Olli Heinonen is no dove when it comes to Iran. He spent twenty-seven years at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), where he oversaw the inspectors who were examining Iran's nuclear enrichment program. Heinonen, 64, is Finnish, and he himself made "countless" trips to Iran over the past ten years. He worries that by the end of 2011 or 2012, Iran might decide tom quit the nonproliferation treaty and seek "break-out capacity" in pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
But in an interview with Ha'aretz, the Israeli daily, last week, Heinonen suggests that Iran's program is riddled with errors and roadblocks.
That's important. With talks between Iran and the P5+1 apparently to take place in Geneva or Vienna later this month, Heinonen's comments ought to reduce the deadline frenzy that seems to overshadow negotiations between Iran and the United States.
Asked by Yossi Melman, the veteran Israeli security analyst, if Iran can go all out for a weapon, Heinonen says:
"The answer is yes and no. Theoretically, that is correct, but in reality, their situation is much more complicated. The centrifuges are not operating well, and some of them are failing. They are losing materials because of this; and so, with this defective equipment, they will have a hard time enriching the material to a level high enough to enable the production of nuclear weapons. They have a lot of problems, and they are not there yet."
Heninon admits that part of the problem could be sabotage by outside powers. There have been, of course, frequent reports that Iran's program is beset by malfunctioning equipment, computer viruses, and faulty imported metals and components. But Heinonen suggests that plain old Iranian incompetence is at work, too:
"Possibly the centrifuges were damaged by sabotage or the acquisition of faulty equipment, but the main thing is that the Iranians wanted to do everything on their own. In contrast to Libya, which purchased all the materials from a smuggling ring headed by the Pakistani Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, and intended to establish an enrichment plant, Iran decided to purchase only the technology from Pakistan, but to produce everything by itself. In my opinion, the flaws in the centrifuges derive from two interconnected reasons: lack of sufficient knowledge, and difficulty obtaining high-quality material."