Although Iran continues to stockpile enriched uranium in defiance of U.N. resolutions, two new reports portray the country’s nuclear program as riddled with problems as scientists struggle to keep older equipment working.
At Iran’s largest nuclear complex, near the city of Natanz, fast-spinning machines called centrifuges churn out enriched uranium. But the average output is steadily declining as the equipment breaks down, according to an analysis of data collected by U.N. nuclear officials.
Iran has vowed to replace the older machines with models that are faster and more efficient. Yet new centrifuges recently introduced at Natanz contain parts made from an inferior type of metal that is weaker and more prone to failure, according to a report by the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington nonprofit group widely regarded for its analysis of nuclear programs.
“Without question, they have been set back,” said David Albright, president of the institute and a former inspector for the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. Although the problems are not fatal for Iran’s nuclear ambitions, they have “hurt Iran’s ability to break out quickly” into the ranks of the world’s nuclear powers, Albright said.
U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that Iran’s clerical leaders are seeking to rapidly acquire the technical capability to make nuclear weapons, though there are indications that top officials have not yet firmly committed to building the bomb. Iran maintains that its nuclear intentions are peaceful.
Western diplomats and nuclear experts say Iranian officials have been frustrated and angered by the program’s numerous setbacks, including deadly attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists. Four Iranian scientists have been killed by unidentified assailants since 2007, and a fifth narrowly escaped death in an attempted car-bombing.
Some U.S. officials have suggested that the alleged plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington was emblematic of the frustration and disarray within Iran’s ruling elite at a time when internal unrest has destabilized the nation’s closest Arab ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
U.S. officials have said that the alleged assassination plot originated from elements within Iran’s elite Quds Force, a covert paramilitary group. But it is not clear whether the nation’s top leaders knew about or approved the plan.