Iran enrichment program now up and running


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

May 15, 2007

Inspectors Cite Big Gain by Iran on Nuclear Fuel

VIENNA, May 14 ‹ Inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency have 
concluded that Iran appears to have solved most of its technological problems 
and is now beginning to enrich uranium on a far larger scale than before, 
according to the agency¹s top officials.

The findings may change the calculus of diplomacy in Europe and in Washington, 
which has aimed to force a suspension of Iran¹s enrichment activities in large 
part to prevent it from learning how to produce weapons-grade material.

In a short-notice inspection of Iran¹s main nuclear facility at Natanz on 
Sunday, conducted in advance of a report to the United Nations Security Council 
due early next week, the inspectors found that Iranian engineers were already 
using roughly 1,300 centrifuges and were producing fuel suitable for nuclear 
reactors, according to diplomats and nuclear experts here. Until recently, the 
Iranians were having difficulty keeping the delicate centrifuges spinning at the
tremendous speeds necessary to make nuclear fuel, and often were running them 
empty, or not at all.

Now, those roadblocks appear to have been surmounted. ³We believe they pretty 
much have the knowledge about how to enrich,² said Mohamed ElBaradei, the 
director general of the energy agency, who clashed with the Bush administration 
four years ago when he declared that there was no evidence that Iraq had resumed
its nuclear program. ³From now on, it is simply a question of perfecting that 
knowledge. People will not like to hear it, but that¹s a fact.²

It is unclear whether Iran can sustain its recent progress. Major setbacks are 
common in uranium enrichment, and experts say it is entirely possible that 
miscalculation, equipment failures or sabotage could prevent the Iranian 
government from reaching its goal of producing fuel on what President Mahmoud 
Ahmadinejad boasts is ³an industrial scale.²

The material produced so far would have to undergo further enrichment before it 
could be transformed into bomb-grade material, and to accomplish that Iran would
probably have to evict the I.A.E.A. inspectors, as North Korea did four years 

Even then it is unclear whether the Iranians would have the technology to 
produce a weapon small enough to fit atop their missiles, a significant 
engineering challenge.

Iran says its nuclear program is intended to produce energy, not weapons.

While the United Nations Security Council has passed a resolution demanding that
Iran suspend all of its nuclear activities, and twice imposed sanctions for its 
refusal to do so, some European nations, and particularly Russia, have 
questioned whether the demand for suspension still makes sense.

The logic of demanding suspension was that it would delay the day that Iran 
gained the knowledge to produce its own nuclear fuel, what the Israelis used to 
refer to as ³the point of no return.² Those favoring unconditional engagement 
with Iran have argued that the current strategy was creating a stalemate that 
the Iranians are exploiting, allowing them to make technological leaps while the
Security Council steps up sanctions.

The Bush administration, in contrast, has argued that it will never negotiate 
while the Iranians speed ever closer to nuclear-weapons capacity, saying there 
has to be a standstill as long as talks proceed. In a telephone interview, R. 
Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for policy, who is carrying out the 
Iran strategy, said that while he had not heard about the I.A.E.A.¹s newest 
findings they would not affect American policy.

³We¹re proceeding under the assumption that there is still time for diplomacy to
work,² he said, though he added that if the Iranians did not agree to suspend 
production by the time the leaders of the largest industrial nations meet next 
month, ³we will move ahead toward a third set of sanctions.²

Dr. ElBaradei has always been skeptical of that strategy, telling European 
foreign ministers that he doubted the Iranians would fully suspend their nuclear
activities, and that a face-saving way must be found to resolve the impasse.

³Quite clearly suspension is a requirement by the Security Council, and I would 
hope the Iranians would listen to the world community,² he said. ³But from a 
proliferation perspective, the fact of the matter is that one of the purposes of
suspension ‹ keeping them from getting the knowledge ‹ has been overtaken by 
events. The focus now should be to stop them from going to industrial scale 
production, to allow us to do a full-court-press inspection and to be sure they 
remain inside the treaty.²

The report to the Security Council next week is expected to say that since 
February 2006, when the Iranians stopped complying with an agreement on broad 
inspections around the country by the agency, the I.A.E.A.¹s understanding of 
³the scope and content² of Iran¹s nuclear activities has deteriorated.

Inspectors are concerned that Iran has declined to answer a series of questions,
posed more than a year ago, about information Iran probably received from Abdul 
Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani nuclear engineer. Of particular interest is a 
document that shows how to make uranium into spheres, a shape suitable for use 
in a weapon.

The inspection conducted on Sunday took place on two hours¹ notice, a period so 
short that it appears unlikely that the Iranians could have turned on their 
centrifuges to impress the inspectors. According to diplomats familiar with the 
inspectors¹ report, in addition to 1,300 working centrifuges, 300 more were 
being tested and appeared ready to be fed raw nuclear fuel as soon as late this 
week, the diplomats said. Another 300 were reported to be under construction.

The I.A.E.A. reported more than a week ago that approximately 1,300 centrifuges 
were in place, but nuclear experts here said that what struck them now was that 
all the centrifuges appeared to be enriching uranium and running smoothly.

³They are at the stage where they are doing one cascade a week,² said one 
diplomat familiar with the analysis of Iran¹s activities, who spoke on condition
of anonymity because of the delicacy of the information. A cascade has 164 
centrifuges, and experts say that at this pace, Iran could have 3,000 
centrifuges operating by June ‹ enough, if the uranium were enriched further, to
make one bomb¹s worth of nuclear material every year. Tehran may, the diplomat 
said, be able to build an additional 5,000 centrifuges by the end of the year, 
for a total of 8,000.

The inspectors have tested the output and concluded that Iran is producing 
reactor-grade uranium, enriched to a little less than 5 percent purity. But that
still worries American officials and I.A.E.A. experts. If Iran stores the 
uranium and later runs it through centrifuges for four or five more months, it 
can raise the enrichment to 90 percent, the level needed for a nuclear weapon.

Some Bush administration officials and some nuclear experts here at the I.A.E.A.
and elsewhere suspect that the Iranians may not be driving for a weapon but the 
ability to have sufficient stockpiles of low-enriched uranium that they could 
produce a bomb within months of evicting inspectors, as North Korea did in 2003.
That capacity alone could serve as a nuclear deterrent.

One senior European diplomat, who declined to speak for attribution, said that 
Washington would now have to confront the question of whether it wants to keep 
Iran from producing any nuclear material, or whether it wants to keep it from 
gaining the ability to build a weapon on short notice.

Continued stalemate, the diplomat said, allows Iran to move toward that ability.

But hawks in the administration say that the only position President Bush can 
take now, without appearing to back down, is to stick to the administration¹s 
past argument that ³not one centrifuge spins² in Iran. They argue for escalating
sanctions and the threat that, if diplomacy fails, the United States could 
destroy the nuclear facilities.

But even inside the administration, many officials, particularly in the State 
Department and the Pentagon, argue that military action would create greater 
chaos in the Middle East and Iranian retribution against American forces in 
Iraq, and possibly elsewhere.

Moreover, they have argued that Iran¹s enrichment facilities are still at an 
early enough stage that a military strike would not set the country¹s program 
back very far. Such a strike, they argue, would make sense only once large 
facilities had been built.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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