activities.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defiantly told a group of students Saturday that Iran had started the installation of 3,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges at its fuel plant near Natanz, calling it "the first step toward industrial production."
Israeli nuclear experts said that the installation of the 3,000 centrifuge "pilot plant" at Natanz was a key turning plant in Iran's nuclear weapons development.
"The Iranians are calling this a �pilot plant,'" one Israeli analyst noted. "But this isn't a pilot plant; 3,000 centrifuges give them the capability of producing one significant quantity of nuclear fuel per year."
A "significant quantity" (SQ) is the amount of nuclear material needed to manufacture one nuclear device, currently defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as 25 kilograms of uranium, and just 8 kilograms of plutonium.
The Israeli government believes it will take Iran approximately nine months to get the 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz up and running, and another year to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a first bomb.
So far, Iran is right on schedule.
If the Iranians continue to hold to the timeline of their public declarations to the IAEA, they will become a nuclear weapons power by September 2008, just before the next U.S. presidential elections.
But that timeline for Iran's nuclear weapons development is based solely on what Iran has told the IAEA.
"We know that Iran is not telling the full story," an Israeli nuclear expert said . "They are not telling lies, but they are not telling the full story."
"There can be no doubt that Iran has a clandestine, parallel nuclear weapons program," a senior Israeli intelligence official said last week.