Iran reportedly expanding nuclear activities

Posted in Iran | 24-Oct-06 | Author: David Sanger| Source: International Herald Tribune

IAEA Director General Mohammed ElBaradei.
WASHINGTON The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said Monday that Iran had begun testing new uranium enrichment equipment that would double the capacity of its small research-and-development facilities.

The action would appear to be a signal to the United Nations Security Council that Iran would respond to sanctions by speeding forward with its nuclear program.

Since February, when Iran publicly celebrated its first production of enriched uranium, progress at its main nuclear complex at Natanz has reportedly been slow. Iran has sporadically operated a single "cascade" of 164 centrifuges, the devices that spin at high speed and turn ordinary uranium into a fuel usable for nuclear power plants - or, at higher enrichment levels, nuclear weapons.

Those reports had prompted speculation that Iranian engineers have run into considerable technical difficulties.

But in an interview on Monday, Mohammed ElBaradei, the director general of the I.A.E.A., said that "based on our most recent inspections, the second centrifuge cascade is in place and ready to go." He said that no uranium had yet been entered into the new system, but could be as early as next week.

Even with two cascades running, it would take years for Iran to produce enough enriched uranium to produce a single nuclear weapon.

The United States director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte, has said repeatedly that he believes Tehran is 4 to 10 years away from developing a weapon, even though its technology base is far more advanced than that of North Korea, which conducted a nuclear test 15 days ago.

Unlike Pyongyang, Iran has insisted that it does not intend to build a weapon. Nonetheless, Iran ignored an Aug. 31 deadline, set by the Security Council, to stop enriching uranium.

Since then, European nations, China, Russia and the United States have been debating what sanctions, if any, should be imposed. China and Russia have resisted, and in a speech Monday at Georgetown University's school of foreign service, ElBaradei made clear that he believes sanctions are unlikely to work.

"Penalizing them is not a solution," he said. "At the end of the day, we have to bite the bullet and talk to North Korea and Iran."

Unlike American officials, he said he remained unpersuaded that Iran's ultimate goal is to build a weapon, although I.A.E.A. officials believe that Iran wants to have all of the major components of a weapon in hand so that it is clear that it could build one in weeks or months.

"The jury is still out on whether they are developing a nuclear weapon," ElBaradei said at Georgetown, after meeting earlier in the day with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

After the meeting, Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, said there was now "widespread agreement, although not total agreement," on elements of an initial sanctions package. He would not speculate about when the sanctions might come to a vote; at the end of the summer, Bush administration officials insisted the security council would act in September.

McCormack noted that the Iranians seemed to be moving ahead "inexorably at this point," so that at some point "you will have industrial-scale production. You don't want that."

Some European diplomats have expressed concern that should the Security Council act, the moderates in the Iranian government who have been involved in negotiations over the nuclear program could be shoved aside, and that some combination of military leaders and hard-line mullahs would push the country to speed its nuclear production.