If Iran makes a final nuclear push, can it be detected?

Friday, September 10, 2010

EARLIER THIS summer President Obama legitimately claimed credit for increasing the cost to Iran of its nuclear program. Fresh United Nations sanctions, the product of painstaking U.S. diplomacy with Russia and China, were augmented by tough new measures by Congress, the European Union, Japan and other allies. As these have been implemented, there have been signs of stress on the Iranian economy. But the ultimate goal of Mr. Obama's policy is not limiting Iran's prosperity but stopping its enrichment of uranium and forcing its compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. By this measure, the administration has yet to produce tangible results.

A new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) this week showed that there has essentially been no change in Iran's steady accumulation of low-enriched uranium. Since last November, its stockpile has grown from 1,800 kilograms to 2,800 kilograms -- an increase of more than 50 percent. Tehran now has enough low-enriched uranium to produce two nuclear weapons with further enrichment. Already, it has enriched 22 kilograms to the level of 20 percent, which is considerably closer to the 60 percent threshold for weapons.

Mr. Obama has expressed the hope that Iran finally will be drawn into negotiations over its nuclear activities in the coming months. But the growth of the stockpile has greatly complicated the prospects for the one compromise Iran has been willing to discuss in the last year -- a proposed swap of 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium for fuel rods that could be used in a research reactor. When the deal was first proposed, Iran would have given up more than two-thirds of its stockpile and would have been left with less than the amount needed for one bomb. To achieve the same effect, Tehran would now have to be induced to nearly double the amount of low-enriched uranium it turned over.

Administration officials say that it would still take Iran a year to produce a weapon and that such an attempt would likely be detected by U.N. inspectors. But the IAEA report contained worrisome information on that score, too. Iran is refusing to answer questions about its work on more advanced centrifuges or on plans to construct more enrichment facilities. In June it barred two of the most experienced inspectors, part of a systematic effort to blind the IAEA to its activities. An analysis of the report by the Institute for Science and International Security concluded that Iran may be seeking "to increase its capability to divert nuclear material in secret and produce weapon-grade uranium in a plant unknown to the inspectors or Western intelligence agencies." If that is the case, economic sanctions are unlikely to prevent it.

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