New York Times: International nuclear inspectors are expected to report next week that Iran has started producing enriched uranium on a very small scale, indicating that it is striving to solve technological problems in its nuclear program, European officials said Friday. New York Times
By ELAINE SCIOLINO and DAVID E. SANGER
PARIS, Feb. 24 International nuclear inspectors are expected to report next week that Iran has started producing enriched uranium on a very small scale, indicating that it is striving to solve technological problems in its nuclear program, European officials said Friday.
Only a month after Iran defied Europe and the International Atomic Energy Agency and declared it would restart what it termed research on enrichment, it has put 10 centrifuges into operation at the vast uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, according to the officials.
But it would take a year for more than a thousand machines to produce enough material for one weapon, and it is unclear how long it will take Iran to work out the problems of tying those machines into a “cascade” that could produce bomb-grade fuel.
American and European officials said they viewed Iran’s action as largely a political statement an effort, in the words of one senior American official, “to get something in operation in hopes that the world will just get used to it.”
At a meeting of the I.A.E.A. board on March 6, Bush administration officials plan to cite the move as evidence that Tehran is moving as fast as it can to master the fuel cycle. That would yield the technical knowledge, but not necessarily the capacity, to produce highly enriched uranium for a weapon.
The 10 centrifuges, which European officials say are connected in a “mini-cascade,” had been sealed as part of a voluntary agreement in November 2004 between Iran and the Europeans that had frozen Iran’s nuclear enrichment-related activities. That agreement fell apart last month.
But Iran’s efforts to reconstitute its operation are still just beginning. The Institute for Science and International Security, which monitors Iran, said Thursday that “Iran still needs to repair and operate its first 164-machine test cascade at the Natanz pilot plant,” and that it has to overcome considerable hurdles. “One of the reasons Iran spun many centrifuges is that they broke, or did not work as expected.”
The new centrifuges have been run in full view of nuclear inspectors, a sign that Iran is trying to make a political statement by openly challenging the international community.
In Washington on Friday, President Bush made no reference to the specific development, but once again branded Iran the world’s primary sponsor of terrorism, and warned that the United States would never let the country develop nuclear weapons.
“A nontransparent society that is the world’s premier state sponsor of terror cannot be allowed to possess the world’s most dangerous weapons,” he said in a speech defending his strategy in fighting terrorism.
Senior administration officials were quick to latch on to the news of the operating centrifuges as proof that Iran was trying to buy time in producing cascades. But some officials in Europe, including some with direct knowledge of Iran’s activities, said the United States was exaggerating the importance of the development.
“On its own, I don’t think this is a big deal,” said one official in Vienna.
The report next week by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, based in Vienna, is expected to be forwarded to the United Nations Security Council after the agency’s 35-nation board meets. Officials in Vienna and Washington say they expect the report to include a number of worrisome developments besides the news about the centrifuges.
It is likely to include information disclosed in an interim agency report last month that concluded there was evidence suggesting links between Iran’s ostensibly peaceful nuclear program and its military work on high explosives and missiles. That report referred to a secretive Iranian entity called the Green Salt Project, which worked on uranium processing, high explosives and a missile warhead design.
Olli Heinonen, a deputy director general for the nuclear agency, is heading this weekend to Tehran, where officials have pledged to cooperate more fully with the agency in anticipation of next week’s reports.
He and his team will also press longstanding demands, including access to the head of a former military site in Tehran, information about Iran’s dealings with an international nuclear black market that supplied it with atomic technology, and information about possible work related to nuclear weapons.
On Feb. 4, under pressure from the United States and three European countries that had forged the 2004 agreement with Iran France, Britain and Germany the agency’s board voted to report Iran to the Security Council, a move that reflected increasing suspicion that Iran was determined to develop nuclear weapons.
The board has delayed any action in the Security Council, however, until it has the opportunity to review the new report on March 6.
Elaine Sciolino reported from Paris for this article, and David E. Sanger from Washington.