Iran Nuclear NewsIran's drive to nuclear fuel slows, diplomats say

Iran’s drive to nuclear fuel slows, diplomats say


New York Times: After boasting last month that it had joined the “nuclear club” by successfully enriching uranium on an industrial scale — and portraying its action as irreversible — Iran appears to have slowed its drive to produce nuclear fuel, according to European diplomats who have reviewed reports from inspectors inside the country. The New York Times


After boasting last month that it had joined the “nuclear club” by successfully enriching uranium on an industrial scale — and portraying its action as irreversible — Iran appears to have slowed its drive to produce nuclear fuel, according to European diplomats who have reviewed reports from inspectors inside the country.

The diplomats say the slowdown may be part of a deliberate Iranian strategy to lower the temperature of its standoff with the West over its nuclear program, and perhaps to create an opening for Washington to join the negotiations directly — something President Bush has so far refused to do.

In discussions with White House and State Department officials in recent days, Europeans have described the inspectors’ findings, clearly hoping to influence a debate within the Bush administration over whether to change strategy and engage directly with Iran. But hard-liners in the administration say they are unconvinced and think any slowdown may be merely a tactical ploy by the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “It could simply mean we’re not looking in the right places,” said one senior official with access to the intelligence and who has long suspected that Iran has a secret weapons program.

Nuclear experts, accustomed to measuring the efficiency of uranium centrifuges rather than of diplomatic initiatives, caution, too, that the slowdown may mean that Iran has run into technical obstacles on its nuclear road. Centrifuges are machines whose rotors spin extraordinarily fast to enrich, or concentrate, uranium into material that can fuel nuclear reactors or atom bombs.

Diplomats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the topic’s political delicacy, say that Iranian engineers stopped pouring a raw form of uranium, called UF6, into arrays of centrifuges after just 12 days, even as the nation erupted in celebrations of the enrichment feat. The reports, which have now been widely circulated, say the Iranians kept the empty centrifuges spinning, as is standard practice because slowing the delicate machines can cause them to wobble and crash.

Understanding why the enrichment run was so short — and why Iran has failed to put more centrifuges into operation — are the newest mysteries about its program.

“The pace is more diplomatic than technical,” said a senior European diplomat who monitors the Iranian program, and who has told the Bush administration that he believes the slowdown could be a signal. “They could probably have gone faster. But they don’t want to provoke.”

But they also do not want to stop, and that is the crux of the standoff.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reaffirmed in a meeting with Parliament members yesterday that Iran would not back down in the face of Western pressure over its nuclear program.

“The young Iranian engineers, with their success in nuclear technology, have in fact guaranteed the long-term energy future for the country,” Ayatollah Khamenei said, the Iranian Student News Agency reported. “We must not give up this achievement at any price, because retreat is a 100 percent loss.”

As Ayatollah Khamenei was meeting with members of Parliament, the secretary of the Russian National Security Council, Igor S. Ivanov, held a three-hour meeting with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani. Officials in Tehran said that the two were discussing the prospect of conducting uranium enrichment in Russia, and that Mr. Ivanov was pushing Iran to accept a European proposal of economic aid in return for ending its enrichment program.

Meanwhile, President Bush and his advisers have maintained that no negotiations can resume between Europe and Iran “while one centrifuge spins” in the country. “Once they master the technology, it would be easier for them to go underground with a covert program,” Greg Schulte, the American ambassador to the atomic energy agency, said in Washington last week. “They appear to be moving forward very methodically to develop that knowledge.”

So far, Britain and France have held to the same view, though German officials have begun to argue that allowing a low level of Iranian enrichment activity — essentially, allowing the Iranians to maintain their current activity — is harmless. “They’ve cracked the code,” one senior German official said last week. “We’re kidding ourselves if we think we are going to deny them the knowledge” of how to produce nuclear fuel.

Whether Tehran and Washington can find any face-saving middle ground could depend on how quickly the Iranians move toward, or delay, what they say is the next phase: building new centrifuges, with the aim of installing nearly 1,000 by the end of this year.

If the Iranians were racing forward, experts say, they would have made substantial progress in installing those centrifuges. But they have not. One senior European diplomat said such delays could reflect a decision to pause for scientific evaluation as well as a diplomatic effort “not to rock the boat.”

The action, or lack of it, centers on the desert south of Tehran, where Iran has built a sprawling industrial site near the city of Natanz that includes a pilot enrichment plant.

It was there, on April 11, that the Iranians announced that they had enriched uranium to the low levels needed to fuel a nuclear reactor. They depicted the achievement as just the start of a sprint. “Our young scientists are working day and night,” Gholamreza Aghazadeh, who is in charge of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, told an Iranian television interviewer the next day. “People are shocked and surprised that this has happened so quickly.”

Then, on April 28 in Vienna, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that the Iranians were assembling two more cascades, or strings of centrifuges, each consisting of 164 machines. On May 17, David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a research group in Washington that tracks the Iranian program, told Congress that those cascades were expected to start operating in May and June, respectively.

But in an interview last week, a diplomat close to the international watchdog agencies disclosed that the atomic agency would report soon that the Iranians had made little progress on the new cascades.

That would be a setback, at least as measured by Iran’s declared intentions. It has said the pilot plant is to hold a total of six cascades made up of 984 centrifuges — a goal nuclear analysts expected Iran to achieve later this year. They see that as roughly the minimum number of centrifuges Iran would need to enrich enough uranium to make a single bomb. Analysts say that if the complicated plant worked reliably and efficiently, and if Tehran decided to throw out the inspectors and abandon its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, using the cascades to make fuel for a nuclear weapon would take a little more than two years.

The assessments of Iran’s progress, however, are hampered because Tehran has curtailed its cooperation with nuclear inspectors and sharply limited their ability to follow their hunches around the country. The inspectors still have a legal right under the nonproliferation treaty to track radioactive materials and their manipulation, giving them a window into the pilot plant at Natanz. But they cannot look at other buildings, and the Iranians have barred them from monitoring the manufacturing of centrifuges.

Even peering through the keyhole, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s findings and Tehran’s own statements have combined to raise questions about its claims of irreversible breakthroughs in developing indigenous nuclear technology.

For instance, the inspectors found that Iran in the first enrichment campaign used not only its own raw uranium but material it had imported from China. Its domestic supplies are reportedly laced with impurities that can reduce the efficiency of delicate centrifuges or cut their lives short.

In addition, the centrifuges that Iran is running appear to be inefficient. Mr. Aghazadeh’s remarks after the announcement last month contained detailed information on the rate at which Iran’s centrifuges had enriched uranium, allowing Western experts to calculate their efficiency. While the cascade worked, “It didn’t operate well,” Mr. Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security said in an interview, echoing his May 17 Congressional testimony.

But a European nuclear expert who closely monitors the atomic energy agency’s work said that such low efficiencies were characteristic of initial centrifuge efforts, and that the Iranians would undoubtedly improve their record as they gained experience.

Over all, the first diplomat said, the Iranians, despite start-up problems, had clearly pushed enrichment into the industrial phase, confronting the world with a strengthened nuclear agenda. “They crossed the Rubicon in terms of having the basic knowledge,” he said. “And that has changed the dynamic.”

Nazila Fathi contributed reporting from Tehran for this article.

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