Iran's nuclear capability growing

Technological problems solved, U.N. inspectors say

May 15, 2007|By New York Times News Service

Vienna, Austria -- Inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency have concluded that Iran appears to have solved most of its technological problems and is beginning to enrich uranium on a far larger scale than before, according to the agency's top officials.

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

In a short-notice inspection of Iran's main nuclear plant at Natanz on Sunday, conducted in advance of a report to the United Nations Security Council early next week, 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. Those roadblocks appear to have been surmounted.

"We believe they pretty much have the knowledge about how to enrich," 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. "From now on, it is simply a question of perfecting that knowledge. People will not like to hear it, but that's a fact."

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 "an industrial scale." 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 first have to evict the IAEA inspectors, as North Korea did four years ago.

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 U.N. 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 nuclear fuel, what the Israelis used to refer to as "the point of no return." Those favoring unconditional engagement with Iran have argued that the current strategy is 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 U.S. undersecretary of state for policy, who is carrying out the Iran strategy, said that while he had not heard about the IAEA's newest findings, they would not affect U.S. policy.

"We're proceeding under the assumption that there is still time for diplomacy to work," 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, "we will move ahead toward a third set of sanctions."

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

"Quite clearly, suspension is a requirement by the Security Council, and I would hope the Iranians would listen to the world community," he said. "But ... 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."

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 IAEA's understanding of "the scope and content" of Iran's 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.

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