Iran Nuclear NewsOil fuels Iran’s confidence on nuclear ambitions

Oil fuels Iran’s confidence on nuclear ambitions

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The Times: Iran is giving not an inch in the stand-off over its nuclear ambitions. Two reports next week are likely to accuse it of breaking international agreements, but with oil at $98 a barrel boosting its confidence, it is not showing any inclination to yield. The Times

Bronwen Maddox: World Briefing

Iran is giving not an inch in the stand-off over its nuclear ambitions. Two reports next week are likely to accuse it of breaking international agreements, but with oil at $98 a barrel boosting its confidence, it is not showing any inclination to yield.

Yesterday President Ahmadinejad implied that Iran had 3,000 centrifuges enriching uranium. This is the most controversial work, because it can produce weapons grade material as well as low grade fuel for reactors.

His phrasing was imprecise on the crucial point of whether this tricky technology is actually working. “We have now reached 3,000 machines,” he said, describing the enrichment project at the Natanz underground site.

He has used the 3,000 figure before, and it meant less than it might seem. In April, the first time that Iran claimed to have 3,000 centrifuges, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations watchdog, said that only 328 were up and running. At the end of the summer it said that nearly 2,000 were probably running but it was unsure that the efficiency was all that Iran claimed.

Its next report, expected next week, will give its new reckoning. A separate report, by Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief, on his own negotiatons with the Iranian nuclear team is due at about the same time.

It is not surprising that Iran has run into these technical problems. Mastering enrichment – specifically, getting a chain of centrifuges to spin extremely fast and feed increasingly enriched uranium gas through to each other – is the biggest hurdle between any country and nuclear self-sufficiency. It has given a cushion of comfort to those trying to stop Iran achieving this. But it is only a matter of time before Iran does.

The point of Ahmadinejad’s noisy claims about its capability, it seems, is to force other countries to accept enrichment as a fact in any talks. So far, Britain, the US, France and Germany have insisted that any enrichment, even in a so-called pilot scheme, is unacceptable.

The next fortnight will show if this demanding goal is sustainable. A tough report from the IAEA, listing Iran’s failures to comply with international obligations to be open about its work, plus a caustic account from Solana, will test whether China and Russia will back new sanctions, and whether Iran might then give way.

In the five years since Iran’s 20-year hidden programme came to light, there have been endless rounds of IAEA reports, threats and unsatisfactory Iranian responses. It rises to a peak of tension, ebbs and then starts again.

But this round matters more. It will show whether getting rid of Iranian enrichment capability can still be a goal of the West’s diplomatic efforts, or whether it is a lost cause. If that is the case, talks (if they continue) will switch to trying to set the terms for intrusive inspections by the IAEA, to give some comfort that Iran is not diverting enriched uranium to bombs. But that is a very different discussion and, for the West, would mark the failure of round one.

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