AP: Iran’s uranium enrichment program appears stalled despite tough talk from the Tehran leadership, leaving intelligence services guessing about why it has not made good on plans to press ahead with activities that the West fears could be used to make nuclear arms, diplomats said Thursday. Associated Press
By GEORGE JAHN
Associated Press Writer
VIENNA, Austria (AP) – Iran’s uranium enrichment program appears stalled despite tough talk from the Tehran leadership, leaving intelligence services guessing about why it has not made good on plans to press ahead with activities that the West fears could be used to make nuclear arms, diplomats said Thursday.
Outside monitoring of Iran’s nuclear endeavors is restricted to International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of declared sites leaving significant blind spots for both the agency and intelligence agencies of member countries trying to come up with the full picture.
Still, Tehran’s reluctance to crank up activities at its declared enrichment site at Natanz when it seems to have the technical know-how is puzzling the diplomatic and intelligence communities – with some saying it was potentially worrisome.
Diplomats accredited or otherwise linked to the Vienna-based IAEA, speaking on condition of anonymity in exchange for discussing restricted information on the Iranian program, said some intelligence services believed that the Natanz site was a front.
While the world’s attention is focused on Natanz, Iranian scientists and military personnel could be working on a secret enrichment program at one or more unknown sites that are much more advanced than what is going on at the declared site, they said.
At the same time, they said the lack of new activity at the two pilot enrichment plants set up at Natanz could be good news.
The diplomats said they could suggest Iranian hesitancy to provoke U.N. Security Council sanctions harsher than the relatively mild penalties agreed last month in response to Tehran’s refusal to heed an August deadline to suspend enrichment. Or, they said, the hesitation is a sign of headway by relative moderates in the leadership unhappy with the confrontational nuclear antics of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Anthony Cordesman, an Iran expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggested an additional possibility linked to theories that Tehran was forging ahead with its enrichment program and undisclosed locations: fear that any major progress at Natanz could provoke military action by Israel or the United States.
“It’s a known facility and more and more of the subject of discussion as a possible Israeli or U.S. target,” Cordesman said from Washington. “So, do you use this facility now or wait to see what threat … you face?”
IAEA inspectors arrived at Natanz on Wednesday for a routine round of monitoring. But one of the diplomats said they were unlikely to find anything but the status quo – two small pilot plants assembled in 164-centrifuge “cascades” but working only sporadically to produce small quantities of non-weapons grade enriched uranium and other individual centrifuges undergoing mechanical testing. That has essentially been the situation at Natanz since late November, he said.
There have been no signs of any activity linked to Iranian plans to assemble 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz and move them into an underground facility as the start of an ambitious program foreseeing 50,000 centrifuges producing enriched material, said the diplomats.
Enrichment can result in either low-level nuclear fuel or the highly processed fissile core for nuclear weapons. Tehran insists it is interested only in generating power with the program.