Iran might be seeking to develop nuclear weapons capability, inspectors say

By Joby Warrick and Scott Wilson
Friday, February 19, 2010

U.N. nuclear inspectors, citing evidence of an apparently ongoing effort by Iran to obtain new technologies, publicly suggested for the first time Thursday that the country is actively seeking to develop a weapons capability.

In a new report, the International Atomic Energy Agency also confirmed that Iran has increased the enrichment level of some of its uranium, moving the Islamic republic a step closer to being able to make weapons-grade nuclear fuel.

The report from the IAEA puts the watchdog agency nearly in sync with Western intelligence agencies that think Iran has restarted secret warhead research that had been halted in 2003. Iran, meanwhile, has been openly building its stockpile of enriched uranium, the nuclear fuel used in nuclear power plants and atomic bombs. The Tehran government insists its nuclear program is solely for civilian purposes.

The Obama administration reacted to the new report with concern, with one senior official saying that Iran is clearly moving "more and more in the direction of a weapons capability," despite repeated technical setbacks in its efforts to make enriched uranium. The new IAEA assessment found that Iran continues to have trouble with its uranium plants, although it possesses enough fuel, in theory, to make at least one bomb. "It may take them longer to get there, but the pattern of behavior is very disturbing," the official said.

The IAEA report is unusually frank in scolding Iran for failing to explain purchases of sensitive technology as well as secret tests of high-precision detonators and modified designs of missile cones to accommodate larger payloads -- experiments closely associated with atomic warheads. Although much of the research took place nearly a decade ago, the report said some tests "seem to have continued beyond 2004."

The date is significant because it contradicts a bedrock assumption by U.S. intelligence agencies that Iran halted weapons-related research in 2003. U.S. officials are revising their key judgments about whether Iran is seeking nuclear weapons or the capability to quickly produce them. The senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities, said he was "waiting on the intelligence community for a new document" assessing Iran's intentions.

"They are slowing down the nuclear clock," the official said, referring to Iran's technical difficulties, "but at the same time, there is increasing suspicion by the IAEA and growing evidence of non-cooperation by the Iranians."

The IAEA said the evidence pointing to possible weapons research came from multiple sources and was "consistent," raising concerns about "past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile."

The agency cited Iran's continued defiance of U.N. resolutions and criticized its failure to explain suspicious research projects or allow access to key facilities. Iran has refused to account for documents and other evidence -- some of it obtained from a stolen Iranian laptop -- that experts have interpreted to be efforts by Iranian scientists to overcome remaining technical hurdles in making nuclear weapons.

Iranian officials portrayed the IAEA's report as a validation of the country's peaceful intentions. "The report shows Iran's continued cooperation with the agency within the framework of its commitments," Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, told the Iranian state news agency IRNA.

The IAEA report confirmed that Iranian officials had produced a small, first batch of uranium enriched to nearly 20 percent. More significant, IAEA inspectors found that Iran had moved nearly all of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to the small pilot plant configured for higher levels of enrichment, the agency said.

The pursuit of higher enriched uranium appears to be off to a slow start. U.S. officials said Iran's production rate was only about 100 grams a day, a rate that one White House aide said would deliver a bomb's worth of nuclear fuel every five to seven years.

At the same time, Iran appears to continue to struggle with equipment problems. The bulk of Iran's centrifuge machines used in making enriched uranium are based on a notoriously unreliable 1970s design, and many have broken down. IAEA inspectors who visited Iran's main centrifuge plant at the city of Natanz last month found fewer machines in operation than during the last visit in November, the report said. The plant's overall output, however, increased over the past three months, suggesting that the remaining machines were working more efficiently, said David Albright, a former United Nations inspector.

"It makes sense that they would hunker down and try to get the machines to work better," Albright said.

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