Boost in Iran's Capacity To Enrich Uranium Noted

By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 19, 2007

Iran has doubled its capacity to enrich uranium in the past two months but remains far from the technological know-how the Bush administration fears and the capabilities that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently claimed, according to an official letter written by a senior U.N. nuclear inspector yesterday.

The letter to Iranian officials from Olli Heinonen, a deputy director general at the International Atomic Energy Agency, confirmed that, in a visit earlier this week, inspectors saw eight separate lines -- or "cascades" -- with 164 centrifuges each operating at a nuclear enrichment facility in the town of Natanz and that "some uranium is being fed into those cascades." A copy of the letter was made available to The Washington Post.

In February, inspectors reported seeing four such cascades operating at the same site, but none was enriching uranium. At the time, Iranian officials said they hoped to be operating 18 cascades by May, each one of which could enrich uranium.

Ahmadinejad and his aides suggested two weeks ago that Iran had reached that goal and was operating 3,000 centrifuges, a number that would signal significant progress in the country's effort to enrich large quantities of uranium. But on Sunday and Monday, inspectors saw a total of 1,312 centrifuges in separate cascades, according to the letter. It remains unclear how effectively they are running, because Iran has encountered considerable technological hurdles in the past two years.

If Iran masters the technology to run the centrifuges in large cascades at high speeds for prolonged periods, it could produce enough uranium for a nuclear bomb. So far, it has not demonstrated the ability to properly build, assemble or run centrifuges that spin uranium at high speeds to purify it for uses such as fuel.

"The whole game for the Iranians is to present a fait accompli," said one U.S. official who agreed to discuss sensitive aspects of the program on the condition of anonymity. "They can put thousands and thousands of centrifuges together, but if none operate the way they need to over a sustained period, then they haven't mastered enrichment. But they want to create the impression that they have and then use it as a bargaining ploy in negotiations."

U.S. intelligence officials have estimated that Iran is as many as 10 years away from being able to manufacture enough uranium for a single weapon and the means to deliver it. Iranian officials say their efforts are aimed solely at producing low-enriched uranium for a future nuclear energy program. But Bush administration officials have charged that the effort is a cover for a weapons program that must be stopped. Because the same system can produce either low-grade or bomb-grade uranium, U.S. officials have said that Iran should be prevented from using the technology until there is international confidence that the country's intentions are peaceful.

On a stop in Israel yesterday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said there is time for diplomacy in dealing with Iran's program, a strategy, he said, that "appears to be working."

"These things don't work overnight, but it seems to me clearly the preferable course to keep our focus on the diplomatic initiatives, and particularly because of the united front of the international community at this point," he added.

The IAEA letter, addressed to Iran's ambassador to the agency, noted that Tehran recently agreed -- after several months of negotiations -- to allow inspectors to make unannounced visits in Natanz and to install tamper-proof 24-hour monitoring cameras directed at the cascades. "I trust that these arrangements will be implemented as agreed," Heinonen wrote.

But Heinonen took exception with an Iranian decision to end inspections at a nuclear research reactor under construction in the city of Arak. U.N. Security Council resolutions have called on Iran to stop work at Arak and Natanz or face increased economic sanctions.

Iran maintains that its program is permissible under the terms of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and that it has no intention of complying with the resolutions.

Before the resolutions were passed, Tehran agreed to inspections at Arak, and agency representatives visited the site in January. But after the most recent U.N. sanctions were imposed, in March, Iran responded by notifying the agency that it was ending access.

In the letter, Heinonen said the action "was not justified" and that it is the legal opinion of the agency that the agreement "cannot be modified unilaterally." An IAEA official, who agreed to discuss the differences on the condition of anonymity, said there is no suspicion that Iran is concealing work at Arak. "It's just the principle" of access, the official said.

Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report from Israel.

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