Iran Nuclear NewsNew enrichment site heightens Iran concerns

New enrichment site heightens Iran concerns

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ImageAP: Western intelligence puts Iran's newly revealed nuclear plant in the arid mountains southwest of Tehran, not far from one of the holiest cities in Shiite Islam. The Associated Press

By GEORGE JAHN

ImageVIENNA (AP) — Western intelligence puts Iran's newly revealed nuclear plant in the arid mountains southwest of Tehran, not far from one of the holiest cities in Shiite Islam.

Neither Iran nor the International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed the location or size of the facility. Nor have they given details on its purpose. But diplomats with access to Western intelligence say the plant is about 160 kilometers — 100 miles — from the capital, near Qom, a center of Shiite religious teaching and the site of one of Shiism's most revered shrines.

The U.S. and Israel have not ruled out the possibility of a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities as a last resort if Iran's continues to flout U.N. Security Council demands that it cease uranium enrichment.

But any strike near Qom would likely provoke a backlash among Shiite Muslims across the Middle East.

The intelligence assessment cited by diplomats says the site is meant to house no more than 3,000 enriching centrifuges — much less than the more than 8,000 machines at Iran's Natanz site which is being monitored by the IAEA.

But the plant, which intelligence reports say is set to start operation next year, could be set up for advanced domestically developed centrifuges that enrich uranium at much higher speed and efficiency than the decades old P-1 type centrifuges acquired on the black market and enriching at Natanz.

That means Iran could enrich much more quickly with fewer centrifuges than at Natanz, where it has already accumulated enough low enriched material to turn out enough weapons-grade uranium — enriched to 90 percent and beyond — for one nuclear weapon.

Tehran insists the facility is not a threat. Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi suggested Friday that International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors will be allowed to visit the previously secret facility.

Iran first confirmed the existence of the plant on Monday, in a letter to IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei. Salehi, speaking only hours after the existence of the letter was revealed by diplomats, said the facility is a "successful new step in the direction of preserving and enjoying its accepted right for peaceful use of nuclear energy."

"The activities of this facility, like other nuclear facilities in Iran, will be in the framework of the measures of the agency," he said, suggesting that the new facility could be opened to inspectors, like Iran's known enrichment facility, Natanz.

But the fact that Iran disclosed the plant's existence only a few days before it was publicly revealed suggests it may have done so only because it wanted to go on record before being exposed.

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