Saturday, February 03, 2007

Iran’s Boast on Uranium Enrichment Is Put to Test

Published: February 4, 2007

After decades of largely clandestine efforts, Iran is expected to declare in coming days that it has made a huge leap toward industrial-scale production of enriched uranium — a defiant act that the country’s leaders will herald as a major technical stride and its neighbors will denounce as a looming threat. But for now, many nuclear experts say, the frenetic activity at the desert enrichment plant in Natanz may be mostly about political showmanship.

The many setbacks and outright failures of Tehran’s experimental program suggest that its bluster may far outstrip its technical expertise. And the problems help explain American intelligence estimates that Iran is at least four years away from producing a nuclear weapon.

After weeks of limited access inside Iran, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency have reported that Tehran has succeeded in manufacturing parts for about 3,000 centrifuges, the devices that can spin uranium into reactor fuel — or bomb fuel. In recent days, the Iranians have begun installing the machines and supporting gear in a cavernous plant at Natanz, which would be a potential target if the United States or one of its allies decided that diplomacy would never keep Iran from getting the bomb.

What the Iranians are not talking about, experts with access to the atomic agency’s information say, is that their experimental effort to make centrifuges work has struggled to achieve even limited success and appears to have been put on the back burner so the country’s leaders can declare that they are moving to the next stage.

To enrich uranium on an industrial scale, the machines must spin at very high speeds for months on end. But the latest report of the atomic agency, issued in November, said the primitive machines of the Iran’s pilot plant ran only intermittently, to enrich small amounts of uranium. And the Iranians succeeded in setting up just two of the planned six groupings of 164 centrifuges at the pilot plant.

“It looks political unless they’ve made progress that we don’t know about,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a weapons analysis group in London.

Iran’s nuclear boasts come in the midst of an increasingly rancorous chess game between Tehran’s mullahs and the Bush administration over the aims of Iran’s nuclear programs, its role in Iraq and its ambitions to become the dominant power in the Middle East. The speculation about imminent conflict has grown so strong that President Bush’s new secretary of defense, Robert M. Gates, who is intimately familiar with Tehran’s nuclear ambitions from his days as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, declared on Friday, “We are not planning for a war with Iran.”

Nuclear experts outside the United States government say that if Iran’s latest move proves successful, in open defiance of a United Nations demand that it suspend all enrichment activity, it could yield fuel for an atom bomb in two or three years, faster than American intelligence has suggested. Even so, Iran’s very public declarations appear to contain large doses of domestic political posturing and outright bluffing.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has become the face of Iranian defiance, is under growing pressure at home because of unemployment and the squeeze of economic sanctions — and President Bush’s advisers have said he may view a nuclear standoff with the United States as a way to help his standing. That, combined with evidence of problems at the pilot plant, suggest that the industrial push may be aimed as much at enriching Iran’s political leverage as enriching uranium.

The Iranians insist their effort is solely to fuel nuclear reactors, a statement that in the recent words of R. Nicholas Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, “no country that has seriously looked at the evidence believes.”

At Natanz, where Iranian crews are installing the centrifuges, the desert south of Tehran gives way to barbed wire, antiaircraft guns and a maze of buildings. Two of those buildings are cavernous halls that, together, are roughly half the size of the Pentagon. They are buried deep underground to withstand attack.

The crews are installing pipes, wiring and control panels and are now stringing together the centrifuges into a “cascade” of connected machines, which spin in parallel to achieve enrichment. “They’re working on the first cascade,” a European diplomat said Friday.

The diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as protocol, added that international inspectors who had just emerged from Tehran saw parts for 3,000 centrifuges. However, all of them are of the most elementary type, known as a P-1. The “P” stands for Pakistan, a legacy of the fact that Iran obtained the design from Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani rogue nuclear pioneer.

