By Colum Lynch and Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 25, 2006
UNITED NATIONS, March 24 -- With U.N. negotiations over Iran's nuclear program deadlocked Friday, the United States and Britain voiced alarm that Tehran's uranium-enrichment program is advancing.
But U.N. technical experts cautioned that Iran still faces significant hurdles to enriching uranium at a grade required for making a nuclear weapon. And a senior Russian official said that Iran's activities simply highlight the need to support U.N. inspectors' efforts to assess the country's nuclear intentions, not to threaten sanctions.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a telephone conversation Friday to support a Security Council statement that would call on Iran to halt its enrichment activities. They agreed to instruct diplomats to work through the weekend to try to break the impasse. The United States, Britain and France want the Security Council to threaten Iran with tough action, while Russia wants to resolve the crisis through continued negotiation.
"I think that everybody just needs to get to work and let's get this done so that the Iranians have a very clear message about what's going on," Rice said.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, last week briefed diplomats from Britain, France, the United States, China, Russia and Germany, at the request of all six countries, on the progress Iran has made in assembling a 164-centrifuge "cascade" for uranium enrichment. Such a cascade would be far too small to produce enough weapons-grade fuel for a bomb, experts said. But U.S. and British officials expressed concern that it showed Tehran was mastering the enrichment technology as it works toward building an industrial-scale nuclear enrichment program that would run thousands of centrifuges with the capacity to produce fuel for weapons.
IAEA officials who observed Iran's work on the ground two weeks ago reported that the Iranians could complete the 164-centrifuge cascade by the end of March, two months earlier than predicted by technical experts in Vienna, where the IAEA is based, officials said. The Iranians could begin testing the cascade at that stage, beginning with inert gas. If that test is successful, Iran is likely to notify IAEA inspectors that it intends to begin enriching uranium.
Iran has said repeatedly that its nuclear program is for civilian energy, and that it plans to produce low-enriched uranium only to fuel such efforts. But the same technology would allow Iran to produce highly enriched uranium that could be used for weapons.
Getting multiple centrifuges to operate together in arrays known as cascades is one of the most daunting engineering challenges in the process of developing enriched uranium. Until now, Iran has been trying to get about 20 centrifuges to work in a cascade. The attempt to try 164 suggests that the Iranians have succeeded at the lower number, but IAEA officials cautioned in the briefing that Iran still faces many technical hurdles in operating a larger cascade, according to U.S. and European officials.
Britain's ambassador to the United Nations, Emyr Jones Parry, said he is "very concerned" that the latest Iranian advance will provide Iran with the technological expertise needed to enrich uranium on a much larger scale. "If you can do 164, you can probably do many more" centrifuges, Jones Parry said. "That means you have the potential to do full-scale enrichment."
A senior U.S. official said that the Bush administration expressed similar concerns. "The reports that Iran is speeding up its enrichment program at Natanz is alarming to all of us, not just to the United States," the official said.
Konstantin K. Dolgov, a senior U.N.-based Russian diplomat, said that the IAEA briefing provided "another argument for the IAEA to continue its activities on Iran." Dolgov said his government is prepared to support a council statement on Iran, but only if it "would clearly and unambiguously support the leading role of the IAEA." The IAEA is considered more likely to favor negotiations than the Security Council, which can impose sanctions.
The United States, Britain and France think the Security Council should take the lead in pressuring Iran, but they are growing increasingly skeptical at the prospects of winning Russian and Chinese support for that.
A senior official in Britain's Foreign Office, John Sawyers, wrote in a confidential March 16 letter to U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns and European officials that there "is a recognition that we are not going to bring the Russians and Chinese to accept significant sanctions over the coming months, certainly not without further efforts to bring the Iranians around." He suggested that Iran be offered a new package of inducements to halt its enrichment activities in exchange for a Chinese and Russian commitment to tougher council action if it refuses to comply.
If negotiations with the Russians fail, administration officials are discussing ways of appealing directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin, something that presumably would require President Bush's personal involvement.
Staff writer Peter Baker in Washington contributed to this report.