Iran Nuclear NewsIran's progress on nuclear fuel brings new urgency, divisions

Iran’s progress on nuclear fuel brings new urgency, divisions

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Wall Street Journal: Iran’s rapid progress toward making nuclear fuel has brought renewed urgency to international efforts to halt the program, but divisions over how to persuade Tehran appear about to deepen. The Wall Street Journal

By DAVID CRAWFORD, MARC CHAMPION and NEIL KING JR.
May 16, 2007; Page A10

Iran’s rapid progress toward making nuclear fuel has brought renewed urgency to international efforts to halt the program, but divisions over how to persuade Tehran appear about to deepen.

International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei said inspections of Iran’s uranium-enrichment facilities conducted last week made it clear the country has mastered the technology to enrich uranium sooner than expected.

Preventing Iran from acquiring the know-how to enrich uranium — a process that can make fuel for civilian or military purposes — has been a central goal of the international community’s efforts to persuade Tehran to suspend its enrichment program. Iran says its program is strictly civilian.

“Keeping them from getting the knowledge has been overtaken by events,” Mr. ElBaradei said in an emailed response to a query about the significance of the Iranian advance.

“This is a major change; it shows that time is very much on Iran’s side,” said a European Union diplomat familiar with efforts to relaunch talks with Iran, which broke down in 2005. The diplomat said no action is expected before Mr. ElBaradei delivers a formal report to the United Nations Security Council, expected next week.

Thereafter, the council will consider whether to extend or deepen sanctions imposed since December. “We haven’t been able to start negotiations because we can’t agree [with Iran”> on a suspension” of the enrichment program, the diplomat added. “But…the closer the Iranians get, the harder it will be to get a suspension.”

Mr. ElBaradei, in a New York Times interview yesterday, said Iran’s progress means the Security Council’s focus — currently on getting Iran to suspend its program — should now be to prevent “industrial-scale production” and to get Tehran to allow broad inspections.

But any efforts by Security Council members to soften the demand for suspension would likely be blocked by the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

“Of course, ElBaradei offers his own personal perspective from time to time on what the major powers should be offering, but I don’t think those arguments will prevail,” a spokesman for the British foreign office said. The spokesman said the sanctions strategy has been successful in reducing foreign investment in Iran and promoting some “soul-searching” among the nation’s leadership.

U.S. officials said Washington wouldn’t back off its insistence that Iran suspend its enrichment work or face much stiffer international sanctions. “We do not agree with the assertion that the world must accept whatever advances Iran has made on its nuclear work,” said a U.S. official involved in Iran policy. “Just because you get it doesn’t mean you get to keep it,” the official added, although U.S. efforts so far have focused on suspension, not dismantling equipment.

Evidence Iran is making progress on its enrichment program is sure to increase domestic pressure on Washington to get tougher on Tehran. The issue is already a focus of the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, with candidates from both parties repeating that all options must remain on the table, including the possibility of a military strike to try to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

After a visit to Iran last week, U.N. nuclear inspectors believe the country will have 3,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium running within a month, another diplomat familiar with the matter said yesterday. That would be enough to produce sufficient weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon within two years.

That is also more than double the number of centrifuges Iran currently has working at its Natanz underground facility. The increase suggests Iran is making unexpectedly fast progress toward solving the technological puzzles essential to uranium enrichment.

Iran has been under international pressure to suspend the program ever since it was exposed in 2003. The IAEA hasn’t been able to certify that the program is intended for purely civilian use, as Tehran claims.

Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign-policy representative, is due to meet Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, in about two weeks. Mr. Solana has been trying unsuccessfully to find a formula to bring Iran back to the table while also persuading it to suspend its enrichment program.

Estimates of how long it would take for Iran to produce a nuclear bomb vary widely, but obtaining fuel is the biggest challenge. David Albright, a former nuclear inspector, said in an interview yesterday that he believes Iran is about two years from producing a nuclear weapon, should it choose to do so. Mr. Albright is in close consultation with IAEA inspectors.

The 3,000-centrifuge hall at Natanz will likely be operational in June, according to Mr. Albright. Iran’s goal would then be to achieve industrial production by the end of this year, he said.

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