Iran Easing Aspects Of Nuclear Program

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 2009

Iran appears to be putting the brakes on key aspects of its controversial nuclear program, U.N. officials said yesterday in a report that nonetheless showed Tehran edging closer to nuclear-weapons capability.

Inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency found that Iran has slowed the expansion of the underground centrifuge facility where it makes enriched uranium, a key ingredient in nuclear bombs, according to the agency's report. The slower pace was interpreted by some U.N. officials as a conciliatory gesture in advance of any diplomatic overtures by the Obama administration.

"The pace of installing and bringing centrifuges into operation has slowed quite considerably since August," a senior U.N. official said in briefing journalists on the new IAEA inspection report. The official, speaking on the condition that he remain anonymous, said the agency "has no information" to explain the slowdown.

Yet, the official said, while curtailing growth in some areas, Iran continues to amass enriched uranium and, in theory, may have already acquired enough to make a nuclear bomb. Such a move would require months or years of additional work, after Iran first expelled U.N. inspectors from the country, he said.

IAEA inspectors have seen no evidence that Iran is preparing to take such a step, and the agency is confident that none of Iran's enriched uranium is being secretly removed for weapons work. "All the material is under containment and surveillance," the U.N. official said.

The new details were contained in a pair of IAEA inspection reports prepared by the nuclear watchdog in advance of a meeting of IAEA member states next month. On Tuesday, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei hinted at the report's findings at a news conference and suggested that Iran may be attempting to send a positive message to President Obama.

"They haven't really been adding centrifuges, which is a good thing," ElBaradei said. "Our assessment is that it's a political decision."

But the IAEA report also noted that Iran's production of enriched uranium has continued at a steady pace and has, in fact, significantly exceeded Iran's previous projections. As of late January, Iran had amassed a total of 1,010 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, the type of uranium used in nuclear power plants to make electricity.

With that quantity of uranium, Iran has already crossed a theoretical threshold, weapons experts said: Further processing could convert the material into enough high-enriched uranium to make a single nuclear bomb. "They have achieved a nuclear-weapons breakout capability," said David Albright, a former U.N. nuclear inspector and the president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.

A separate IAEA report increased the pressure on Syria to give a fuller account of the mysterious cube-shaped facility destroyed by Israeli bombers on Sept. 6, 2007. U.S. officials assert that the desert facility near the village of Al Kibar was a secret nuclear reactor intended to make fuel for nuclear weapons -- a charge Damascus has repeatedly denied.

Last year, the IAEA revealed that soil samples collected at the Syrian site had tested positive for uranium, a finding that appeared to back the allegations that the facility was a nuclear reactor. Syria, however, said the uranium traces were from bunker-busting missiles used by Israel during the attack.

In the new report, the IAEA said further forensic analysis all but ruled out the possibility that the uranium came from Israeli bombs. A U.N. official said the analysis pointed to a distinctive man-made uranium metal that is similar to the type used in reactors. Moreover, the uranium appeared to have been burned in a fire or explosion, the official said.

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