By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Iran has taken another step in its ability to enrich uranium, the head of the U.N. atomic energy agency confirmed yesterday, as the Bush administration and European allies failed to reach agreement on sanctions against Tehran's expanding nuclear program.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said that Iranian technicians had pieced together a second line, or cascade, of 164 centrifuges and are days away from using the cascade to enrich uranium.
"It's in place and ready to go," ElBaradei said in a brief interview yesterday.
European officials suggested that the new cascade is a political move by Iranian officials who are hoping to send a defiant message to the U.N. Security Council as it weighs possible sanctions.
It would take many years for the Iranians to produce bomb-grade uranium using the other 164-centrifuge cascade it is currently operating, and U.S. intelligence officials think that Tehran is at least four years away from gaining the technical capability to produce enough nuclear material for a single weapon. Since February, Iran has produced minuscule amounts of low-enriched uranium suitable for the energy program that the government says it wants, and not for bombs. The same cascades, if run longer and more efficiently, can produce bomb-grade uranium.
The Bush administration has dismissed the energy claims and thinks Iran intends to use the program to secretly build nuclear weapons. ElBaradei's inspectors, on their fourth year investigating in Iran, reported earlier this year that they were unable to determine whether the Iranian program is peaceful.
The United States backed a package of European incentives designed to coax Iran into negotiations if it suspended the nuclear program during talks. When Tehran did not respond to the offer, the Security Council stepped in and passed a resolution in August obligating Iran to halt the program and negotiate. The council threatened to impose sanctions if Iran balked.
Iran has since said it wants talks with China, Europe, Russia and the United States but will not suspend its nuclear work in advance, arguing instead that it is exercising its right to peaceful nuclear technology. Iran signed on to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in the 1960s, forswearing nuclear weapons for sensitive technology that could be used for an energy program.
Yesterday, U.S. diplomats met with British and French negotiators to try to complete a draft resolution on sanctions that the rest of the council members, including China and Russia, would approve. The Bush administration had hoped to reach an agreement last Friday, but European officials said they were not comfortable with some of the tougher measures that the United States sought to impose.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said there was "widespread agreement, although not total agreement," among Britain, France and the United States on sanctions. European officials said privately that the resolution is likely to be limited to a ban on any nuclear or missile trade with Iran, while carving out an exception for a preexisting Iranian-Russian nuclear deal.
Some U.S. officials have been pushing for broader action, including travel bans and financial restrictions on people connected to the nuclear program.
Iran began its program in secret in 1987, with equipment and know-how from Pakistan's top nuclear scientist. The existence of the program, which includes a large facility in the town of Natanz built to house thousands of centrifuges, was made public in 2002 by Iranian exiles who hope to overthrow the country's clerical regime. The Pakistani scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, remains under house arrest in Pakistan, but the Pakistani government has refused to let U.S. officials directly question him about Iran's program or other programs he supplied in North Korea and Libya.
A senior Pakistani military official said yesterday that Khan responds to written U.S. requests for information as best he can. The Pakistani official, in Washington to lobby against a U.S. nuclear deal with rival India, said his country had put Khan and his black market network in the past and suggested it is time for the United States to also move beyond the episode.
Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.