Iran's nuclear ability growing, report says

U.S. warships begin major exercises in Persian Gulf

May 24, 2007|By Bob Drogin | Bob Drogin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

VIENNA, Austria -- Defying the international community, Iran has sharply upgraded its capacity to enrich uranium in recent months while the outside world's access to and grasp of Iran's nuclear program "has deteriorated," according to a unusually blunt report yesterday by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

As two U.S. aircraft carriers and a flotilla of warships steamed into the Persian Gulf for previously unannounced exercises, the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency warned that it could not "provide assurances about ... the exclusively peaceful nature" of Iran's expanding nuclear effort.

Iran has begun low-level operations of 1,312 centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium, and has begun testing or is constructing 820 more centrifuges, in a vast underground chamber at the country's main nuclear facility at Natanz, the IAEA report said. The total is more than three times as many centrifuges as Iran had installed in the facility three months ago.

"What they are doing now is significant," said a senior U.N. official who spoke on condition that he not be identified because the report officially goes to the Security Council before it may be released. "Their progress is accelerating."

Iran's continued refusal to comply with Security Council demands for an immediate freeze of its nuclear program is likely to spur another round of U.N. economic sanctions, the third since December 2006. U.S. diplomats and their allies began preparing proposals for stiffer penalties this month in anticipation of a negative IAEA report.

Iran's ambassador here, Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, disputed portions of the report and insisted that Iran has provided "full cooperation and full transparency" to the U.N. inspectors. As Iranian officials have insisted in the past, Soltanieh said Iran's nuclear program will produce only electricity, not nuclear weapons, as the West fears. The centrifuges can be used to provide low enriched fuel for civilian reactors or the more highly enriched uranium used for nuclear weapons.

"We have continued our activities because this is our inalienable right," the Iranian envoy said. Further U.N. sanctions, he warned, "will have a negative consequence." He declined to elaborate.

The Bush administration, which has sought to rein in Iran's nuclear program through diplomacy and sanctions, reacted sharply to the IAEA report.

"Iran is thumbing its nose at the international community," Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told reporters in Washington. "We are not going to agree to accept limited enrichment, to accept that 1,300 centrifuges can continue spinning at their plant at Natanz."

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said: "The time has come to take a look at additional pressure, to ratchet up the pressure to bring about a change in Iranian calculations."

Khalilzad said the United States is willing to negotiate directly with Iran to safeguard a civilian nuclear program once Tehran suspends its enrichment effort, as the Security Council has demanded. Iran has insisted that it will not freeze operations as a precondition for talks.

The Navy began a previously unscheduled exercise in the Persian Gulf in one of the largest shows of military force in the region's seas since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Navy officials insisted that the air and sea maneuvers were not designed to increase diplomatic pressure on Iran, saying that the training mission was being conducted because three battle groups happened to be nearby at the same time.

"It's not a chest-thumping thing," a Navy official said. "It's a target of opportunity."

The Pentagon decided earlier this year to send a second aircraft carrier group to the Persian Gulf, as part of what senior defense officials acknowledged was an attempt to send a message that the United States could project force in the Middle East even as it was bogged down in Iraq. The two carrier groups now in the gulf are led by the USS John C. Stennis and the USS Nimitz.

The arrival of the third battle group, which includes an attack submarine and five large surface ships led by the helicopter carrier USS Bonhomme Richard, prompted the commander of the Navy's 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, to begin the joint exercise, officials said.

The White House has repeatedly denied speculation that it intends to attack Iran, but has refused to rule out the option. The exercises come less than two weeks after Vice President Dick Cheney stood aboard the Stennis and warned that Washington and its allies would prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating the region.

Bob Drogin writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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