Iran's nuclear effort in high gear, U.N. says
The report raises fears Tehran may be capable of a warhead in a year.
By Bob Drogin
Times Staff Writer
February 23, 2007/L.A. TIMES
VIENNA — Iran has accelerated its program to enrich uranium and defied
a United Nations Security Council deadline to suspend nuclear
activities, the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency said here Thursday.
The report by Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic
Energy Agency, confirmed that Iran recently began installing the first
of 3,000 gas centrifuges in a heavily fortified, underground chamber
at its Natanz plant and that it planned to "bring them gradually into
operation by May 2007."
A facility that large, if it functions properly, could produce enough
highly enriched uranium in a year to build a nuclear warhead. A senior
U.N. diplomat here cautioned that the Iranian schedule was "fairly
optimistic" and said that the highly sensitive linked centrifuges,
called cascades, may not be operational before the fall.
The six-page report is almost certain to trigger a push by the Bush
administration and its European allies for stiffer U.N. sanctions
against the Islamic Republic. The intensifying confrontation now moves
to London, where major powers will meet Monday to consider a range of
actions against Iran.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in Berlin, said the United
States was determined to "use all available channels and the Security
Council" to draft a new resolution aimed at halting Tehran's nuclear
The report "shows that Iran has not changed its behavior, has not
changed its views and is continuing on the path of defiance," State
Department spokesman Tom Casey said in Washington.
But Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters at the
United Nations that sanctions were not a solution. "We should not lose
sight of the goal, and the goal is not to have a resolution or to
impose sanctions," he said. "The goal is to accomplish a political
outcome of this problem."
The Security Council voted unanimously Dec. 23 to give Iran 60 days to
close an aboveground test facility at Natanz, where it had begun
small-scale uranium enrichment in August. The resolution also required
Iran to suspend work at an underground facility at Natanz, halt
construction of a nuclear reactor at Arak and freeze other nuclear
activities deemed to be worrisome.
ElBaradei's report indicated that the Iranians instead pushed the
program into higher gear. The senior U.N. diplomat who discussed the
report described it as showing "no progress" in resolving the IAEA's
major outstanding concerns.
"There is limited cooperation," he said. "In my view, it's fairly limited."
Iran contends that it will produce uranium enriched only to the lower
levels suitable for use in civilian reactors, but the international
community fears an industrial-sized enrichment effort could be
converted to produce weapons-grade material.
Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, showed no signs of compromise.
Iran "will not withdraw from its nuclear stances even for one single
step," he said in the provincial town of Talesh on the Caspian Sea,
according to the semiofficial Fars news agency.
Iranian officials have told the IAEA that they ultimately hope to
install 54,000 centrifuges, a facility potentially large enough to
provide fissile material for 20 bombs a year. Other stages still would
be necessary to cast the uranium and pack it into a successful
IAEA inspection teams have visited Iran regularly since early 2003,
returning every two weeks on average, and have installed cameras in a
few locations at Natanz.
But Iranian officials have rebuffed agency requests to install more
sophisticated cameras inside the subterranean centrifuge hall that can
stream nonstop pictures back to Vienna, to ensure that no nuclear
material is diverted. As an alternative, the IAEA seeks to launch
unannounced inspections at any time at the facility, which Iran does
Officials in Tehran also failed to fully explain the source of
particles of highly enriched uranium that had been detected on
equipment at Natanz and at a separate physics research center, the
report said. Iranian officials also refused to let IAEA
representatives interview the former head of the research center.
Agency inspectors visited Iran this week and plan to return March 3.
Iran has steadily pushed forward with its nuclear program since the
20-year secret effort was publicly revealed in August 2002. But the
recent work to install 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz has stoked concerns
that Iran may near a "break-out" point for building a nuclear weapon
in a matter of months.
During an IAEA team's visit to the underground site Feb. 17, Iranian
officials informed the group that they had installed two cascades of
164 centrifuges each and that another two cascades were in the "final
stages of installation." The Iranians said they would begin
introducing uranium hexafluoride gas into the system to start
enrichment by the end of the month.
Officials at IAEA headquarters in Vienna said that Iranian scientists
had mastered centrifuge technology in recent months. One agency
official described as "wishful thinking" reports that the centrifuges
tested at Natanz were prone to breakage. He said the Iranians had run
engineering tests "to the breaking point" to measure the weakness in
the system. "They know how to enrich," he added. "They know how to
Spinning gaseous uranium in centrifuge cascades increases the amount
of the isotope uranium-235, creating a mixture that can be converted
to fuel for a nuclear reactor, or form the core of a nuclear weapon.
Tests since August at the pilot plant at Natanz have produced tiny
amounts of 4.2% enriched uranium, which is appropriate for use in
civilian reactors, the IAEA report said. At least 90% enrichment is
needed for nuclear weapons.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, on a visit to Vienna, told
reporters earlier Thursday that he was "deeply concerned … that the
Iranian government did not meet the deadline set by the Security
"I urge again that the Iranian government should fully cooperate with
the Security Council" resolution as soon as possible, he said. Iran's
nuclear activities, he added, had "great implications for peace and
security, as well as nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction."
Britain's foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, said London would seek
additional measures at the U.N. "which will lead to the further
isolation of Iran internationally…. We remain determined to prevent
Iran from acquiring the means to develop nuclear weapons."
The Security Council's limited sanctions targeted outside support for
Iran's nuclear and missile programs.
Possible new sanctions could include a travel ban on Iranian
officials, economic sanctions and an expansion of the nuclear embargo
to include conventional weapons.
Following the sanctions vote, Tehran notified the IAEA that it would
bar 38 inspectors, mostly from countries that voted for sanctions,
from visiting Iran. The IAEA can draw on more than 150 other
inspectors, but the Iranian prohibition slashed the agency's pool of
Iran experts, cutting six of 15 members from the team.
Although international agreement allows countries to reject individual
inspectors, IAEA officials said the culling of the Iran inspection
team would hamper the agency's ability to investigate Iran's nuclear
activities. The IAEA has asked Tehran to reconsider.