Slowdown Seen in Iran's Nuclear Program

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 10, 2007

After boasting of rapid progress for months, Iran has slowed expansion of a controversial uranium enrichment program that can be used both for peaceful nuclear energy and to develop weapons, according to the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency.

Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said yesterday that U.N. inspectors detected the change during a visit to Iran's underground enrichment facility at Natanz last week. "Without going into detail, you could say that there is a fairly marked slowdown. It is not a full-size freeze, but it is a marked slowdown" in launching new centrifuges that spin at high speeds to refine uranium into fuel, ElBaradei told reporters in Vienna.

Explanations for the shift vary widely.

ElBaradei has been pushing Iran to consider a "timeout" in which it would stop adding more centrifuges in exchange for a suspension of movement toward a third punitive U.N. resolution against Tehran, which has repeatedly not complied with a Security Council mandate to stop developing nuclear fuel. Tehran initially balked at the proposal.

U.S. and European officials who are engaged in carrot-and-stick diplomacy with Tehran said yesterday that they do not believe that Iran is showing good-faith interest in resolving the tense standoff.

"As Iran still appears to be working to master centrifuge technology, it is not the numbers of centrifuges that matter. What matters is that all centrifuge activity be suspended immediately, as the U.N. Security Council has required," said Jim Kelman, spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation.

A senior European official said Iran's slowdown is most likely due to technical problems. "They've committed down a road to expand as quickly as possible. But Iran won't be the first to discover that it does happen to be rocket science, and development has its peaks and troughs," said the envoy, who tracks Iran's activities.

Iran had predicted that it would have 3,000 centrifuges running by the end of July. Most estimates by nuclear experts say Iran had to work hard just to get to its current level -- between 1,600 and 2,000 centrifuges -- which have still produced low enrichment levels. "Iran may be trying to learn how to operate centrifuges better, so they produce more enriched uranium instead of trying to add more centrifuges," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security.

Others suggest, however, that Tehran may be responding to mounting international pressure.

"We've been getting a lot of signals from Iran that they want to talk," said Joseph Cirincione, a weapons proliferation expert at the Center for American Progress. "Pay less attention to the rantings of [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and pay more attention to the comments of [national security adviser Ali] Larijani. All of Larijani's body language and statements indicate that they want to make a deal. There have been more signals over the past couple of months than in the past year. They also want to talk to us about Iraq."

Ahmadinejad said yesterday that Iran is ready for a second round of talks with the United States on Iraq, following similar statements by other Iranian officials over the past week. The first talks took place in May.

Iran has not lived up to other nuclear claims. Tehran said on July 3 that its first Russian-built nuclear power plant, at Bushehr, would be completed in two months, a statement immediately refuted by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak as "too ambitious."

"It's not doable physically because the state of development requires . . . a number of additional months to complete it and certainly to sort out all these technical and economic questions that need to be resolved," Kislyak told reporters in Washington last week.

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