Mr. Ahmadinejad claimed last year that the Iranians were also working on a more sophisticated centrifuge, called the P-2, which would enrich uranium far faster. But inspectors have yet to be shown any of those — leading to speculation in Washington and Vienna about whether Iran has another, hidden facility.

In the underground halls at Natanz, Iranian officials say, the country plans to expand the number of centrifuges from 3,000 to 54,000 eventually, in theory letting it enrich uranium by the ton and giving it the capability to make many reactor fuel rods or nuclear weapons.

However, Mr. Fitzpatrick, a former State Department official in the field of nuclear nonproliferation, said the industrial push made little sense given Iran’s problems, as reported the I.A.E.A., in getting its experimental centrifuges to run smoothly at the pilot plant near the cavernous halls of Natanz.

“From a technical point of view,” he said, “it’s illogical to stand up 3,000 centrifuges before you know how to do it.”

The dimensions of Iran’s technical woes are suggested by its delayed schedules. Tehran originally planned to have all six cascades of its experimental plant operating by 2003, and to begin installing centrifuges in the industrial halls in 2005.

Mr. Fitzpatrick added that the industrial push made little strategic sense because the thousands of centrifuges would present a tempting target to an adversary. “You might as well draw a big bull’s eye around them,” he said of the cavernous halls.

Diplomats say they believe Iran plans to unveil its industrial push on Feb. 11, the anniversary of the Islamic revolution. Yesterday, as part of the anniversary celebrations, Iran took diplomats and journalists on a tour of another nuclear facility, at Isfahan.

Mr. Fitzpatrick said Iran would need this year to install the 3,000 machines at Natanz, next year to get them running smoothly, and 9 to 11 months of spinning to have them produce the fuel for a single bomb. He cautioned, however, that such an accomplishment would require all the machinery working more or less perfectly and the Iranians moving “as quickly as they can.”

Iran’s enrichment program, begun in 1985, was born in great secrecy and built on centrifuge plans obtained from the black market of Dr. Khan. In 2002, the covert program was exposed when an Iranian opposition group revealed the construction of the plant at Natanz.

At first, inspectors from the international atomic agency in Vienna had wide latitude to travel through Iran in an effort to comprehend the depth and breadth of the enrichment project — and assess its true nature, whether for war or peace. They toured centrifuge factories, found a hidden centrifuge factory behind a false wall in a small electric facility in downtown Tehran and hunted for signs of weapons-grade enrichment. They visited the cavernous hall at Natanz, until recently a huge, empty basement.

By the atomic agency’s estimates, Iran could produce upwards of 100 centrifuges a month, and was stockpiling them.

Then, last February, after three years of unusual openness, Iran reacted to the growing pressure from Washington and Europe to suspend its enrichment — or face sanctions — by drastically reducing the access of international inspectors to Natanz and dozens of other atomic sites, programs and personnel.

No longer could the inspectors swab machines, scoop up bits of soil, study invoices, peek behind doors and gather seemingly innocuous clues. No longer would the Iranians let the inspectors investigate the origins of traces of highly enriched uranium or examine important documents from the Khan network. Now, the inspectors are limited to a narrow range of operations, leaving them partially blind.

The Iranians appear to have sped ahead. In interviews, diplomats and nuclear officials said recent inspector reports of rapid centrifuge mobilization and installation at Natanz show that Tehran had worked hard for the past year, even as it engaged in increasingly harsh language that some experts took as a cover for technical failings.

Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, recently suggested that the Iranian strides amounted to something of a bargaining chip that might be traded away to head off a larger confrontation.

The West, he proposed at Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 26, might suspend its economic sanctions against Iran while Tehran simultaneously suspended its enrichment of uranium. He floated the idea for what he called a “time-out” after saying that Iranian officials had told him they planned to begin installing centrifuges this month at their Natanz industrial-scale plant.

“Enough flexing muscles, enough calling names,” Dr. ElBaradei told reporters at the World Economic Forum conference. “It’s time to engage.”

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