Mon Apr 2, 2007 2:38PM EDT
By Guy Faulconbridge
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's leading nuclear scientist said on Monday that it was just a question of time before Iran developed a nuclear weapon and it should be stopped.
The Islamic republic, facing a showdown with the United States over its nuclear ambitions, clearly has the know-how to make atomic weapons, said Yevgeny Velikhov, a leading physicist and close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"From a scientific point of view of course they could create nuclear weapons," Velikhov, president of Russia's Kurchatov Institute, told reporters. "When they could do it is a more difficult question."
"If you remember, U.S. scientists expected the Soviet Union would only be able to create a nuclear bomb by around 1954 at the earliest," he said.
"They were rather surprised when we created one in 1949," he said with a chuckle. Velikhov trained under Igor Kurchatov, the leader of the Soviet atomic bomb project.
The United States and European Union powers suspect Iran wants to build nuclear arms while Tehran says its nuclear fuel program is meant only for civilian power generation.
"If they have decided to create nuclear weapons, then they could create them," said Velikhov, who was part of Putin's 2004 re-election campaign team.
"It is important that Iran does not get nuclear weapons. If Iran gets nuclear weapons it will be very negative for the security of the whole world."
Western powers persuaded the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran over its refusal to stop enriching uranium in centrifuge machines. The program remains at the research stage but Iran aims to ramp it up to "industrial-scale" enrichment later this year.
Russian officials have said it would take Iran years to assemble nuclear warheads and that Tehran has a right to develop civilian nuclear power.
But analysts say Moscow has toughened its policy toward Iran -- including a delay to the Bushehr nuclear power station which Russia is helping build -- over concerns about Tehran's nuclear program and worries about a war in the Gulf.
Most diplomats and nuclear experts believe Iran remains a few years away from bomb capacity as it has yet to overcome technical problems such as older centrifuges prone to cracking and overheating, and impurities in uranium feedstock.
They cannot rule out Iran might have made more progress at secret military facilities, but there is no intelligence pointing to clandestine activity at this time.
A Vienna-based diplomat familiar with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring said Iran had already grasped enrichment technology so Western powers should focus on trying to limit the program rather than shut it down.
"In fact, however, they already have enrichment technology. To continue to insist on zero centrifuges is doomed to failure and bound to drive Iran to further reduce the IAEA's access."
Velikhov, who devoted his life to nuclear technology, said the world's nuclear powers should reject nuclear weapons.
"I consider biological, chemical and nuclear arms should be forbidden and that the holding and development of nuclear weapons should be considered a crime against humanity.
"I think all states should reject nuclear weapons, including the U.S. and Russia," he said.
(Additional reporting by Mark Heinrich in Vienna)
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