Wall Street Journal: Iran’s nuclear-fuel production facilities were temporarily suspended this month, the United Nations nuclear watchdog said, in the latest sign of the difficulties Tehran is facing in advancing its atomic work.
The Wall Street Journal
By DAVID CRAWFORD And JAY SOLOMON
Iran’s nuclear-fuel production facilities were temporarily suspended this month, the United Nations nuclear watchdog said, in the latest sign of the difficulties Tehran is facing in advancing its atomic work.
Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency believe the brief stoppage of centrifuges at the Natanz uranium-enrichment site, which started on November 16, was related to the infection of the facility’s control systems by the Stuxnet computer worm, according to diplomats briefed on the report.
The development, said officials with knowledge of the nuclear program, has compounded problems Iran is already facing in running and scaling up the centrifuge cascades at the site in central Iran.
Tehran’s first generation of centrifuges are operating at only 60% of their designed capacity, said these officials. Tehran has so far been unable to employ more advanced equipment at Natanz, probably because of difficulties it is facing in obtaining high-end raw materials.
“This is clearly showing that they’re having technical problems with their machines,” said Olli Heinonen, who served as the IAEA’s top nuclear inspector until August.
U.S. officials in recent weeks have said sanctions are making it difficult for Iran to obtain the equipment to advance its nuclear work. The problems at Natanz could prevent Iran from rapidly enriching its uranium stockpile to the levels needed for an atomic bomb.
Still, American officials Tuesday said the latest IAEA report shouldn’t reduce the international drive to use financial pressure to force Iran into negotiations to end its nuclear work. They also noted fears that Iran could be hiding some of its nuclear installations.
“It seems like they’re struggling,” said a senior U.S. official. “But North Korea is an instructive case for Iran: Every time they’ve faced a failure they’ve somehow found a way to work things out.”
Beginning in June, Iran reported computer attacks on its industrial nuclear installations, including Natanz and the nuclear power reactor in Bushehr.
Independent computer engineers have, subsequently, reported that the Stuxnet worm had been designed to attack computer operating systems of sophisticated machinery—and most of the systems affected by the worm have been in Iran. Speculation has focused on either Israel or the U.S. as the source of the worm, something neither country has confirmed or denied.
On Tuesday, the head of the Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, denied that his country’s nuclear program had been significantly harmed by the Stuxnet computer worm. “Fortunately the nuclear Stuxnet virus has faced a dead end,” he told Iran state media.
The IAEA reported that Iran has produced over 3,100 kilograms of low-enriched uranium at Natanz, approximately enough for two atomic weapons if the material is processed further into weapons grade.
Details of Iran’s temporary halt in enrichment were contained in a nine-page report released Tuesday by the IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano that was prepared in advance of the U.N. agency’s Board of Governors meeting next week.
Mr. Amano also said the opportunity to resolve key questions about Iran’s nuclear program is increasingly in jeopardy as time passes. An IAEA report on Syria’s alleged nuclear activity, also released Tuesday, aired the same concern.
Mr. Amano wrote it is “essential” that Iran grant the agency access to key people, documents and facilities. “The passage of time and the possible deterioration in the availability of some relevant information increase the urgency of this matter,” the report said.
The IAEA says Iran since August 2008 has declined to cooperate with the agency’s investigation into whether it has engaged in “activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” These activities “may have continued beyond 2004,” the IAEA report says.
Iran says it is fulfilling its international obligations to cooperate with the IAEA and its nuclear program is strictly for peaceful purposes.
Diplomats from Russia, China, France, Germany, the U.K. and the U.S. have proposed talks with Iran to discuss outstanding issues related to Iran’s nuclear program, including details for the delivery of fuel for Iran’s medical research reactor, which produces medical isotopes. So far, no date and venue have been set.
Also on Tuesday, the IAEA said Syria’s failure to cooperate with the agency’s investigation of activity at four locations have prevented progress in resolving questions about alleged undisclosed nuclear activity. In 2007 Israeli planes bombed one of the sites, Dair Alzour, before international inspectors could determine whether the site contained nuclear facilities.
Syria denies the site contained nuclear facilities.
“With the passage of time, some of the information concerning the Dair Alzour site is further deteriorating or has been lost entirely,” an IAEA report on Syria’s nuclear program says. The agency says Syrian cooperation is “critical, to resolving “safeguards implementation issues” in Syria.