Tensions rise over Iran's nuclear claims

True or not, assertions point to confrontation with West, experts say

April 11, 2007|By Ramin Mostaghim and Borzou Daragahi | Ramin Mostaghim and Borzou Daragahi,LOS ANGELES TIMES

TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran's efforts to trumpet its nuclear program are calcifying the country's confrontation with the West regardless of whether its claims of technological progress are true, several analysts saidyesterday.

The head of Iran's atomic energy program yesterday reiterated Iran's long-held claim that it eventually will install 50,000 centrifuges, used to enrich uranium, at its facility in Natanz. That many centrifuges operating at full capacity theoretically could produce nuclear material for 15 atomic bombs a year.

"When we say we have entered industrial-scale enrichment, [it means] there is no way back," said Reza Aghazadeh, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency. "Installation of centrifuges will continue steadily to reach a stage where all the 50,000 centrifuges are launched."

On Monday, Iran announced that it had 3,000 centrifuges in place at Natanz and was using them to purify gaseous uranium on an "industrial level."

Though some Western experts immediately raised doubts about the Iranian claim, others worried that Iran's diplomatic hardball and defiance of the U.S. and its allies were girding both camps for conflict and steering the country toward further escalation.

"I am concerned that exaggerated statements of Iran's progress will make it more difficult for pragmatists in the Iranian leadership to promote a compromise solution," said Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation expert who runs the blog armscontrolwonk.com.

"They're rushing to establish facts on the ground that make it much more difficult for anyone to walk back the program," said Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

Two International Atomic Energy Agency officials arrived in Iran yesterday to conduct a routine inspection of the Natanz enrichment facility, Iranian news agencies said.

Iranian officials insist they want to produce nuclear material to power nuclear energy reactors for civilian uses. U.S. and European leaders and nuclear experts suspect Iran is exploiting loopholes in the international Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to develop weapons of mass destruction, or at least the capability to produce them.

Most Western experts and officials say Iran's nuclear rhetoric far exceeds its capacity, suggesting that the regime has no more than 1,000 centrifuges operating.

Production of weapons-grade nuclear material requires enrichment at about 90 percent concentration, while fuel for civilian reactors need only be enriched to between 3 percent and 5 percent. According to most experts, Iran's centrifuges have not crossed the 5 percent threshold.

Aghazadeh, the Iranian nuclear agency official, did not specify when his nation would be able to have 50,000 centrifuges running. The United Nations, pressed by the U.S. and its allies, imposed sanctions on Iran in December to dissuade it from pursuing its nuclear program.

Ramin Mostaghim and Borzou Daragahi write for the Los Angeles Times.

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