Friday, August 24, 2012

Iran's progress on nuclear fuel speeding up, say UN inspectors

INTERNATIONAL nuclear inspectors will soon report that Iran has installed hundreds of new centrifuges and may be speeding up production of nuclear fuel while negotiations with the United States and its allies have ground to a near halt, according to diplomats and experts briefed on the findings.
Almost all of the new equipment is being installed in a deep underground site, on a military base near the city of Qom, that is considered virtually invulnerable to attack. It would suggest that a boast by senior Iranian leaders late last month - that the country had added more than 1000 new machines to its installation despite Western sabotage - may be true.

The report will also indicate, according to officials familiar with its contents, that Iran is increasingly focused on enriching uranium to a level of 20 per cent - a purity that experts say gets it most of the way to the level needed to produce a workable nuclear bomb.

The report does not try to answer the question of whether Iran has made a decision to build a nuclear weapon. US intelligence officials believe it has not, and Iran insists it wants to use nuclear power for peaceful ends.

Nonetheless, the report by the International Atomic Energy Agency's experts is likely to renew the debate over Iran's intentions at a time when Israel is stepping up warnings that the window to conduct a pre-emptive military strike is closing.

A faction led by Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak will almost certainly argue that Iran has moved closer to what he calls a ''zone of immunity'', the point at which so much equipment is installed in the underground facility, called Fordow, that it will be too late for Israel to stop Iran from producing a weapon should it choose to do so.

The report could also become an issue in the US presidential race. The presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, used a trip to Israel last month to claim President Barack Obama had wasted time in fruitless negotiations with Iran.

''This will stir more discussion of how much time is left for diplomacy,'' said Olli Heinonen, the former chief inspector for the IAEA and now a fellow at Harvard's Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs. ''Even if the new centrifuges are not operating yet, a thousand new ones would represent a 20 per cent increase - and an increased production level will be a red line for many people.''

Under an offer the US, its Western allies and Russia presented to Iran privately in the late northern spring, Tehran would be allowed to retain some enrichment capability if it turned over its stockpile of 20 per cent-enriched uranium and answered the questions by international inspectors about evidence that it has worked on a weapon.

Although Iranian officials have privately expressed some interest in the plan, it has gone nowhere, and no new negotiating sessions are scheduled, US officials say.

The report, expected to be the last by the IAEA before the US presidential election, will lay out a stark reality: Despite increasingly painful sanctions, and a covert program called ''Olympic Games'' that aimed to slow the Iranian program with cyber attacks, Iran has made substantial progress in producing enriched uranium in recent years - from about one bomb's worth when Mr Obama took office in 2009 to about five today.

But the fuel would require considerable additional enrichment before it was usable in a weapon and, even then, Mr Obama and others have insisted the US would almost certainly have considerable notice before Iran developed a weapon. The Israelis disagree.

They say Iran cannot be permitted to reach a weapons capability, a position Mr Romney seemed to endorse during his visit to Israel in July. Mr Obama has said only that he would prevent Iran from obtaining a weapon.

Many in Israel's military and intelligence establishments argue this is not the time for an attack, and the recently retired chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces, Gabi Ashkenazi, this week joined former officials urging Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to look for other options, from further sanctions to additional covert action.

The Age


Post a Comment

<< Home